Empty Nest?

I got a call last week from a reporter writing a story for Smart Money magazine. I was pretty psyched to talk to her. As a couples counselor, I think a lot about finances – how money is woven into the fabric of our lives – and yet it’s so often a taboo topic.

The reporter wanted some quotes from me on how empty nesters cope with the transition from full house to quiet house. Do they go on a spending spree she wondered? Redecorate their kid’s room? Do they shop to fill the void?

My response was – sure, sometimes – but more often these days a financial empty nest doesn’t really exist.

In my experience working with families as well as just being someone on this planet who reads newspapers and interacts with others, I see fewer true empty nests mostly because people can’t afford to separate that much. The odd and interesting byproduct of this ongoing recession is how it both forces and showcases our interconnectedness.  Our neighbors now ask us to watch their tots for a couple of hours rather than pay for a babysitter. We gather together at each other’s houses – everyone brings a dish, kids tumbling on top of each other, kitchen remodel half done – rather than meet up at Portland’s latest hot spot. And eighteen year olds who once would have headed out to faraway colleges are now staying closer to home or even living at home the first few years.

There is an obvious downside to this for the keepers of the next. An empty nest is an end and a beginning. It’s a bird taking flight, a kid starting out on their own to make mistakes and screw up and learn how to be an adult in this complicated world. Endings are necessary for beginnings to happen. So, when the choice to truly fly (and probably fall) is taken away, the beginning is delayed for everyone involved.  Studies have shown that marriages or partnerships improve once parents are alone again together. Parents who might have reconnected as a couple are stuck in their roles as Mom /Dad/Caretaker – still checking to make sure beds are being made and curfews honored. Or perhaps they are sending checks to help pay for a first apartment or even mortgage — maybe delaying their own retirement by a few years in order to help out.  Either way, change and growth are slowed down, delayed.

So what can be done besides job creation, recession ending, economy saving measures that are hopefully in this country’s future? What can we as families do to stay strong during these uncertain times?

First, acknowledge the change in circumstances. Talk to each other about the challenges you face as a family. Share the decision making process across generations so that everyone understands the risks, sacrifices and rewards of the new paradigm.

Second, adjust expectations. A few years back, a kid heading off to college or into the workforce might have purchased their first home, decorated it with the help of their parents and then joined them on a family cruise. “Staycation” wasn’t a word five or six years ago. The  new reality might be a studio apartment or a spare bedroom with no job in sight – or everyone working longer hours for much less pay. It is vital that parents assist everyone with this emotional (and physical!) transition.

Finally, make a plan for a full launch – whether that be in a few weeks, six months or even a year. Make a plan and then work together to get the baby bird flying, or at least exercising their wings. Remember, they are just starting out and it’s okay for them to worry about rent, eat ramen noodles and use a laundromat once a week. We’ve all been there – or are there now, even, and it’s important to experience some struggles so you know your own survival skills exist. It’s important to have the experience of efficacy –something that only comes when you try, fail, try again and succeed – all on your own.

So although “empty nest” has been used to describe a negative experience… it really is the ultimate goal to empty the nest. What happens next is a conversation for another article!

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