I wonder how many dads are reading this? If my hunch is correct, probably not as many as moms! It’s not that men aren’t affected when their children leave home – they certainly are. I know dads who sobbed for hours after leaving a son or daughter at college, who felt totally lost in the months after their kids left. The big difference is that men are less likely to talk about how they feel, either to friends or partners, and they may not even admit to themselves that the empty nest is a big deal.
So women are often left to second-guess what men are going through. I know from experience how easy it is to assume a man is breezing through the empty nest when in fact he’s just as heartbroken as you are. Whenever I felt down about our two sons and daughter leaving (which was most of the time in the early days!) my husband was upbeat and talked about how great it was that they were embarking on their wonderful new lives. At the time I felt he was criticising me for being too emotional, but now I realise that he was just trying to make me feel better, and also putting a brave face on a situation he also found difficult – albeit in different ways. I regret being so wrapped up in my own feelings that I couldn’t look more closely at the parallel crisis he was going through.
One of the many psychologists I interviewed for my book about the empty nest, Professor Charles Lewis, explains why appearances can be deceptive: ‘Just because a man isn’t open or articulate about an experience doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings about that experience. I have spoken to many fathers who express deep remorse when their children leave home, even though on the surface they say it’s great, we’ve got more time to travel and so on. Missing your kids is not the sort of thing men talk about at work. And even within the family fathers have not got the space to be the person who breaks down.’
That may sound old-fashioned, but it’s still true that many fathers feel they can’t afford to be upset themselves because they have to be a rock for their wives. Dads also feel responsible for making their kids feel good about going. Children can cope with their mom’s tears – it might even be quite flattering! – as long as they get enough of what one family psychotherapist describes as a ‘letting-go energy’, that says it’s OK to go out into the world and take risks. It also communicates the important notion that home is still a secure base, that we will always love you and we’re thinking about you even if you’re not here. That’s what dads are so good at.
Celia Dodd, a freelance journalist and author, wrote ‘The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay close to your Adult Child’, which was published in 2011 by Piatkus. Her work has been seen in national UK newspapers, The Independent and The Times, and she is a regular contributor to the Radio Times. Celia lives with her husband, Tom, in West London. Their three children, now in their twenties, have all “flown the nest.”
Grown and Flown send our heartfelt thanks to all Dads and our best wishes for the happiest of Father’s Days.