The new teen sex comedy Blockers, which features three parents who join together to thwart their daughters’ pact to lose their virginity on prom night, is being reviewed as an early onset struggle with empty nest syndrome — the grief and sadness of parents who struggle to let go and can’t accept that their children have grown up and will soon ditch them. While we’ve long portrayed mothers as the ones whose lives disintegrate the moment they no longer have children to nurture, fathers have increasingly admitted to experiencing sadness and loss associated with this major life milestone; Some experts even speculate it may be a cause of the midlife crisis. The reason is pretty simple: the more men care for children, the more it’s going to hurt when they go.
This was a long time coming. Though empty nest research kicked off in the 1970s and mostly focused on women who’d never worked outside the home, it’s now understood to be something often overstated in mothers and understated in fathers Some research suggests it’s actually a myth, and that most parents experience the newfound freedom as an overwhelmingly positive thing.
A 2009 study found that only 20 to 25 percent of parents experience empty nest when the kid’s pack up and split, with women experiencing it only slightly more than men. There were a few factors that contributed to greater likelihood for experiencing empty nest, among them having one’s identity wrapped up in parenting, and feeling a “loss of control” over the children’s lives. The latter was especially problematic for men.
But there are all sorts of reasons men are more likely to experience empty nest now. Just as men have doubled the amount of time they devote to cleaning up around the house since the 1960s, they’ve also tripled the amount of time they spend with their children, according to Pew Research. Add to this that there are more stay-at-home dads than ever (the number has doubled to as many as two million) and an increasing number of men now say they’d stay home if it were possible financially.
And more men are talking about it. In 2014, Rob Lowe admitted he was gutted by sending his son Matthew off to college, calling the experience emotionally blindsiding. That same year, Liza Mundy explored sad dads with empty nest at The New York Times. “I just missed her like hell,” one father told Mundy after sending his oldest to college. He then recalled “how he would walk through the front door and get a strange, heavy feeling: some primitive part of his brain alerting him that a family member was missing.” Mundy continues:
One colleague confessed that even before he loaded up the van to drive his son to freshman year, he spent an evening weeping, he said, “like a 6-year-old told it was time to get out of the pool, bawling and heaving.” He added, “I don’t think my dad, one of the Greatest Generation, did anything of the sort.”
Other factors complicated men’s experience with empty nest, too:
A Dad’s Role Can Stagnate
What happens to mom and dad when the kids leave? Mom gets a break from doing cleaning and childrearing. The loss of children might be sad for her, but it might also mean relief, a commonly felt response to kids moving out. And if the mother sat out a career to focus on kids, now would be her chance to lean back in, thus getting busy in life at precisely the time dad has a hole to fill. Contrast this with fathers, whose role, Mundy notes, might not change too much. He’s still a provider. He may have only been looking forward to spending more time with his wife, who may now be back in the workforce or focused on self-care.
Marriages May Suffer
Divorce is common when the kids move out, because it’s a true test of whether the couple has anything left in common other than being parents. (The divorce rate has doubled for the over-50 set.) But research shows that many couples also tend to get along better when the kids leave. So experts have long advised that couples learn to “renegotiate the marriage” upon their departure and figure out if you can forge a new path ahead. Salsa lessons, anyone?
Men Are Less Prepared
Because women spend more time with their children and are typically more involved, it’s easier for them to focus on the opportunities that come with freedom from having to raise them anymore. Men, some research shows, are more likely to regret all the things they didn’t do with their kids when they were busy working.
Having No One To Talk To About It
If men don’t have a support network to discuss their feelings, they are likely to suffer in silence over the grief of empty nest syndrome.
But it’s not all bad news: Even people who experience empty nest tend to only suffer through it for about six months, usually going on to report even greater well-being. And given the fact that some 40 percent of kids age 18 to 24 still live with their parents — either because they never left or they “boomeranged” back — there’s a good chance you might not have to experience it at all.