Why I won’t buy into empty nest syndrome – it doesn’t have to be such a major crisis

Empty nester Gwyneth Paltrow with her youngest child Moses, now 18, who is leaving home for college  (Gwyneth Paltrow/Instagram)
Empty nester Gwyneth Paltrow with her youngest child Moses, now 18, who is leaving home for college (Gwyneth Paltrow/Instagram)

He’s leaving me! I feel like my life is over,” sobbed an old school friend when I popped over to her house to pick up a child’s balance bike that she was giving away. She wasn’t talking about her partner walking out on her, but her “baby” – an 18-year-old who is heading off to university in September.

It’s as if her world had become meaningless – before he’d even packed his bags and removed his smelly socks. No matter how free his departure will leave her to go on romantic dates with her partner, or enrol on the psychotherapy course she has dreamed of taking, nothing can take away her feelings of grief and loneliness. The house that is currently full of noise and chaos is soon to be suddenly strangely quiet.

It’s clear she has a case of the “empty nester” syndrome: the name given to the feelings of loss experienced by parents when their nearly adult children leave home for the first time. Gwyneth Paltrow, who joined her ex-husband Chris Martin last weekend for their 18-year-old son Moses’s high school graduation in LA, has admitted that the prospect of becoming an “empty nester” is giving her “a nervous breakdown”.

“I started being like: ‘Oh my God, I need to quit my job and I need to sell my house and I need to move.’ It’s putting things into turmoil,” she recently told The Hollywood Reporter about her youngest child leaving home.

“My identity has been being a mother. Apple [Paltrow and Martin’s elder daughter] is now 20. So I’ve oriented my whole life around them and their schedules and when school starts.”

Paltrow’s sprawling LA mansion goes up for sale for £30m as the empty nester prepares to send her son Moses off to college (New York Post)
Paltrow’s sprawling LA mansion goes up for sale for £30m as the empty nester prepares to send her son Moses off to college (New York Post)

She’s far from the only celebrity to feel like this. Gordon Ramsay confessed he was so “gutted” when his son Jack left home for university that he sat on Jack’s bed wearing a pair of his pants. Rob Lowe, Elizabeth Hurley, and Heidi Klum have all talked about their torment over empty nest syndrome. “It is no laughing matter,” is how Michelle Pfeiffer summed up the experience in Parade magazine in 2012. “It is really hard.”

Many of my friends are moving into this empty nester territory and suffering a really bad dose of it. I had my two daughters, Lola and Liberty, now eight and six, in my early forties so I’m still at the ferrying back and forth to school stage. Yet empty nest syndrome is just one of many grief traps parents fall into – and it’s one that I’m refusing to buy into. I’m determined to keep hold of my identity as much as possible, so that when they do leave the home, I’ve got a thriving life full of enriching relationships that I can fall back on – and activities that don’t just involve organising the next playdate.

Of course, these feelings of loss are to some extent unavoidable. “Parents go through many phases of what is considered independent distancing; these are milestones of their child becoming more independent and less reliant,” says Dr Scott Lyons, a holistic psychologist in the US and author of Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others. “This could come after potty training, or when they go to kindergarten or do their first sleepover. While some parents might sigh in relief to have a bit more of their energy and time back for themselves, many others feel an ache, a sudden emptiness, or a gap in connection that was previously there. And in some cases, the distancing triggers a parent’s own attachment wounds, stirring up feelings like abandonment, and behaviours that look like clinging or being overbearing.”

Celia Dodd, author of The Empty Nest: Your Changing Family, Your New Direction agrees that it’s not possible to avoid empty nest syndrome completely – “because it’s such a momentous change in your life, the end of an era of family life”.

However, she says, it is possible to manage the transition so that you don’t feel “so bad”. “The first step is to acknowledge how you feel, and that your children leaving home really is a big deal,” she says. To avoid the inevitable blow, she suggests a parent should attempt to embrace the changing dynamic between themselves and their child.

“As they become more independent...[try] to feel excited about that, not just regretful,” she says. “Because while the empty nest is usually seen as an end, it’s actually the beginning of a whole new adult relationship with your child.”

While only a minority of parents need therapy for empty nest syndrome, she says, it can be incredibly helpful at this stage in life, not least since the feelings it unleashes can be symptomatic of other things going on in their life.

