Empty Nest Syndrome: I am absolutely dreading the day my last child will head off to college

Anne Marie Coughlan does not know how she will cope with the loneliness after her fourth son leaves home

We all remember the day our first child started school – and if you’re anything like me, it was an emotional wringer. But the prospect of leaving our precious children in the care of someone else for a few hours wasn’t really the hardest part, instead it was the realisation that the they were taking their first steps towards growing up and becoming independent.

This is a wonderful thing and none of us should take for granted the privilege and fortune of being able to witness our children growing and flourishing, but watching them embark on a path of their own, is always difficult.

Fast forward 20 years and having been through that first day of school two more times, I have reached the end of the road and my youngest son is preparing to leave home and head off into the world.

I have mixed emotions about this. I am excited for him and delighted that he is getting the chance to spread his wings, but at the same time, the house will be a quieter place and, having been a hands on parent for two decades, it will be hard to adjust to the new situation.


Anne Marie Coughlan will also be facing an empty nest this autumn and says that she doesn’t know how she will cope with the loneliness. “I have four sons and all of them got on well down through the years and, apart from the usual teenage stuff, we haven’t had a minute of trouble with any of them,” she says.

“There is a five-year gap between the third and the youngest and so for the past few years, he has been the only one living at home with my husband and I – and although he found it hard and a little too quiet without his brothers, he soon settled into things and enjoyed the extra attention, the full fridge to himself and the spare beds for having friends stay over. He is very sociable and, like my other sons, is a great help around the house and we never have to give out to him.

I know that to someone who has actually lost a child, my emotions may seem ridiculous or even incredibly selfish, but I can’t help how I feel

“But he also goes over and beyond, with regular cups of tea when I’m working or things like putting the washing out, emptying the dishwasher or bringing in the coal without anyone asking him to do it. So on a practical level, that help will be missed, but most of all, I’m dreading him not being here. Of course, I was sad when his brothers left home and to be fair, there is regularly one or other of them coming home for a weekend, but when the last one leaves, it’s a whole different ball game and I honestly don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.”

The mother-of-four, who works part-time for an accounting firm, says she has been ‘absolutely dreading’ the day her last child will head off to college and has even spoken to her doctor about ways in which she can mitigate the feelings of impending doom.

“I know that to someone who has actually lost a child, my emotions may seem ridiculous or even incredibly selfish, but I can’t help how I feel,” she says. “I work part-time from home, my husband has a busy job and is often not home until late in the evening and sometimes has to travel for work, so I feel like I’m facing into a very lonely time. I’m from Dublin and would be used to the busyness of city life but we moved out to the countryside when the boys were young as we wanted to give them more space to grow – and I feel like that was a mistake.

“People have suggested that I take up golf or something like that, but it’s just not me. And others have said that they’ve been through it themselves and that I’ll soon adjust and actually come to really enjoy my newfound freedom. I’m not sure that I believe them, as I’ve loved being a mother and being there for my kids growing up, so I will really miss them.

“But on the plus side, I guess our household bills will be lower and my husband and I will get to be a bit more spontaneous about going away or out to dinner – I’m trying to find the silver linings.

Even the anticipation of them leaving can create a kind of anxiety, worry, a low mood and the sense of a lack of purpose

“In the meantime, I’m happy to admit that I’ll be very sad that the end of an era has arrived, but I’m also so proud of my kids and delighted that they are going to be embarking on new adventures – and who knows what will happen in the coming year, I might take up salsa dancing or skydiving – anything to distract me from the empty house.”

Dr Malie Coyne says that what the Dublin woman is experiencing is to be expected and is normal. “Empty Nest Syndrome is very common among parents because so much time and a sense of identity has been related to looking after the children and it seems as though suddenly they are leaving,” she says.

“Even the anticipation of them leaving can create a kind of anxiety, worry, a low mood and the sense of a lack of purpose. It affects some parents more than others, but it is undoubtedly a big change – not having them around any more or not being needed by them and having so much free time can be difficult to get used to.

“So it can feel really strange – but the feelings of grief, sadness and loneliness are all normal. It can particularly impact those who have had a great input in their children’s lives when they were growing up and if the child is moving away, then this can impact even further.”

Dr Coyne says that an empty nest can also cause problems in relationships as parents now have no one to focus on but each other – and it can also be instrumental in forcing people to take a look at their own lives. “If couples are having any difficulties then the children leaving home might make things even harder as suddenly there is a mirror put to their relationship,” she says.

After the loneliness and sadness subsides, there can be a new found sense of identity

“Also, for parents who have stayed at home or who were maybe single parents who were solely responsible for their child, they may have relied on their parental role for self identity – also some parents may have spent less time on their own self care and lifestyle and this may also impact on them more.”

But despite the feelings of dread that many will feel as their children dismantles their childhood rooms and gets ready for the off, Dr Coyne says this time can also be a new beginning for parents. “After the loneliness and sadness subsides, there can be a new found sense of identity where people find themselves rekindling old social connections or making new ones. Coming to the end of something can be a huge transition so it’s important for people to reconnect with their partner, to do things which make them feel meaningful, to look after themselves and also to develop a new relationship with their grown up child.

“It is also a time to pat themselves on the back for a job well done – because although their child may have flown the nest, they wouldn’t have been able to do that if they didn’t feel safe, confident and comfortable (in the knowledge that they could return). Obviously if there are difficulties in the relationship that’s something which may have to be looked at – and some people may need to seek professional help if the feelings of loneliness and sadness go on for more than a few months, but it’s important to know that what you are feeling is completely normal and that is why there a syndrome named after it.

“You’re not alone in how you feel and you’re not going to just snap out of it – we need to get through this tunnel of emotion and things will be better on the other side. But in the meantime, our feelings of grief and sadness are the price we pay for love – because if we didn’t, then we wouldn’t feel it.”

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris

Arlene Harris is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in health, lifestyle, parenting, travel and human interest stories