Empty nester psychologist offers advice to moms with young kids

Guest post by Dr. Margaret Rutherford, Ph.D., blogger at NestAche

nestache logoI wish I could tell you how many mothers I have met since writing “NestAche” who have said, “Oh, I can’t even think about the time my children (child) will be be leaving home”.  Tears spring into their eyes.

Unless you plan to pack up your things and move into the dorm with them, it’s going to help for you to anticipate letting go! A little preparation is going to help.  And it’s really not that hard. You can start when they are young.  It just takes practice!

What do you need to do?


Families have varying manners in which they are “organized”, with some families being more tightly wound around “the family” as the central force in a child’s life. Others stress more independence  from the very beginning.

ABC’s hit show Modern Family has both kinds: Cameron and Mitchell are definitely a little hovering over Lily, and Gloria and Jay are constantly bickering about how she needs to let go of Manny. Another ABC show, The Middle, may be a good example of the second kind. Their kids struggle a bit because of the disorganization in the family. Think of these two kinds of families as two ends of a spectrum. There are pros and cons to both kinds of families, and the healthiest families are the ones where a middle ground exists, much like the Dunphys of Modern Family.

Why is this important for you to know? Because if you were reared in the first kind of family, the “you can always (maybe only) trust family” kind of families, letting go of your child into the world is going to be harder. You may be painting a version of the world that is too scary for your child. In fact, kids from these families tend to have more anxiety disorders. The “helicopter parenting” phenomenon is likely to come from this dynamic. Parents stay involved at a much deeper level with their child, struggling to give over control.

If you were reared in the second kind, the “get out there & be who you can be, and by the way, you need to support yourself asap”, you might need to look at if you are too detached or “letting go” a little too prematurely. I had a patient the other day who told me he was paying rent to his aunt when he was 10. Obviously a problem. These kids tend to have more behavioral problems.

Consider these issues in yourself, your spouse, and the family you are creating. Success in parenting is when your child can leave your home as a fairly confident young adult, still learning about  herself but being ready to be away from parents’ hands-on guidance. Not too soon, not too early.


Every stage of a child’s life is a fantastic opportunity to practice what the “empty nest” will bring you, just in smaller doses. When she goes into kindergarten, instead of dreading the change, welcome it. If you truly relish each stage and do the things that will bring you satisfaction and contentment, you should be able to move with her. To celebrate with her.

When he makes that jump from his tricycle to his big bike, run alongside of him and love the moment. Because he will with you!

From middle school to high school, don’t get out the toddler pictures and think, “He was so cute back then”. Okay, maybe once in a while. But as a general rule, don’t look back! That’s the practice part. Relish and let go. Keep moving along with your child. Then you will be ready when the year comes for that child to truly move away.


Whether a stay-at-home mom (or dad) or a parent juggling both, I realize that hearing “you need to focus on your partnership (marriage) and yourself” can seem almost laughable. Ever-present laundry and dust, bedtimes, school functions, your own work or volunteer responsibilities, church – “And we are supposed to make time for each other?”.  More difficulty comes with having kids with learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, or other mental or medical issues.

“We have focused too much on our kids.  That’s all we talk about”.  “She’s always angry with me, so I just don’t talk much”.  “He doesn’t understand that if he would just help me more, I wouldn’t be mad and I would want to be closer to him”.  “If I try to help, I feel like I am doing it all wrong or that’s the way she makes me feel”.  “I am away from my kids so much with work that I don’t feel it’s right for us to get babysitters”.  “There are no babysitters that we can trust”.

If this is you, there’s something wrong. And it’s fixable. You just have to prioritize differently. You have to care enough for your self and your marriage. Go to a good therapist if need be. Just take some time.

When your child or children leave, all that’s left is you. And your partner. It’s important to pay attention.

Just enough attention. So the rest of the nest will enjoy the rest of their lives.

margaret_headshot nestacheDr. Margaret Rutherford has been in private practice since 1992. She has served locally in many non-profit organizations, and has been President of the Board of three: Ozark StageWorks, ArtsLive, and TheatreSquared, now voted one of the ten best semi-professional theatres in the United States.  She is also an Adjunct Professor on the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Faculty on the Northwest Arkansas campus. Dr. Rutherford has also within the last year ventured into the world of blogging, and has created the term “NestAche” for “empty nest”.  She writes regularly on her blog and is continuing to look into new and exciting avenues by being both creative and helping  others through tough times, whether that’s empty nest, mid-life, or just needing laugh and a little support. She is married, with one son.