“Don’t blink, or they’ll be grown up before you know it.”
While pregnancy often feels like a slow process for birthing people excited to meet their babies, parents with adult children often describe the process of raising a child into an adult as happening at lightning speed. It is no wonder that many parents experience extreme anxiety and grief once their last child leaves the home in their pursuit of their personal endeavors. These ensuing feelings of distress characterize what is known as empty nest syndrome.
People experiencing empty nest syndrome may express feelings of sadness, anxiety, grief, emptiness, and irritability. Both the non-birthing parent and the birthing parent can experience empty nest syndrome upon their child’s departure, but it is more common among primary caregivers. In addition to the above emotions, empty nesters often experience a loss of purpose. Because they were the primary caregivers, a lot of their time centered on the needs of their children in their daily lives. The disappearance of the hum of keeping up with their children’s commitments often engenders feelings of emptiness once these children have left the home. Mama Glow Founder Latham Thomas attributes some of these feelings to ego and identity: “So much of our ego and identity is wrapped up in parenthood. I have had the blessing of giving birth to and raising a son who I also have the privilege of taking care of into adulthood.”
Many parents also experience frustration and sadness over the diminution of their sense of control. When children live within the home, parents often know many details of the quotidian aspects of their lives. Children leaving the family home marks a shift in their relationships with their parents—a new beginning. The loss of the mundane ultimately becomes a point of grief for many parents, as they start to feel like outsiders despite their continued involvement in their children’s lives. For many parents, the feelings of helplessness do not only surround their ignorance about the day to day aspects. They also stem from their reduced capacity for ensuring the safety of their children.
For many parents, the empty nest syndrome describes a difficult, yet temporary, time. They eventually embrace the new reality, allowing a renewed sense of security to settle in. For other parents, however, the empty nest syndrome comes in bouts—it is suppressed and reinforced, and this process is cyclical. While there are many writings on the empty nest syndrome as a temporary phenomenon, there exist few studies on its unique manifestation among Black parents—especially Black mothers, who tend to be the primary caregiver in their familial structures.
What makes the empty nest syndrome a temporary experience for many parents is the understanding that their feelings of anxiety and distress involve some degree of irrationality. Their children can take care of themselves and will be safe as a result.
For Black mothers in the United States, the harsh reality of being a Black person in America renders the feelings of grief, anxiety, and extreme sadness that accompany empty nesting reasonable. For Black mothers, the fear that accompanies raising a Black child is unwavering, but the transition to adulthood amplifies it. For Black mothers, their children’s aging is about more than them leaving the home. It marks their potential loss of humanity. It signifies their potential loss of dignity. These feelings are best described by Michelle Love-Day in an AP News article: “My kids are so cute right now. We go in places, and everyone loves them, like they’re little puppy dogs. But at what age do my kids turn into a threat?”
Unfortunately, statistics on the state of police brutality in the United States do not assuage the feelings of trepidation that accompany empty nesting for Black mothers. According to a report by the Police Brutality Center, police brutality disproportionately affects communities of color. Whereas police kill white people at a rate of 15 per 1 million each year, they kill Hispanic and Black people at rates of 28 per 1 million and 38 per 1 million, respectively. In other words, Hispanic Americans are nearly two times as likely to be killed by the police than white Americans, and Black Americans are more than 2.5 times as likely to be killed by the police than white people.
The televising of the brutalization of Black people only legitimizes the fear of Black mothers sending their Black children out into the world—when accompanied with bleak statistics, the circulation of videos like the one of George Floyd’s gruesome passing and the grizzly accounts of Breonna Taylor’s passing at the hands of police is a reminder that for Black mothers, the loss of an adult child is not an unlikely possibility, but rather, a very plausible reality. Mother of four Alicia Williams aptly states: “I worry on a societal level. I want my kids to be truly independent, without falling. While I’m here, they can always call on me, but the bottom line is, if I’m not around, or they can’t reach me, they have to make sound decisions that keep them protected.”
The empty nest syndrome is an experience most parents will face at some point in their lives. Like many other points of study, approaches to understanding empty nesting must be intersectional. This means that we must do more to investigate its unique manifestation among Black parents, for whom racialized violence is a harsh reality. Furthermore, the intersectional approach must extend to proposed courses of action. For Black empty nesters, directives centering individual behaviors and coping mechanisms are band-aid solutions. The ultimate solution is a structural one—one that ensures the safety of Black children into adulthood and beyond.