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by Michael Shermer, Oct 19 2010

From birth to college, the number of days as a parent doesn’t begin to capture empty nest syndrome

When I matriculated at Pepperdine University in 1974 and moved to the Malibu campus from my home in La Canada, my mother exercised her parental right to express her angst at my departure from the nest, now empty.

I responded with typical teenage indifference and bafflement born of ignorance. “Sheez, Mom, I’m only an hour away. What’s the big deal?”

“You just wait until you have one of your own,” she cried. “Then you’ll know what I’m feeling.”

Last month I found out when my daughter moved into her dorm at college and life as I know it has come to an end. Or so at least that’s what it feels like. I find myself waking up at four in the morning, reaching for some distracting literature and finding light comfort in Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. I entertain a fantasy of riding my bike to Mount Wilson and hurling myself off the cliff fully clipped into my pedals, sans helmet. I turn to the Internet for advice and find this on (“empty-nest syndrome”): “you could have a long lie in a scented bath. You may even come to see that although you’ve lost a teenager, you’ve gained a bathroom!” Oh, great, I’ve got a woman’s disorder. I flip back to Bourdain and learn never to order fish on Mondays (weekend leftovers).

The nest’s empty loneliness is almost unbearable. Why does it hurt so bad? Science has an answer: we are social mammals who experience deep attachment to our fellow friends and family, an evolutionary throwback to our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer days of living in small bands of a couple of dozen to a couple of hundred people who were either related to one another or knew one another intimately. Bonding unified the group, aiding survival in harsh climes and against unforgiving enemies, and attachment between parent and offspring assured that there is no one better equipped to look after the future survival of your genes than yourself. We are a pair-bonded species, practicing monogamy (or at least serial monogamy) long enough to get our children out of childhood.

How long is that? In the modern world it’s a long time. In my case, from birth to college was 6,895 days, or just a shade under 18.9 years. (For you numerophiles, that’s 165,480 hours, or 9,928,800 minutes, or 595,728,000 seconds). The quantitative figures do not begin to capture the qualitative feeling of bonding that happens between a parent and a child from the sheer amount of time spent together. Think about what those numbers mean. Every day for 6,895 days, when you get up and around in the morning your primary duty in life is to assure your child’s care and safety. An unbroken chain, suddenly cut.

We parents can’t help feeling this way and neuroscience explains why: there are a number of addictive chemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin that surge through the brain and body during positive social interactions (especially touch) that causes us to feel closer to one another. As my colleague at Claremont Graduate University Paul Zak has demonstrated in his lab, between strangers oxytocin creates a feeling of friendship. Between couples it leads to attraction and love. Between parents and offspring it cements a bond so solid that it is broken only under the most unusual (and usually pathological) circumstances. Mothers of serial killers have been known to weep in court and plead for leniency, even in the presence of the mothers of the murdered victims.

The empty-nest syndrome is real, but there is good news for this and all forms of loss and grief. According to the Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, we are not very good at forecasting our unhappiness. In a comprehensive study involving six different experiments, Gilbert and his colleagues asked subjects to imagine how they would feel in a number of different scenarios that one could reasonably expect would trigger negative emotions, including the breakup of a romantic relationship, the failure to earn tenure, a defeat in a political election, negative feedback on one’s personality, the death of a child, and a job rejection by a prospective employer. Most of us think that we would be miserable for a very long time. Gilbert calls this the durability bias, an emotional misunderstanding. “Common events typically influence people’s subjective well-being for little more than a few months, and even uncommon events—such as losing a child in a car accident, being diagnosed with cancer, becoming paralyzed, or being sent to a concentration camp—seem to have less impact on long-term happiness than one might naively expect.”

In such situations we seem to experience immune neglect, says Gilbert, where we neglect to consider the strength of our psychological immune systems to protect us against the pain of insult, defeat, regret, and loss. In his experiments, for example, Gilbert and his colleagues found that “students, professors, voters, newspaper readers, test takers, and job seekers overestimated the duration of their affective reactions to romantic disappointments, career difficulties, political defeats, distressing news, clinical devaluations, and personal rejections.”

The durability bias and the failure to recognize the power of our emotional immune systems leads us to overestimate how dejected we will feel and for how long, and to underestimate how quickly we will snap out of it and feel better.

