30 Things No One Tells You About Having an Empty Nest
This is what really happens once your kids fly the coop.
Every mom and dad absolutely adore their children—even when they’re screaming, spitting, and slamming doors. And yet, there isn’t one parent out there who hasn’t dreamed of the day their youngest moves out, leaving them with more free time, more funds for getaways, and a peace and quiet they haven’t experienced in decades.
The reality of living as an empty nester, though, isn’t nearly as peaceful as most parents imagine. Rather, most moms and dads find that, without the kids at home, they somehow spend more money and have less time to themselves. If you’re curious to find out the surprising realities of what it’s like to have an empty nest, read on.
Resentments may begin to crop up with your partner.
While you might assume that your relationship with your spouse will improve without the stress of kids at home, that’s not always the case. On the contrary, it is quite commonplace for couples to experience a strain on their relationship, as issues previously hidden below the surface are brought to light.
“I see empty nest couples struggle with their relationships and often times divorce at this stage of life,” says certified divorce coach Angela Ianuale Shanerman. “The relationship is now faced with a new dynamic of just the two people instead of all the family care-taking and those distractions. If there is not a solid foundation and clear communication, many times one person is unfulfilled and resentment begins to build.”
You may find yourself getting divorced.
For parents, raising children is a huge incentive to stay together. Therefore, when the final kid finally flies the coop, many couples find that they have to reevaluate their relationship—or risk getting a divorce.
“You may need to find new purpose for being together,” says California-based family attorney Julian Fox. “A surprising number of couples split up soon after their last child has gone to college. In fact, divorce rates are down overall, but are growing among people over the age of 55. Just as having a baby changes your relationship, having those ‘babies’ move on will also alter the dynamic.”
You’ll miss the noise.
Though you might currently be eager to put the not-so-dulcet tones of slamming doors and Taylor Swift singles behind you, the silence you encounter as an empty nester may not actually be a welcome replacement.
“As an empty nester, one of the things that will surprise you is the quiet,” says certified mental health expert and family care specialist Adina Mahalli, MSW. “I don’t just mean the quiet that comes from fewer people talking together at a meal. I’m also referring to quiet throughout the whole house—the television and washing machine running less, no doors slamming, no noise of footsteps overhead. It’s a hard thing to adjust to.”
You may not travel as much as you expected.
Though you might have imagined your post-child years to be spent flying around the world, most empty nesters find that they don’t have nearly enough time or funds for never-ending vacations. In a 2016 report from AARP, 48 percent of soon-to-be empty nesters said they planned to travel more, but just 27 percent actually did.
You may feel a serious sense of loss.
While some people act like having an empty nest will undoubtedly be a net positive, the reality is that many parents find themselves seriously struggling once their children move away for good.
“If the mom was overly attached and overprotective, for instance, that mother is going to feel an emotional emptiness that is very painful,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors, CBS, and co-star on We TV.
You’ll start to feel guilty.
For some parents, suddenly not having their children at home causes them to reevaluate and scrutinize their every action, so much so that they become racked with guilt over how they once treated their kids. “If the [parent] was critical with a short fuse temper, [they] might feel guilty and unresolved when their [kid] leaves,” says Walfish.
You might be relieved.
That said, not every mom and dad becomes racked with guilt as soon as the house is empty. Even for parents who were once heavily involved in their kids’ lives, having the house to themselves may feel like a welcome change.
“If the teen was very high maintenance, the parents may actually feel relief when their kid goes away to college or moves out on their own,” says Walfish.
You may still be spending more than you’d thought on housing.
The USDA reports that the average cost to raise a child up until age 17 is $233,610—with 29 percent of that budget spent on housing.
But your costs are unlikely to diminish significantly when your kids leave home. On the contrary, according to the Tapestry Segmentation report on Comfortable Empty Nesters, adults whose children had left home spent 9 percent more on housing than the average American.
And your food budget may still surprise you.
Though you may not have to buy bulk-sized bags of snack foods to keep up with your hungry teenagers, your food budget may not shrink significantly, either. According to the Tapestry Segmentation report, middle-class empty nesters spent 8 percent more on food than the average American.
You may not increase your savings as much as you’d think.
As a young parent, you likely imagined stashing away tons of cash for a vacation home once you didn’t have to spend money on things like toys and school supplies. However, for many empty nesters, that turns out to be more of a dream than a reality. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, empty nester households only increased their 401(K) savings by 0.3 to 0.7 percent when their kids left home—and that’s hardly enough to buy a steak dinner every month, let alone a beachfront house in Boca Raton.
And you might find yourself spending more on indulgences.
Not only will your savings account barely grow after your kids move out, but you might also find yourself indulging more than you did when your children were home. According to the same report from the Center for Retirement Research, per capita spending actually increases among empty nesters, meaning there’s simply not as much money left over.
You may even have to spend significantly on your kids.
Empty nesters aren’t just indulging their own financial whims once their kids leave; many are still footing the bill for their children. In fact, according to a 2015 survey from the Pew Research Center, 61 percent of U.S. parents polled admitted to helping out their adult children financially in the past year.
You’ll probably still be paying your mortgage off.
