I used to joke that senior year in high school was designed to make parents willing to part with their kids. It was my way of taking the edge off the blue feeling of an empty nest. But those blues didn't last all that long. Most of us find the up side of our new situation--time to do things we always wanted to try, and when we want to try them. It could be grabbing the watercolor paints and heading for a hill or breaking out the wine and cheese and calling it dinner.
Though the "empty nest syndrome" is supposed to be one of the major adjustments of life--we miss the little critters and their soccer games, swim meets and theatrical performances--but researchers now say that the empty nest syndrome is a fiction. Not that our children--the birds finally out of the nest--don't think we're suffering from it. Karen Fingerman, a psychologist at Purdue University who teaches classes on family issues, asks incoming freshmen how they think their parents are doing now that the children are in college. Every year, the students answer almost uniformly: They must be "devastated" by our absence.
But in fact, Fingerman's research finds that we the parents are thriving--and with good reason: All that teenage tension has left the building. While we may experience wistfulness for the excitement they brought into the house--their music bouncing off the walls, the buzz of their endless telephone chitchat--scientists are coming around to the view that even among women who devote all their time to raising kids, there is no empty nest syndrome. Instead, there is a feeling of satisfaction at a job well done: The kids are independent!
Fingerman fingers another source of the positive vibe: As we get older, she says, "we get better at emotional regulation." Moreover, a lot of the volatility that had been in our lives when we were younger has diminished--we're more settled. By the time our children are young adults, most of us know where our careers are heading, where we're going to live and with whom. The empty nest gives us time and chance to reach out and bring more activities and relationships into our lives. We may start reconnecting with old friends, relatives we haven't seen in years. And tracing the family tree--an activity that's grown a thousand fold in recent years, made possible not only by the Internet but by the energies and interests unleashed by no longer having our kids--and their tensions--in the house.