The holiday festivities that enveloped your family during winter break brought merriment, noise and more than a little exhaustion. But when January settles in, the house empties again. And suddenly, you're blue, as if empty nest depression had reared its head all over again. Know that you're not alone, say Julie Renalds, Risa Nye and Joan Cehn, co-authors of Writin' On Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside and Everything in Between When Children Leave the Nest.
Letting go is an ongoing process, Renalds says. The freshman dorm farewell is just the first in a series of farewells, and that post-holiday period, when kids return to school for winter semester, can be unexpectedly tough. "The term 'letting go' somehow implies that it’s a one-time event for a parent," Renalds says. "But in reality, it is a process that can continue for years. It’s not like flipping a switch and you have magically let go."
Parents who handled the fall separation well generally do just fine with the post-holiday farewell too. But those who felt the pangs of empty nest syndrome may find tears falling once more in January - months after they thought they'd gotten over it. Nye's nest emptied gradually - she has two sons and a daughter - and the adjustment was different each time. "It's really possible to get blindsided by the emotions, even when you think you handled it well," she says. "I caught myself feeling sad when my youngest left after his first break. It's the realization hitting you again when you thought you were over it."
And after all the merriment and family togetherness of the holidays, January brings an emotional reality check. "I think that with a long holiday visit, we can almost fool ourselves into thinking that they are back and that this visit is not temporary," Cehn says. "After my daughter left after the holidays, it was a reminder that she was off again to her new world apart from me. I got a glimpse of what it will always be like - a series of visits and goodbyes."
You're happy for your children, of course, and delighted that they are embarking on a new chapter of life, one filled with adventure and independence. But suddenly the concept of "home" has shifted, especially as your grown kids enter their 20s and dorms give way to apartments - shared with sweethearts and then spouses. "Where do they think of as home? Is it where you live or where they live?" Nye says. "This is the beginning of a new reality that is hard to swallow. And while I understand it, it still makes me a little sad. My kids are all married now, and they have new traditions of their own."
The January blues may not last as long as the empty nest depression that struck the first time around, but you can hasten the process by using the same coping techniques you used the first time around. Stay busy, Renalds says. Try new things, explore new interests and be good to yourself when the kids leave. "Treat yourself to a massage or lunch with a good friend, something that will cushion the blow," Renalds says. “Chocolate and exercise - in that order - have been my mainstays over the years."
Cehn agrees: "Pursue your interests and live your life. Cherish the memories of when they were home, but create new and wonderful ones with them as their lives - and yours - change."