Article by Dr Raj Persaud
Empty Nest Syndrome is a term which inspires dread in women heading for middle age but all is not doom and gloom – there are strategies and coping skills which can smooth out this bumpy ride and transform into a glide ever upwards as the years pass, into greater happiness and well-being ever imagined.
Scientific research on happiness has recurrently found a famous U shaped curve that describes our path of happiness throughout the lifespan – we start out happier in early adulthood and then as we have children and start families our happiness declines dramatically, only to resurface back to what it was when our children finally leave us.
Another way of considering the contour of this happiness curve is that it resembles the outline of a smile…
What this happiness curve tells us is that well-being for many facing middle age can be an upward slope, not an inevitable downward decline.
When considering men and middle age, the images and words most strongly associated with this decisive phase in life include the infamous ‘mid-life crisis’.
We envisage the once proud silver backed gorilla sadly no longer now in the first thick of hair, browsing the Porsche adverts and being tempted by a last dangerous fling (and not just in the car). The psychology of the predicament for the male of the species is emerging terror that competing as they had before may no longer be on the cards, or the cardiologist. Now they must face the predicament of no longer running the boardroom, the bedroom or just basically no longer running. Competition and Achievement are the two pillars on which the middle aged male ego balances… precariously.
How different is the depiction when we call up imagery of the middle aged woman!
Now, in contrast, the portrait is dominated by so-called ‘empty nest’ syndrome. Psychologists appear to agree this crucial predicament and its handling predicts the mental health of women in this vital era of life.
‘Empty nest Syndrome’ is the term used to refer to the melancholy of a middle aged woman contemplating desolate rooms where her children once laughed and played; discovering the sudden emptiness in her life and house overwhelming. Her entire role and purpose seem questioned by the inevitable growing independence of her developing family. The paradox becomes, if she has done her job well, her brood has indeed matured into self-sufficient individuals. But when they have taken off and flown the nest, who needs her now? Being needed was what she thrived on. She worked incessantly getting them airborne, but she now she realises, perhaps too late, that all along she didn’t want them to then fly away.
Given this threat on the horizon of ‘empty nesters’ approaching middle age, there appears to be strong unconscious motivations for some to collude with nurturing excessive dependency in her offspring. She might smother, or subtly discourage budding autonomy in a myriad of underhand ways. So the mid-life crisis of ‘empty nest syndrome’ could be manifested in a variety of non-obvious ways. It doesn’t just have to be that dramatic nervous breakdown as the children are packing their bags.
It might instead be the slower burn of never letting go, or clinging on for far too long. Ripples of the effects of ‘empty nest syndrome’ spread out from beyond the woman at the centre, and if it turns into crashing waves, these can wobble many of those around her. So no matter where we are in our families, we all have an interest in how ‘empty nest syndrome’ produces a crisis for some, and what the solutions are.
The academic research literature converges on a main suspect factor which most predicts how well middle aged women cope with this key turning point. Can you guess what it is?
It’s whether from long before, you have been pursuing a career outside of the home. Working women appear to manage much better with empty nest syndrome; in many cases many don’t appear to suffer from significant mental upheaval at this time. If your emotional investment and sense of self-esteem arises from contrasting significant areas of your life, other than whether the family still need you or not, then you’re going to cope much better with this tricky transition.
My clinical practice frequently encounters this pickle for many middle aged women, and I find that, oddly enough, it mirrors the circumstances for extremely physically attractive women.
The research literature on this point also echoes my experience.
The finding is that if a woman was exquisitely beautiful in her youth, she copes much worse those who endured a youth of not being so blessed with grand looks, with advancing years. The reason is, if you relied on your looks as your entrée into the world, if it informed how and who you related to, if it patterned your life strategy, you endure more of a crisis as you discover the loss of your looks now means you are forced to evolve another way of being.
Beauty is a twin edged sword
Plainer women suffer much less painful transitions as they get older and as a result often cope better with middle and later age than physically much more conventionally desirable women. So beauty is a twin-edged sword when it comes to the conundrum of middle age. The second half of your life can beckon with much more promise for those who often weren’t good at youth. They can now come into their own, just as they were fearing things couldn’t get much worse. Life is a game very much of two halves.
If you’ve had a dreadful first half, an inspiring team talk from an insightful ‘manager’ can send you back out on the pitch with renewed vigour and spring, bestowing hope to us all, particularly those who might be described as ‘late bloomers’. You might have been a great mum, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also be a good something else as well.
The way this echoes the quandary over empty nest syndrome is that it is paradoxically the woman who excelled at being a mother and home-maker, the captain who steered a sensible course between the rocks and reefs of life for her family, who is likely to suffer more as her crew now abandons ship. Not because she hasn’t done a good job, but now they need spread their own sails and discover the world for themselves.
Therein lies a first clue in how to cope with ‘empty nest syndrome’ – don’t take it personally. The house is empty because that is what happens, it’s natural, and indeed a positive healthy development that your family require you less. The fact the team puts you more often on the substitute’s bench is a good thing. It means they are growing to be more independent of you.