It’s nice to imagine that your home will be 100 percent yours by the time your kids have moved out. For most Americans, however, that’s not the case. A 2017 analysis from Zillow found that the number of empty nests carrying a mortgage has risen significantly since 2005, up from 36.8 percent to 43.7 percent in 2015.
You may be eager to downsize.
Though food and other expenses continue to be an issue for empty nesters, many families find themselves able to save money in a different way: by reducing the size of their home. In the 2016 AARP poll, 11 percent of empty nesters surveyed said they’d be eager to downsize. Who needs three bedrooms when there’s only two people in the house, anyway?
You might even find yourself seeking a retirement community.
Living in a retirement community might not sound all that appealing when you’re young, but by the time you become an empty nester, being surrounded by adults of a similar age and mindset may actually be, well, fun. And don’t just take our word for it: According to a survey conducted by senior housing developer Del Webb, in 2004, one quarter of baby boomers polled were considering a move to an age-specific community after their kids left home.
You may come into your own.
If parenting was once a major part of your identity, being an empty nester might have you finding newfound confidence outside of that role. According to the same Del Webb survey, 57 percent of empty nesters felt freer to be their authentic selves once their kids left home.
Retirement may seem even sweeter with your kids out of the house.
Even if you love your job, the freedom of retirement might seem all the more appealing once your kids have left home. The Del Webb survey found that baby boomers viewed retirement in a more positive light than they did becoming empty nesters, and 75 percent said they anticipated becoming happier when they retired.
You may find yourself less healthy than you were before.
While you were more than likely eating more ice cream and getting less sleep while your kids were under your roof, having an empty nest could actually make you less healthy. According to a 2017 review of research in SOEPpapers on Multidisciplinary Panel Data Research, 51 percent of empty nesters considered themselves to be in satisfactory or less-than-satisfactory health, compared to just 40 percent of non-empty nesters.
And you might have less time to shed those extra pounds than you’d hoped.
Think you’ll have a ton of time—and incentive—to hit the gym and make healthy meals when your kids are out of the house? Think again.
According the AARP survey, while 25 percent of soon-to-be empty nesters said they intended to lose weight, just 7 percent were actually able to do so.
You might still tackle parenting tasks in your kids’ absence.
Even once your kids are out of your home, you may still find yourself saddled with more parenting tasks than you’d expected. A 2002 study on maternal mental health published in the Tzu Chi Nursing Journal found that some mothers still cooked for their children as a means of coping once they’d left home. Old habits die hard!
You might find yourself less satisfied with your life as a whole.
Lower stress levels and fewer financial burdens may not lead to as much happiness as you’d hoped. In fact, according to a 2017 German study, while more than 17 percent of pre-empty nesters rated their happiness at a 9 or 10 out of 10, under 11 percent of empty nesters said the same.
You may find being an empty nester more appealing than you imagined.
While some find that their overall satisfaction in life is lower after their kids move out, many others enjoy the experience more than they had assumed they would. In the same AARP survey, 33 percent of current empty nesters said it was appealing, versus just 27 percent of soon-to-be empty nesters.
You’ll find yourself relying on a new support system.
Without your kids at home, you might need a new way to occupy your time—namely, with new friends. According to AARP’s research, 8 percent of empty nesters polled said that they made new friends once their kids moved out.
And you may find yourself with more time to connect with old friends.
Though it was probably impossible to spend time with your friends when your kids were little, being an empty nester means that those poker nights and spa trips are fair game. According to AARP’s findings, 16 percent of empty nesters spent more time with their friends after their kids left home.
You may become preoccupied with your kids’ safety.
Just because your kids are technically adults doesn’t mean you’ll stop worrying about them once they’ve left the nest. In the Tzu Chi Nursing Journal research, concern for a child’s safety was a major issue and stressor among the empty nesters surveyed.
You’ll get more comfortable flying solo with time.
It may be a hard transition at first, but you will get used to that empty nest after a while. Of those polled, 69 percent of empty nesters told AARP they’d gotten more comfortable, 28 percent said there was no change, and just 3 percent said they’d gotten less comfortable with their new role.
You might not have as much hobby time as you anticipated.
That needlepoint or knitting you’d hoped to master may have to stay on the back burner indefinitely. Though 36 percent of empty nesters polled by AARP said they were planning on taking up a new hobby, just 13 percent followed through.
You’ll start to notice all the junk mail you get.
One surprising effect of an empty nest? Finding out “just how much junk mail you get,” says Mahalli. “When you’re used to sorting everyone’s mail, your pile is smaller. But when it suddenly is all yours, you’ll see how many unnecessary letters you’re getting.”
You probably won’t keep your kid’s room a shrine forever.
Those walls covered in their adorable art? That hammock of stuffed animals? They probably won’t stay up for long once your kids move out. While only 16 percent of soon-to-be empty nesters in the AARP survey indicated a desire to repurpose their kids’ rooms, 19 percent actually went through with the redecorating project.
Your kids may come back.
Your kids may have moved out, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily gone for good. The number of adults between ages 18 and 24 living with their parents has been steadily rising, with 55 percent of adults in that age bracket living with their parents as of 2018, according to Census data.
In fact, according to the National Association of Realtors, 12 percent of buyers in 2018 were specifically purchasing a multigenerational home. And for more interesting facts about how life changes as you age, check out these 50 Ways Your Priorities Change After 50.
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