Paltrow and her ex-husband Chris Martin have two children, Moses, 18 and Apple, 20 (Instagram via @gwynethpaltrow)
Paltrow and her ex-husband Chris Martin have two children, Moses, 18 and Apple, 20 (Instagram via @gwynethpaltrow)

“The empty nest can have a big impact on identity and it’s linked to other big life challenges, such as the menopause,” she says. “It can also expose problems in the parents’ relationship and dissatisfaction with work and life in general.”

All very well, but I’m still not convinced empty nest syndrome has to be such a major crisis. After all, it’s not a clinical disorder or diagnosis but a normal life transitional period. The phrase itself has been knocking about for more than a century, coined by the popular American writer and social activist Dorothy Canfield Fisher in her 1914 book Mothers and Children. An educational reformer, Canfield introduced the Italian Montessori method to the US, which greatly influenced American thinking about children’s education and the nature of childhood. But the term empty nester was not popularised until the 1970s. It’s certainly not a new phenomenon. Yet this “grief” mania, whereby modern parents feel a part of them has died at every single milestone, from a child’s first step to getting a boyfriend, is getting out of hand.

It’s really no surprise, though. Today’s touchy-feely parents are bound up in their children in a way they simply weren’t a generation ago. A 2020 American study found that working mums are spending more time with their children than their parents did 40 years ago and UK studies suggest the trend is repeated in Britain.

What’s more, the changing nature of parenting, particularly amongst the middle classes, means there is an intense pressure to be hands-on – and perfect. Parents have become “sharents” – someone who overshares their children’s private lives on social media in one long, parental humblebrag. We buy into picture-perfect posts on Instagram that create unrealistic ideals of parenthood. Helicopter parenting styles are breeding grounds for obsessive micro-managing of a child’s life – and arguably producing over-indulged offspring unable to make decisions.

In other words, the belief that children should be seen and not heard is the antithesis of a modern parent’s mindset. Instead, it’s all about practising attachment parenting with your baby for continuous bodily closeness and co-sleeping with pre-teen children to preserve a close bond. Then there is the rise of “gentle parenting”, where parents never say “no” to their children and spend hours patiently explaining to their children the consequences of their actions. Parents track their children on apps such as Find My and Life360 when they go on their gap year because they just can’t let go.

Furthermore, the rise of recreational parenting means weekends are devoted to children. It’s all about them – not you. Me-time is something you save for times of parental burnout. It’s not a top priority. No wonder when it all stops and the teenagers leave home, their life stops too. The point is, we’ve become too defined by our children compared to 30 years ago, even though many more women work now.

Gordon Ramsay, now a father of six, felt so gutted when his son Jack left home for university that he wore a pair of his pants (Instagram via @gordongram)
Gordon Ramsay, now a father of six, felt so gutted when his son Jack left home for university that he wore a pair of his pants (Instagram via @gordongram)

While I know what it means to be consumed by motherhood just as much as Paltrow does, it doesn’t mean I will continually crave it. It’s exhausting. I suspect the fear of losing our children – or a part of oneself – tends to be more about negative projection than reality.

And the brutal truth is, adult children tend to return home when things go wrong – as I did when aged 22 after I split up with my boyfriend. Like many parents, my mum and dad couldn’t get rid of me. It’s a scenario that is increasingly more likely than ever today with unaffordable rents: the Office for National Statistics reported that rental prices had risen 6.2 per cent this year, the highest annual increase since records began in 2016.

Since the 2000s, the “boomerang generation” – adult children who return to live with their parents – have altered the dynamics of the traditional empty nest phenomenon. The number of families in England and Wales with adult children living with their parents has also risen by 13.6 per cent since 2011, according to the 2021 census.

We don’t need to smother our children so that it feels like a dagger to the parent’s heart the second they act independently. Instead, we need to learn to relish them becoming adults, responsible for themselves – this is, after all, the point of parenting. We don’t own our children. Our job is to make them as fully equipped as possible to enter the adult world by themselves.

Surely, it’s time parents graduated from thinking that each phase of their child’s journey to adulthood is something to be suffered. For me, I hope it’s more organic. I’m not bracing myself for the heartbreak of empty nesting – I’ll be waiting for a full house again.