For me, taking the long view helps. How long? Deep time. Evolutionary time, in which 6,895 days represents a mere .000000005 percent of the 3.5 billion-year history of life on earth. Each of us parents makes one small contribution to the evolutionary imperative of life’s continuity from one generation to the next without a single gap, an unbroken link over the eons, glorious in its contiguity and spiritual in its contemplation.

And always remember, there’s no place like home…

32 Responses to “6,895”

  1. John says:

    I would imagine that there is a spectrum of the severity of empty nest syndrome that is greatest for those with an only child to least with those who have several children. My parents had 13 kids and I’m #8. I got a suitcase for high school graduation. I’m not even sure they knew that I left. :-)

  2. Jeffery2010 says:

    I have 5 Childern. My oldest, 20, after two years of community college just left for university dorm life. I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought; she’ll love this story, or hey we could… but she’s not there. The other four keep me busy so I can’t imagine (or forecast)how I will feel when the last one leaves. But I can forecast it will be aprox. 23 time worse for my wife and I will have to deal with that. Weep for me.

    • Aaron says:

      I’ve got six, my oldest is 12 right now but I can see this on the horizon. Hopefully more children doesn’t equate to a more severe empty nest syndrome.

      • Tom says:

        Wow – five kids…six kids. Skeptics apparently put time not spent in church to good use.

      • Jason M says:

        If only this were true in general Tom. Skeptics tend to be pretty educated, and educated people tend to have fewer children.

  3. Retired Prof says:

    Yes, John, there is a spectrum of severity. We had so much trouble every school day getting my son out of bed and off to the bus or the schoolhouse that when he went away to college that the emotion I remember best was relief. And that’s in spite of the fact that (when he was fully awake) I enjoyed his conversation and his hugs.

    Sorry, Michael, that your daughter apparently doesn’t have any infuriating habits that would mitigate your loneliness by their absence.

  4. peter says:

    We raised our two children to rely on themselves as much as possible. My son left the house when he was 16, to live on his own and bought his own house when he was not quite 18.
    My daughter left house when 18, and has been living 9hrs away ever since.
    Yes, we love our children, we gave the the support they needed,all the help to become independent, but we do not feel an empty nest syndrome.
    We had our children late – my wife was 39/41 when they were born, so we lived most of our life without them and basically continued our childless life after they left.

  5. Gordon says:

    One benefit of the empty nest was that once again I got to listen to my music as loud as I wanted.

  6. Steve M says:

    What some call “Empty Nest Syndrome” I call “Freedom! Sweet, sweet freedom!”

  7. Scott P says:

    To go along with people’s apparent tendency to under-estimate our ability to cope with negative situations, Daniel Gilbert has also studied how people have a tendency to over-estimate the happiness from positive situations (when buying the latest tech gadget for example). In general, it seems, we don’t forecast our happiness very well. I guess it’s true that the best things happen (the happiest) when you least expect it (can’t forecast it). Anecdotally, this can be true even for unforeseen negative situations (see short TED talk by Stacey Kramer, recently posted).

    I “empty-nested” my parents 8 years ago, and I’m 6,661 days away from becoming “empty-nested” myself (4-month old son).

  8. Paul says:

    For me ENS came with divorce when our family home ceased and my young daughter moved out with her Mum, it hurt like the worst bereavement.

  9. Sylvia says:

    Michael, poor sweetheart. Here’s what I told my partner when this happened to him – Just wait until she calls to say “Dad, don’t tell mum, but…” She, like girls of good fathers do, will confide something that’s (you might think) wonderfully and flatteringly conspiratorial to your ears. However, she’ll mean every word of it. When you hear this, you’ll know that, really, no one has ever left you in any truly significant way. Don’t forget – she’s social and tribal and loves you always – and thus is always with you.

    • Sylvia says:

      No, don’t just wait for it. I know that we’re both skeptics, but just this one, take my word for it, regardless. No, really… you’ll see!

  10. Annette says:

    I cried and cried the day my youngest left home from San Diego to Minnesota. That lasted about half a day. I have to say, I really don’t miss the extra laundry, reaching for a yogurt (apple, cookie, whatever)and it’s all gone, hearing him shout into the computer at 3 am because he’s got headphones on and is playing games online and got excited…I love all my children immensely but I have to say I have come to love my newly found, truly free, time. I have stumbled onto happiness. And I can mail home-baked goods to all the children when I really miss them. Halloween boxes were so much fun this year.

