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3 Reasons why empty nest is gut wrenching and how to prepare for it

empty nest Sep 03, 2020

My personal empty nest countdown has begun. 

On the 3rd of September 2020, it was my youngest son, Marcel’s first–last day of school. He started Grade 12, and for the upcoming months, it will be the first-last day of everything with regards to his school experience.                                                           

Thinking back to his first day, I realised that he started school in a foreign country, compared to his two older brothers that started in their home country, South Africa. 


We’ve been an ex-pat family for the past 13 years. Born in beautiful South Africa, my childhood dreams were like so many others. Buy a house, get married, have kids and raise them in the same community that I grew up in. Enjoy Christmas, Birthdays and BBQ dinners with the cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and friends. See them off to university, get married, settle down and raise kids, all hopefully in the same geographical region, or at least close by. We had the blueprint for our life’s (so we thought) and it all seemed doable. 

My husband (Len) and I dreamt of retiring in a small cosy house close to the sea. Taking long walks on the beach and spoiling our grand kids rotten while enjoying our hard-earned retirement pension with the bonus of being surrounded by lifelong family and friends. 

But everything changed in 2007 when we decided to pursue a job opportunity for my husband in Vienna, Austria. 

May 2007 was also the first-last day of everything for us. We were filled with excitement for the new adventure, but also anxious about the unknown which meant learning a foreign language, experiencing cultural differences and driving on the wrong side of the road (or at least for us it was). 

My parents were heartbroken, and at that time I shrugged it off and reassured them that it would only be for a year or two. We’ll be back. 

Now, 13 years later, two countries (Austria and Spain) and 6 moves down the line, the reality of what it means to be an expatriate hits closer to home than I ever imagined. With all the opportunities we have had the privilege to experience, I realise for how long I have felt like a displaced person. The loss of nurtured in-person family relationships, the longing to pop into my parent’s house for a quick cup of coffee, encouraging words and support has been out of reach for so long.

The reality of Marcel leaving home in a few months took me back to May 2007 when we had to say goodbye. My mom put on a brave face, but I could see she was torn inside. She held me so tight it was as if she did not want to let me go. It was as if she was trying to capture that moment forever in her memory like this was the last time.

Little did I know at that moment what she was going through. Dealing with feeling depressed as she experienced a sense of loneliness. Coming to terms with her own mortality. Knowing that she raised us to adulthood, seeing her grandchildren frequently, and suddenly they are ripped away by distance and circumstance. What support and understanding did she have during that empty-nester time? 

Now, I am stepping into her shoes. The only difference is that she was a local empty-nester, and today I am an expat-empty-nester.

Hmmm.... is there a difference, you might ask?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the definition of an empty-nester is “someone whose children have grown up and no longer live at home.”

Well, that sounds simple, doesn’t it?

What I would add to this definition is – “Who experience an intense void in their life, struggling to redefine their identity and finding their purpose.”

What difference is there between an expat and a local empty-nester?

Well, for the most part, we all have a gut-wrenching experience of the same void, feelings of loss, purpose and redefining our identity. But for most ex-pat women, another layer is added. 

But let’s first look at shared experiences of moving into the empty-nester stage.

  1. “Soccer mom”

Parents who have identified as either a soccer mom or a stay-at-home dad may suddenly wonder who they are or how they fit into the world now. Experiencing a brief loss of identity as a parent is normal, but it could also lead to feeling a lot of anxiety as they now don’t know what to do with their time. Stay-at-home parents might feel this more intensely because their life once revolved around their children’s schedules and they aren’t used to having so much free time on their hands.

  1. Emotional roller coaster

Emotions vary from person to person and can stir up a variety of different emotions. 

  • Perhaps you're sad that your child is grown up, angry at yourself for not being home more often, nervous about the state of your marriage, scared that you're growing older, and frustrated that you're not where you imagined you'd be at this phase in your life.
  • During this period, you may also feel a sense of relief and pride that your child has become independent-and you may feel some guilt about feeling relief.
  • Separation anxiety – letting go is not always easy. You were there when they lost their first tooth, learned how to ride a bike, patched up a scraped knee and tried the tears from their first romantic broken heart.
  • Lack of control over what your child is up to in the big world out there, can especially trigger worry and frustration.
  1. Loss & mourning

It is normal to experience a sense of loss and sadness when your child leaves home. Despite these feelings, an empty nest could mark the dawn of a new season in your life.

Dr James Dobson is an internationally recognised psychologist who specialises in child development, family, and parenting issues. He recalls his experience when his youngest son was leaving home for college. He said that it was not that he wanted to hold on to his son but, "I mourned the end of an era."

Expat vs Local empty-nester

What’s the difference?

  1. Geographical – “Spider’s Web”

Ever so often, a geographical spider’s web is woven: some children choose to move with their parents, other remain in their host country to continue their studies even if the parents move, others return “home”, making it challenging to keep in touch and thus harder to overcome the initial sadness.

For ex-pat women, this is often way more complicated and upsetting. It calls into question many other issues, such as having one or more children halfway around the world, staying abroad or repatriating for one or both spouses, and sometimes even brings into question whether to stay married or to separate from your spouse. 

  1. Third Culture Kids (& Moms) (TCK)

According to Rebecca Grappo, an educational consultant who specialises in the placement of TCK children, says there are three basic things all children need:  

  • belonging, 
  • recognition 
  • connection.  

For Third Culture Kids, these basic needs are taken away with each move. But this also includes the rest of the families. Moms and Dads have a similar experience. With every relocation, their layers of loss go deeper.

Friendships, community, pets, family, toys, language, weather, food and culture change.

But the one change that hurt the most is our loss of identity. It signifies the loss of place of comfort and stability. Although all empty-nesters experience loss, the reality of that loss goes much deeper for ex-pats. Over the years living in one or multiple foreign countries and saying goodbye is almost like reliving a traumatic experience. Guilt comes up for most women in this scenario, which in turn questions their existing lifestyle.

To begin with, it is important at these times to remember why you chose an ex-pat lifestyle and the positive effects this decision has had on your children. It is also essential to look at what you can do in from a more realistic point of view and let go of attempting to be in multiple places at the same time. This can be particularly challenging for many ex-pat women. 

Whether you are an ex-pat or not, Empty Nest Syndrome is real, and those with children will go through this at some point in their lives. How intense you experience it will differ from person to person.   

Tips on how to prepare yourself for an upcoming empty-nester season:

  • open a dialogue between yourself in your partner, exploring the upcoming changes and how it will affect from an emotional and logical perspective.
  • when you're a single parent, create the dialogue with your child.
  • connect with other women who have already gone through the empty nest season for support and tips.
  • keep a journal of your thoughts. 

Here are some ways to cope with empty nest:

  • Flexibility. Moving into this new season allow yourself to be flexible with your time and emotions. Acknowledge how you are feeling and have compassion with yourself through this transition period.
  • Structure your days. By creating a routine and basic structure for your day, including being flexible when needed, will give you a sense of purpose and direction in finding a balance between your external and internal world.  
  • Start a new hobby. Now is the time to try out something new, brush up an old skill set and begin projects that bring you joy or may even earn you money.
  • Connect with others. Just like when you joined a new-parent group when the kids were in school, it's helpful to be around other empty-nesters who can validate what you're going through. And, if you have a partner, it's fun to go on date nights, reconnect as a couple and put the sparkle back into your marriage.

Know that you are not alone, support and understanding is just around the corner. Embrace the new season in your life, you might be very pleasantly surprised!

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