So see it as an opportunity not for a ‘mid-life crisis’, but instead what the psychologists who specialise in this area prefer to term, a ‘mid-course correction’. One study found two thirds of women in their late thirties and forties had made major changes in the direction of their lives. An adjustment in bearing does not mean the previous course setting was a failed journey onto the rocks. Instead it seems the thing to do – the research following up women over many decades finds the majority undertake major changes in their life course.
According to the psychological research into the need to re-evaluate and reset goals as your circumstances change in mid-life, a lot hinges on the attitude of regret. It appears that you can divide women at this stage into two main groups – those who lament essential decisions made earlier in life, perhaps in particular over whether to focus on career or kids. But the key is not whether you now feel disappointed as you contemplate your life’s journey to date, instead it’s all about what you do about it, now. Those who did worse in terms of wellbeing, from the research, appear to be those women trapped by a double whammy of experiencing regret, but then not doing anything about it.
What mid-life demands from us is the flexibility to change our goals and even our life-style and not to see the past as determining the future.
Successful survival of empty nest syndrome is probably based on three key areas to focus on.
The first is grasping that your relationship with the brood flying the nest has to change. You are going to have to not expect to speak to them everyday any more or do their washing or be their shoulder to cry on. Feel your way into this new relationship, where you have to resist the temptation to return to the old comfortable mother and be the new slightly more distant part parent part adult friend. There are no rules here but it might be useful to get a sense of what your equivalently aged friends are doing. But focus on those parents who you actually respect in terms of how they brought their kids up. Those that you do – well do they still pay their children’s mobile phone bills now they
have moved to Australia? If they don’t then maybe you shouldn’t either……..
The second vital approach understands that your relationship with your partner is also going to change. You may be thrown back together again more and maybe if both of you are not used to this, its going to be an added strain. Be aware that your relationship may eventually be stronger if it is allowed to adjust. Your partner is likely to have altered over time, just as you have. Be prepared to negotiate a new relationship with them. The classic error is to think of the first time in 20 years you are back alone together again as an opportunity to ‘turn the clock back’ and recapture who things were between the two of you at the beginning. This is generally an egregious error. The reality is both of you have been changed irrevocably by the passing of the years; its much more desirable envisaging how to develop a fresh relationship with each other, rather than try to merely go back to how it was in the old days. There is more to your relationship repertoire than you might imagine.
Thirdly your relationship with yourself will also be transformed. You may need to consider setting more original goals compared to the conventional, making allowances for new roles and a fresh lifestyle, even appreciate a novel identity. Just as you looked after those around you so well, now you are going to have to re-direct your energies into taking care of yourself.
Above all else it’s vital to see middle age and the empty nest along with all the other changes that beckon as opportunities rather than crises. That is precisely what this new website is all about!
Some women find themselves in particular predicaments – they may be single mothers for example. In this case they don’t have another intimate relationship just an arms reach away to bounce their concerns off or share their worries. Over the years they have learnt to be more self-reliant. Having seen the brood fly the nest they may be more prone to a feeling of emptiness – a hole or abyss opening up in their lives because so much more of their time was taken up with trying to be two parents not just one.
These women may have a different kind of adjustment to make. They could for example become a bit more experimental when it comes to other relationships as they have less to fear in terms of how their children might react to a new person entering their mother’s life. This could be a hard habit to break, but essential to change in this area if all opportunities for happiness are to be properly explored.
Another key contrast is that these women may have to do more emotional labour to properly comprehend how their children feel about leaving home. Oftentimes these children will have also worked hard at looking after mum because they felt more protective towards her. They can have issues about leaving and indeed, it is they who can be over-protective at this time. Mum may have to work hard to demonstrate she is coping so the brood do indeed properly fly the nest and don’t hang around in a way that is not helpful to them.
But these specific hurdles aside, the general picture is rosy for the middle aged woman.
One major study found that when asked how they felt about turning 50, some 48% of women said nothing but positive things about the experience. 21% were neutral, 31% were negative with only 18% expressing strongly downbeat sentiments. One typically positive comment was that the respondent was better at being 50 than they had been at being other younger ages. Don’t compare yourself with how you were at other ages, instead ask yourself if you can set the goal of being a better 55 year old than you were expert at being a 16 year old at 16. Almost certainly you can. What can your life experience teach you about how to be good at being your current age?
Mid-life can be like a new adolescence – the chance to experiment with new identities but without all those inevitable dreadful cringe worthy mistakes, like the ones your kids are just beginning to make….
Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist working in the NHS and in Private Practice. He has won numerous academic honours for his research and clinical practice including the rarely awarded Royal College of Psychiatrists Research Prize and Medal, The Royal College of Psychiatrists Morris Markowe Prize, The Osler Medal and The Maudsley Hospital’s Denis Hill Prize. His degrees include a Psychology Degree with First Class Honours and a Masters’ in statistics along with being elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. He was recently voted one of the top ten clinical psychiatrists in the UK by a poll conducted by The Independent on Sunday Newspaper of his peers. He was the youngest Doctor on the list. He is Consultant Editor of the first book produced for the general public as a guide to the whole of psychiatry published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists entitled ‘The Mind: A Users Guide’ which reached the top ten best-seller lists – as have all of his previous four other books. He is Emeritus Visiting Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry – the only academic post entirely devoted to public understanding of psychiatry.