When kids leave home, do fathers feel worse than mothers these days?  That was the question explored by “Sad Dads in the Empty Nest” in Sunday’s New York Times (9/21/14).  According to the article, the empty nest transition for dads has become harder than ever because fathers play a more important role in family life than they once did. No longer the sole breadwinners (as they were in the 1950s), fathers spend more time with their children and thus (perhaps) feel a greater loss at separation.  At the same time, the definitions of masculinity have evolved to allow men to admit to greater feelings of sadness.

     During the 1950’s, 66% of kids under 15 lived in two-parent families with the father providing all the financial support.  In today’s world, that number has dwindled to 22%, according to a study released by the Council on Contemporary Families.  Furthermore, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of stay-at-home fathers almost doubled from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012, and 48% of dads would stay home if they could afford it.  Men’s identities have broadened and deepened to include being caregivers: feeding, bathing and ferrying their kids to playdates and sporting events. If fathers are forming more intimate bonds with their offspring, is it fair to wonder whether an empty nest is harder on fathers than mothers, as Liza Mundy, author of the Times article, suggests?

     Yes and no.  I agree with the author that the empty nest provides mothers greater respite from the exhaustion of child-rearing than fathers.  It’s unnecessary to consult statistics to know that most women who work full-time, still do most of the household chores and have less time for leisure activities.  Essentially, the majority of women work a double shift; they work full-time and yet also prepare more meals, clean the house more often, and still spend as much or more time with their kids than 60’s moms.  No longer simply bereft housewives of the 50’s and 60’s, today’s moms experience freedom as well as sadness when children grow up and move out. Dads, on the other hand, have the same amount of work, but miss the presence of their children, coaching Little League, and other shared hobbies. 

     An empty nest offers women an opportunity to take better care of themselves and a chance to reinvent themselves: start a new career or put more time into current work. But have the sexes really traded places emotionally? I don’t think so. 

     Family arrangements are so varied and complicated today, that it’s impossible to say that one  gender parent feels sadder than the other when children move out of the family nest.  How does the increasing number of single parents (both male and female) feel? What about gay parents? Or the parents of children with special needs?  And shouldn’t we consider the feelings of parents from different parts of the world, with their varied cultures, values, and religious beliefs?  Surely—and sadly—socio-economic status plays a role in how parents feel when their kids become independent.  Wealthier parents who have been assisted by nannies, housekeepers and chauffeurs might well feel differently  from their single, poorer counterparts who work 24/7 as breadwinners and caretakers.  I’m betting there’s a sliding scale of ambivalence—a mixture of sadness, pride, relief and anxiety—about an empty nest that will be affected by all of the above factors and many others.

     What about the maturity level of the children who depart? How do moms and dads feel about where their kids are going to college?  My guess is that parents who believe their kids are solidly competent, responsible and attending an elite school, will feel differently from those of us with children who are still struggling with school work and life skills.  Many so-called professionals had told me that my daughter Sarah, on the autistic spectrum, would never be able to go to college, so when I watched Sarah graduate from Pace last spring, I’m pretty sure I felt greater joy (and relief) than most parents with neurotypical children.  Of course I missed my daughter when she was living at college, and I worried (with good reason) about whether she would succeed academically and socially.  But, in some ways I think Henry felt worse. It had taken him longer to bond with our difficult daughter, so he cherished the time he’d spent alone with her on Sundays, teaching her French at brunch and taking her for swimming lessons afterwards.  I’m the one who’d spent endless hours taking Sarah to doctors and therapists and overseeing her treatment, so I probably felt greater relief when Sarah left us with a big smile.  (Nevertheless, Henry and I both shed tears on the way home, though perhaps for different reasons).  However, Henry’s biggest concern was about me: with both twins leaving the nest at the same time, he  worried, I would lose my mind, or my purpose in life. Would I be bereft when my nest emptied?

  Hardly! Max left for college a day before Sarah.  After they were both gone, I began writing and never stopped. But before writing had come the mad scramble to get both kids ready for college, plus the nearly impossible task of getting my son to pack.  Max’s high school girlfriend was crying hysterically as she helped fold his clothing and practically held onto the wheels of our car as we departed.  I cried too.  I’d mistakenly allowed her to stay until the last minute, and ended up feeling deprived of those final moments to say my own special goodbye.  Since Max was going to Vassar—also my alma mater—I felt proud and excited that my son and I would share that college bond. Henry was thrilled with the idea of Max joining the rugby team.  Those at-home games supplied the perfect excuse for frequent college visits because, of course, we’d have to watch him play. For so many years, my husband had loved watching and coaching Max’s little league baseball, football and basketball games.  Vassar’s rugby games allowed Henry and me to hang onto those team sports days a little longer, mitigating our loss.

     By contrast, my neighbors— both working parents— whose only daughter is a junior at a Mid-western college, seem to have adjusted equally well to her departure.  I asked David, the father, how he felt having an empty nest.  Initial answer?  “Phenomenal.”  Quickly, he added: “Of course when we first hugged her goodbye, I missed her terribly.  I knew life would never be the same. But now we don’t have to go to soccer games in two leagues every weekend.  We ‘re free to go to museums, relax…it’s an evolution.”  Beside him, his wife nodded and smiled her agreement.

     Emptying the nest—whether for college or after graduation—also has a big impact on marriages.  Like other significant transitions (retirement and illness),  an empty nest offers couples more time alone together, which can then lead to greater intimacy or divorce.  According to the New York Times, the divorce rate for Americans over 50 has more than doubled since 1990, with many remarrying for the second or third time.  These multiple marriages tend to be fragile because of the extra strain of extended family relationships,

     The question of whether dads grieve more than moms over an empty nest is impossible to answer.  Depends on who you ask, what their relationships are like with each other and their kids, among many other factors. Much has (and probably will be) written on the subject. (See my book review of Emptying the Nest in “Nest Negotiations, 8/15/14).  For over a year, I’ve written 75 posts for The Never-Empty Nest but sometimes I feel like I’m just getting started.


Like What You're Reading?

Subscribe below to receive alerts when I publish new articles. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!