31 July, 2017

Why empty nest syndrome does not equal childlessness

In conversation and on social media, empty nesters (those whose children have grown and left home) have sometimes assumed that their lives are the same as those of us who never had children. On a day-to-day level, this may largely be true, given that we have no dependents at home (unless of course we are caring for elderly relatives) and can have offices or TV rooms in our spare rooms, for example. But in truth the grief is different; the empty nester’s loss is for the past and what they had, not for the future and what they will never have.

  • The (adult) children are still there – out in the world, living their lives (as they are supposed to be doing), (hopefully) making the empty nester proud of their independence and their achievements, keeping regular contact (mostly) with their parents, visiting on birthdays or special holidays or celebrating milestones together, or popping around to say hi if they live nearby.
  • If an empty nester is ill or old, their child is almost certainly thinking of them, checking they are okay, and likewise, the empty nester still feels needed, in the case that their adult child may need practical or emotional help or advice.
  • The empty nester has not had to endure the social isolation and judgement of not having children.

Assuming being an empty nester is the same as my life is shallow; it ignores the reality of my life, the way we are treated by society, and diminishes what we have lost.


  1. Dear Mali, an empty-nester and a person who is childless not by choice are two completely different things. An empty-nester HAS kids, even when they have grown up and become independent. He or she will always be a parent, no matter how old the children are. Having the kids leave home may be emotional, but it is not the same as NEVER having had kids in the first place. People who compare these two circumstances apparently don't think it all through correctly ;-). Or they may not know it any better...

  2. yeah, you can't compare these two at all.

  3. You hit the nail on the head! Comparing childlessness to an empty nest are two things that can't be compared.

  4. Most definitely!! On the same continuum -- one of my huge pet peeves is parents who proclaim themselves "childless" on social media (often gleefully) -- when what they really mean is that they've sent the kids to Grandma's for the weekend. Or, yes, they just dropped their last kid off at college and the nest is empty. I got into a MAJOR kerfuffle on a scrapbooking message board once (!) for daring to point out that there's a difference & some of us who truly don't have children because of infertility or loss might find that hurtful.

  5. It's a bizarre comparison -- I've never seen it made, but if I did, I would have to point out the obvious. The children aren't in the person's house, but the children exist.

    1. I've heard it several times, including to me directly, and once recently on Fb.

  6. That is so odd. But not surprising. Not even apples and oranges. More like apples and steak.

  7. People who compare these two circumstances apparently don't think it all through correctly ;-). Or they may not know it any better...

    แตกใน xxx

  8. This comparison is one of my biggest pet peeves, it drives me up an ever loving wall. And when people solicit empathy from me for having an empty nest and I'm put in the inexcusably awkward position of having to let them know that while I do not begrudge them their feelings they have the wrong audience. Empty nesters also have peers to turn to going through similar experiences and thousands of books to validate them should they be having trouble. I've got practically no peers in my physical presence and like 7 books to turn to for my plight so really, I think they can spare me this one. Rant over.

  9. Oh, yes yes yes. Unfortunately I've seen this comparison in my own family, and it is particularly irritating when the flown birds in question are IN THE SAME EFFING TOWN. I get mourning the moments that have passed, but come on -- it's the same as mourning moments that never got to be? It's not the same as not being able to have the children you wanted. Like you said, there's still contact, there's still the child coming home for visits or to care for you, it's not the same grief AT ALL and it is very shallow and insensitive to say so. Huge pet peeve. I agree with infertility honesty -- WRONG AUDIENCE.