Early Pangs of Empty Nest Syndrome When the Children Leave Home
Since Sarah Ripp began pining over the prospect that her daughter, Emily, was going away to college, her husband has taken to calling her “the weeping willow.”
The night after she returned from depositing Emily at Vassar, her new school, Ms. Ripp found herself desperately rummaging through drawers in her strangely empty Upper West Side apartment for the inky prints of Emily’s feet taken by the hospital at birth. She found them, and was plunged into memories she thought she had forgotten.
Over the next few days she sorted through photographs she hadn’t looked at in 15 years, thinking of making a scrapbook for Emily’s birthday. She took the week off her work as an administrative judge so that she would have time to compose herself before facing colleagues and strangers.
“We’re just kind of staggering around,” she says of herself and her husband, Allan. “You spend 18 years building a family, and then it’s time for college and you know you know you have to let them go, but it’s hard.” She has an uncommonly powerful case of the pangs of separation that many parents and psychologists say they are feeling as millions of freshmen head off to college across the country this fall.
“If you have a decent relationship with your child, you’re going to miss them terribly,” said Lawrence Balter, a professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of several books on parenthood. “You experience a sense of loss of someone you’ve been so involved with emotionally and deeply. They’re part of you, part of your lives on a daily basis.”
The feelings brought on by the departure of college-age children are much like the mild to severe depression of the empty nest syndrome, when children grow up and leave home completely. But for Ms. Ripp and others like her, psychologists say, the move to college is even worse because in a competitive, driven place like New York, parents are superinvested in everything from the first day of kindergarten, to weekend soccer leagues, to the last day of tutoring before the SAT’s.
More than ever, for many parents, raising children has become life’s main preoccupation. Then comes the time when these parents have to give up control, and the prospect can be frightening.
“No matter how busy I was, there was always a story, something going on,” said Mayra Fernandez, whose daughter, Gaby, an only child, is going off to Dartmouth this week. “I definitely will miss having her friends here. They’re very funny and warm. So that part is over. It is sad.”
It’s a time of reckoning as jarring, for many parents, as the sense of displacement caused by retiring from work. It is as bittersweet as the moment when a child becomes too old to snuggle into the parental bed at night.
Marriages pasted together for the sake of the children may fall apart, or relationships that have been strained by the demands of child-rearing may grow stronger. Younger children left behind may suddenly find themselves the center of attention, and may blossom as a result.
“Three things are affected,” Dr. Balter said. “One is your own sense of who you are. The other part is the other kids left behind, and the last is your relationship to your spouse.”
Ms. Fernandez, a teacher at Public School 75 on the Upper West Side, has found herself working out her anxiety by e-mailing other mothers whose daughters are leaving home, and by compulsively cleaning her apartment. She hopes to distract herself further by signing up to teach an adult education course at City College.
The distress can be just as great if there are other children still left at home. Ms. Ripp’s 20-year-old son, Nathaniel, left for college two years ago, and she still has a 7-year-old, Asher, her “saving grace,” at home.
Losing her older son to college was like “cutting off an arm,” she said. But she feels the separation from her daughter more painfully. “She and I are more companions, I think because she is a girl,” Ms. Ripp said.
One night she stayed up late and cooked 14 small frozen meals for Emily, who has severe food allergies, to microwave in her room at Vassar. It might seem obsessive, Ms. Ripp said, but she doesn’t apologize.
“I thought, you know, I’m just going to do what makes me comfortable and what makes her comfortable.”
Her husband may share her distress, she says, but doesn’t express it as directly, a pattern that has always characterized their child-rearing. “If a kid is coughing, he wants me to be the one to call the doctor,” she said.
Some parents say that it is worse when boys go off to college, because they are more likely than girls to stop communicating with their parents. “In general, you never hear from them again,” said Stacey Selden, whose son, Matthew Liebenson, left their home in Greenwich Village for Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., two years ago.
Ms. Selden told her son she would not send him any spending money until he started calling her, although even that was not very successful.
College officials have tried to cater to today’s superparents, offering orientations and sample classes to parents.
In a sign of just how invested parents are in the lives of their children, Matthew Santirocco, dean of the College of Arts and Science at New York University, chuckles over the remark that he hears most often when parents come to visit the campus: “I wish I could come back,” they say.
Ms. Selden, for her part, is plotting to keep her younger son, Peter, a junior at Dalton, closer to home. She is steering him toward colleges like N.Y.U. and Vassar. “My husband keeps telling me, you have to look more than an hour away,” she says. “And I say, ‘No, not this one.’ ” Autor: Anemona Hartocollis