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7 Ways to Vanquish Empty Nest Depression

From cookies to volunteer gigs, tips on coping with empty nest syndrome.

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African American mother helping daughter pack for college
Terry Vine/Blend Images/Getty Images
Everyone told you it would go quickly, and you didn’t believe it. But the years that dawdled through toddlerhood suddenly picked up speed and all at once, you’re standing in a college parking lot – or on the tarmac of a military base – trying not to weep into your 6-ft. tall baby’s hoodie, and coping with empty nest depression.

While it's true that some empty nesters return home gleefully, already picking out paint colors for that new study or craft room, others gaze through a haze of tears. As one father wrote in Writin' on Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside and Everything in Between When Children Leave the Nest, it feels like a piece of you has been amputated. So here are some ways to deal with empty nest syndrome.

  • Plan Ahead: Bidding farewell to your last child – or your first - is a major life transition. Plan for it. This is a time to look ahead to the dreams you’ve delayed, the things you’ve always wanted to try or places you’ve yearned to visit. But at the very least, fill your calendar with work and volunteer obligations, and social engagements with your friends and spouse. Keep busy.

  • The Importance of Friends: No one understands what it feels like better than someone who's going through it too, so gather up the folks who get it - friends who are going through the same process. Go for coffee, go for a walk, throw an "Empty Nest Party" or do what one Moraga, CA, mom did when her youngest left for school: she threw a care package cookie exchange. She invited all the moms from his Cub Scout and Boy Scout days and had everyone bring two dozen favorite cookies. The moms drank wine, swapped cookies and tearful tales, and at the end of the evening, boxed up an assortment of cookies to mail to their new freshmen, along with cards signed by all the moms.

  • Rekindle Romance: Too many marriages fall by the parenting wayside, their couple-ness vanquished by years of exhaustion and kid-related obligations. So take the time, long before your kids leave and certainly in the months leading up to their departure, to nurture your marriage. Date your spouse. Reconnect. Take the time to rediscover why you fell in love in the first place.

  • Rekindle Friendships: Just because the inspiration behind the old babysitting co-op or Cub Scout den has gone off to college doesn't mean you can't still see those parents. Throw a party, schedule a coffee date, renew old friendships with parents going through the same stage of life.

  • Volunteer: You've spent the last decade helping others, and even if you started volunteering because a kindergarten teacher "guilted" you into it, you kept doing it because some part of you loved it. So translate that into another form: volunteer at your local library, museum or food bank; join a town committee; work for Habitat for Humanity; the list and the needs are endless. You'll be helping your community, keeping busy and meeting new people, many of whom are going through the same life transition.

  • Nurture Your Extended Family: Parenting young children is an exhausting, exhilarating ride. Now, enjoy the extra time you have to enjoy your own siblings and reach out to extended family. (And if you still have younger children at home, remember that even younger siblings get the empty nest blues.)

  • Rediscover Yourself: You’ve juggled work and home for decades. But it's your turn now, says Margo Woodacre, co-author of I'll Miss You Too: An Off-to-College Guide for Parents and Students. Pull out that list - surely you have one, if only in your imagination - and pick something. Salsa dancing? Penguin gazing in Antarctica? A master's degree? It's your turn.
And finally, bear in mind that the empty nest blues also afflict families whose nests are not quite empty - even younger siblings get the blues.
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