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Empty nesting: not as empty as it sounds?

By Denise Restauri

Photo by Muffet
My sister Liz has two incredible boys. They’re both men, actually, which even I have a hard time facing. (How could they be grown up when I remember changing their diapers? Sunrise, sunset! Swiftly fly the years! Etc.!) One of her sons is in college and the other is in law school. After years together as a family, she and her husband have found themselves all alone. And they couldn’t be happier. She loves it when her kids visit, of course— but it turns out that she loves it when they leave.
I don’t know of a more devoted mom than my sister, so what gives? Shouldn’t she be pining for her babies? Isn’t that what mothers do?
Turns out, not so much. As recently reported in the New York Times, a new study published in the journal “Psychological Science” shows that marital satisfaction increases after the kids have taken their leave.
In the past few years, several studies have shown that marital happiness is adversely affected by children. Which, when you think about it, is really not all that surprising. (Sorry, kids.) Children may be limitless sources of joy for parents, but they don’t do much for quality time between a husband and wife. The increased financial stress of supporting a family can be a cause of great unhappiness and conflict. The struggle over sharing household duties can put strain on even the strongest marriage. And there’s nothing like fighting over money and/or who’s going to do the dishes over the din of a screaming toddler or bickering teens to make you think get me out of here.
But instead of running to a divorce lawyer, maybe all you have to do is wait a few years, or twenty! Because according to this latest study, once the kids are out of the house, the quality of spousal interactions improves, and both partners—but wives, especially—feel happier in their marriages.
I didn’t think this was the first time I’d read about a study like this, so I went searching through my bookshelves, and lo and behold: in the book “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert addresses the myth of the empty nest syndrome. According to the four separate studies Gilbert references, marital satisfaction takes a huge dip when the first child arrives and increases only after the last child has left. “Despite what we read in the popular press,” Gilbert writes, “the only known symptom of ’empty nest syndrome’ is increased smiling.”
According to the Times, we may not have to wait until our kids have vamoosed to feel better in our marriages. “The lesson from the empty nest may be that parents need to work to carve out more stress-free time together.” After all, empty nesters say that they don’t spend more time with their spouses, just better time. So making date night more of a priority might cure the all-kids-all-the-time blues.
So: any empty nesters out there? Anyone dreading or looking forward to their kids leaving home? Tell us your story, below.


Published January 29, 2009. Last updated May 10, 2010.
About the Author

Denise Restauri

As the founder of, the safe social networking site for tween girls, Denise Restauri is directly tapped into the tween girl world every day.


As the founder of, the safe social networking site for tween girls, Denise Restauri is directly tapped into the tween girl world every day.

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  • mary

    January 30, 2009 at 11:41 am

    What I didn’t see you mention are the seemingly endless arguments about decisions relating to the kids. At our house, it seems lately like my husband is questioning all my decisions (and she’s two…). Of course, to be fair, I’ve probably been way more guilty of this than him… But whether to give a particular medication, our daughter’s overall diet, her behavior and our response to it and even her sleep schedule (or lack thereof) seem to dominate our minutes away from her.
    I don’t have any great suggestions. My husband typically doesn’t want to have a date night and I’m so consumed with preparing for #2 (due March 3) that I think I’m kind of unpleasant to be around anyway…

  • suburbancorrespondent

    January 30, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Gosh – so I only have, oh, 15 years to go? Can’t wait…

  • Linda

    January 30, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    I read all these parenting blogs because my kids are all gone from the nest but I want to see what the changes are in childrearing and such. I have four wonderful grandsons and I see that so much is different about childrear than it was in the seventies and eighties. Bur this! This I have experience with and boy, did it suck at first. I cried when the last of four left for college. I was lonesome and miserable and who knew a house could be so quiet? My husband was usually upstairs puttering around while I moved through clean room after clean room. I never thought I would be able to clean a room and it would still be clean when I ventured inside again. After 3 or 4 months, I began to feel better and it has only gotten better and better. My husband and I can sit on the couch together with no one trying to pry us apart or guilt us into watching what they want to watch! It will come and faster than you think. Hug those little ones long and hard.

  • virginia

    January 30, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Not quite an empty-nester yet but getting happier every year. Five down – one to go.
    I loved having a big family, especially when they were younger. But, my god, did those teen years scar me. And not because they were terrible kids either. I am happy to see them growing up and most importantly out. I am looking forward to being “selfish” again – doing hobbies I enjoy, going out with the hubby more often, etc.

  • Becky

    January 30, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    My youngest is only 10 months, and my husband and I are already counting down the days til he leaves for college. Restarting our countdown clock was probably the biggest sticking point when we discussed having a third kid.

  • PB Rippey

    January 31, 2009 at 11:53 am

    My sister will be an empty-nester in less than two years. She is going to start-up an Empty-Nesters club specifically for moms. They will NOT do book-club-talk, but focus on coping with the kids being gone, focus on supporting one another and being pro-active in the world as far as kid-related causes, connecting with their husbands and whatever else they come up with. They will also have FUN. I think this is a really positive thing my sister is going to do.

  • Ellen

    February 2, 2009 at 9:17 am

    Empty nester here. When the last one was in college, there was a point when it was stranger for him to be home than away. He graduated, got a job far away, and we talk weekly. For me, the biggest adjustment was the cooking. Not having a teenage boy around to feed was strange. It took a while to figure out we didn’t need all that food. And I didn’t have to cook at all if I didn’t feel like it. I like my kids a lot and wish they lived closer. We have 2 elderly dogs to keep us busy now—one is incontinent and has to go outside at least once during the night. Reminds me of the infant feeding years…

  • MamaCass

    February 2, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    This is interesting. Kids are definitely a source of both joy and stress in our house, and we rarely get a moment together alone unless we are sleeping. The kids are still young here, so I can see that as they get a little older and we are more comfortable leaving them, we could carve out that time. From where I sit with young ones though, the thought of them growing up and leaving the nest seems terrifying enough to make me want a few more. And yes, that does sound crazy as I write it, but still.

  • laurellee

    February 4, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Becky, I find it unsettling that you are so focused on getting the kids out of the house, and at such a young age. It seems to me that after all of that time focusing on them leaving you will miss the joys of having them near you. Time goes by so fast, it is a shame that you can’t wait until they are gone. Surely by then you will wonder where all of that time went.

  • Maureen

    February 9, 2009 at 8:12 am

    I was going to ask if you had kids. But eit doesn’t matter. Even if you do…your children might be different in any number of ways. They might not be as active or fussy or any number of things that can cause a mother to think: “Okay, how many years until I can feel like myself again?” I have two boys and I love my stay-at-home job as much as I can hate it some days. Children are the best and worst thing to happen to a marriage. I had a miscarriage my first pregnancy and I thought to myself that I would always appreciate my children (if I ever had any)at all times. But it turns out this parenting things is hard. It sucks you dry and then comes back later to nibble on the hardened husk of your broken down body. Don’t get me wrong, I dearly dearly love my kids…but I’m looking forward to having only myself to worry about – even if only for a day! I will miss them terribly, but they’ll still be my kids…even if they don’t live with me.