  11. Emily Valli says:

    Sunrise, sunset…
    Swiftly fly the years.

  12. Jeff says:

    It works in the other direction, too. I couldn’t wait to move to California from Minnesota after graduating from high school, but during that first year I was severely homesick, especially for my parents. It got better but never disappeared completely, and during the next few years I felt left out whenever my parents and sister would go on weekend trips together – a combination of abandonment and guilt, since I was the one who created the situation.

    I know my parents felt abandoned too, because they told me. Of course there were lots of visits back and forth, but now that they’re both gone there are so many things I wish I’d done and said differently (like just about anyone else) that it’s still hard to bear at times.

  13. Chris Terry says:

    If she’s majoring in Liberal Arts, don’t expect her to be gone for long! :D

    • MadScientist says:

      That’s just mean. I have a lot of arts friends who are independent – in fact I don’t know any who stay with their parents. I suspect the jobless arts student living with their parents is just another wrong stereotype.

  14. Grimalkin says:

    When I moved away to go to university, my mom seemed overjoyed. She and my step-dad started spending more time cooking amazing dinners (no kids to pick up from this or that), they started travelling more (no need to worry about a trashed house upon their return, let alone alternative arrangements for my parental taxi service), started painting again (something she had given up for lack of time when I was born), and took up several sports (time time time!).

    I’m not sure whether I should be happy that she’s adjusting so well or offended!

  15. Joan says:

    I always thought a parents responsiblity was to raise kids who would then be able to function well in the world. I think my husband and I did…but even after they went off to college or a job…they kept coming back…and bringing friends, lovers, spouses and children! I never had empty nest syndrome…But I did keep seeing the kids after they were gone and even now see at least one of the four, speak to others at least once a month…most times oftener.

  16. Barb says:

    Three out of four of ours have left over the past 20 years. The 3rd was hardest. No more friendly banter and laughter filling the house, especially during the wee hours when they thought we were asleep. One seems as quiet as none. I’ll let you know how it goes when the last departs.

  17. Robert Neary says:

    Here’s the upside of the “empty nest”: that kid’s room becomes the guest room which is often destined to be used by the maturing child as they occasionally return bringing with them your GRANDCHILDREN to visit. It’s a wonderful cycle of life that is unfolding, enjoy it.

  18. Reuben Soggledere says:

    ‘There’s no place like home.’ – Quite. I’d rather die than go back there.
    (Given the current economic situation, this phrase has become a bit less easy to say than it used to be. But I’ve made a conscious decision that if push comes to shove, all in all I’d rather die on the streets from starvation.)
    Anyway, whatever has this subject got to do with skepticism?

  19. sailor says:

    “We are a pair-bonded species, practicing monogamy (or at least serial monogamy) long enough to get our children out of childhood.”

    Nice article but I think genetic evidence suggests that polygny was significantly in our past

  20. greg wainscoat says:

    Tuition and school loans make the heart grow fonder.

  21. Well, I hope the loneliness goes away soon. My only advice – based on seeing how my parents handled things – is don’t get a lap-dog to compensate. Just work through it or else future articles on the efficacy of dog-costumes will take over the blog – and that’s too sad to contemplate.

  22. JGB says:

    There is an inoculation against empty nest syndrome: it is called “Getting a divorce and having your spouse take the kids out of state.” It works.

    Ironically, now that my son’s married and in college we have gotten closer. We text every day. It may be that kids don’t need to distance themselves from the remote-access parent to feel autonomous. Maybe because the parental trump cards, “I’m bigger than you” and “I’m watching you” have been removed so a parent needs to rely on communication (AKA cunning) instead of authority (AKA brute force and oppression).

  23. scott says:

    What? Not one comment so far complaining that this post isn’t directly related to skepticism? Has Phil Plait already chased all the dicks out of the skeptic movement?

  24. Dr. Shermer,

    The distinction between a blog post and an article has become increasingly difficult to distinguish on the internet. In light of this, shouldn’t you, as a skeptic, demonstrate a habit of sourcing most things that you put on the net? I realize you’re being casual here, just talking, but why no links to the studies that you refer to (or some form of reference)?