Empty nest is often described as a feeling of grief and loneliness parents may feel when their children leave home for the first time. Yet, by building your “nest” branch by branch (a core philosophy behind Expat Nest), you can feel whole and fulfilled no matter which stage your children are in. As we follow the reflections of author, publisher and serial expat Jo Parfitt, we also see that an empty nest can offer the opportunity to grow and to discover other parts of yourself.
The global family’s empty nest
Traditionally empty nest may be experienced when kids leave home for tertiary study or to live independently. For the global family, however, empty nest takes on many shapes and forms. For example, kids may leave home at a much earlier age, because they’re being schooled in their home country while parents are abroad, or because parents go on work assignments and live away from the rest of the family. Your nest could also feel empty later in life – for example, if your adult child moves abroad for work or for love.
Keep building your nest…
Jo was surprised not to feel a sense of grief when her two boys left home (then the Netherlands) to go to university in London. “We had great friends, fulfilling work and felt totally at home,” she writes. “Their absence did not leave the gaping hole I had been anticipating. What’s more, their proximity meant we saw them often.”
She also believes her decision to develop herself beyond her role as a mother helped with the transition. No matter where she and her husband relocated, Jo adapted her career accordingly – the lessons she learned along the way led to the inspiring book, Career in Your Suitcase (the latest edition written with career consultant Colleen Reichrath-Smith).
Says Jo: “I think I did a pretty good job of retaining my professional identity … I knew I was not unaffected by the loss of young men raiding my fridge frighteningly fast, but I thought I was coping fairly well.”
Empty nest can arrive unexpectedly…
When she and her husband relocated to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 2013, leaving both sons in Europe, Jo was taken aback by her sudden sense of loss. “I think this was when my empty nest really hit home,” she says. “After 28 years on the move we’re used to being a short plane ride from family and friends, but being a long-haul flight from our offspring was a big deal.”
Though an experienced expat, Jo found herself in a new set of circumstances: she and her husband were in their fifties and had no social network or support group in their new location. Jo had also decided, for the first time in decades, not to set up a business locally (though she would continue her work online).
And so she found herself facing days both without kids and clients; her feelings of empty nest emerging among the unfamiliarity of her new way of life. “Being defined for so many years by my work, I was distinctly uneasy at coffee mornings,” she says. “[Previously] I didn’t do morning events; that was when I worked.”
Seeing the gap as space to explore
As she has (slowly) developed her life in Kuala Lumpur – “where it used to take me a year when the kids were at home, to settle in a new place, this time it’s honestly taken two” – she and her husband have started to enjoy the unexpected benefits of their new childfree status, like unhindered travel; longer visits from family as well as from friends with empty nests; and the chance to visit their sons, who have since moved to Indonesia and Germany, in their own exciting locations.
The biggest surprise? “The joy of hosting young strangers in our house,” says Jo. The couple regularly has young guests to stay, whether friends or random acquaintances of her sons, who happen to be passing through Kuala Lumpur. “And so they visit and in a flash our nest is full of life and smelly feet again. We enjoy the company. In a way they become proxy children. … Nests, I realise, have different degrees of emptiness. Making sure they, like beds, never get completely cold, is definitely my preferred coping mechanism.”
The different shapes of our nest
Jo’s story shows us there is no hard and fast rule for what the global family’s empty nest looks like. Of her own empty nest, she says: “[It] keeps changing. It changes size and shape month on month. Like the sand dunes in Dubai it moves and shifts, gently morphing imperceptibly into something new.”
Adapted with permission from “The Shifting Sands of the Expat Empty Nest” by Jo Parfitt.
Have you experienced empty nest? How did you deal with it and what have you learned about yourself? Feel free to share below.
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© Vivian Chiona, Expat Nest