"Mom, Dad, you're fired."
They never say it so bluntly, but that's what your kids are telling you when they leave home for good, whether they go away to college or settle nearby.
You've done your job and they're taking over now (except when they need money, of course), and they expect you to step aside as gracefully as a CEO accepting a golden parachute.
No problem, you tell yourself. You've been on the job for nearly 20 years, and you're ready to try something new. But when it's time to say goodby, you're not prepared for the intensity of the pain you feel--a sense of loss so deep you'd think you were burying a child instead of sending one off to a promising future.
You're suffering from what psychologists call the "empty-nest syndrome," which can be anything from a brief period of sadness and adjustment to a full-blown, mid-life crisis.
You may feel lonely, stressed out, depressed. You may have insomnia, lose your appetite or overeat, or become sexually promiscuous out of a need to feel needed.
In extreme cases, the crisis may lead to alcoholism or drug abuse, the breakup of a marriage, the estrangement of children trying to escape from parents who can't let go--even suicide.
For most, however, getting through the empty-nest syndrome is a matter of allowing yourself to go through stages of grief similar to those experienced when a loved one dies--from denial, depression and anger to acceptance, says Ruth Luban, a Laguna Beach psychotherapist.
Luban is starting a support group for empty-nesters "to help them realize there's a grieving that happens with the loss of a role we've organized our lives around for 20 years. There's a loss of the importance that comes with being needed. And at the same time, there's impending age and the question of what to do with your life."
Mickie Shapiro, a Costa Mesa psychotherapist who gives lectures on the empty-nest syndrome, observes: "The paradox is that you feel terrible even though the kids are doing what you want them to do and you're proud of them."
Watching the kids leave home is especially scary to those who don't have a close, healthy relationship with their own parents as adults, Shapiro adds.
Therapists say that women tend to suffer more than men because, even in this age of equality, women are more likely to make parenting their primary role, and it's hard for them to put themselves first when their kids no longer need them. However, Luban notes, a nurturing dad can be hit hard, too.
Jack Preble, a 63-year-old professor of educational administration at Cal State Fullerton, can attest to that. Like many parents, he was hit hardest by the empty-nest syndrome when his first-born went away to college. He was driving down the freeway shortly after she left and suddenly started crying.
"It was the first time I realized that a child grows up and then is gone forever," he says.
When the youngest of his three children left home, he faced another difficult adjustment. His wife, who had long been a homemaker, was working, so he often returned to an empty house at the end of the day.
"I had this very heavy feeling that nobody needed me anymore," he recalls. "The only thing left for me to do was get my affairs together and die. I wasn't sure what my purpose was anymore."
It has been about 12 years since his youngest child left home, and during that period, he has had to "reinvent" his life. He has poured his energy into a marriage that he had taken for granted and a career that had become stagnant, and he has found satisfaction in both while developing close relationships with his adult children.
Luban notes that people have more difficulty with the empty-nest syndrome if they have come to rely solely on their parenting role for self-esteem. A satisfying marriage, job or social life can be a buffer against the pain of separating from your kids. Still, Luban says, it's bound to hurt, and facing that as soon as possible makes it easier to move on.
Luban, who is 45 and divorced, has two sons in college--the youngest left home just a few weeks ago--and when she feels sad, she gets out the baby books and photo albums, puts on some dreamy music and has a good cry.
"If I stay busy, I know I'm just delaying the pain," she says. "It's hard, but the healing is faster if you face the pain instead of avoiding it."
She says she went through her toughest empty-nest crisis when her oldest son, Jason, went away to college two years ago.
She felt guilt--"I wanted him to forgive me for the times I hadn't been a good mother"--and an overpowering nostalgia for her own youth that led her to look up a high school sweetheart. It took only one dinner to assure her that there was no spark left between them and to restore the friendship that had been lost when they broke up just before college.
Luban says the need to take care of unfinished business from your youth is a common reaction to an empty nest.
"There's a drive to perfect the past. We realize we have permission to reclaim some of our original goals, wishes and desires," she explains.
All your values may come into question when the kids leave home, she says, because "kids are a big distraction and when they're gone, you're faced with all those contemplations and decisions you've put off."
"It can be good if you embrace that opportunity instead of becoming frantically busy or clinging to your kids."
A clingy parent can be a huge burden on a youngster, Luban says. "This is like any other development stage when kids are striking out for autonomy and self-reliance. We have to step back and be a support system. If we sabotage this process by being too needy, all kinds of things can happen. There can be major blow-ups, and they may cut off the relationship entirely."
Mickie Shapiro, who is 54 and divorced, says that for six weeks after her daughter left for college four years ago, she cried every time she thought of her. "I hardly talked to her because it was so hard--I didn't want her to know how much I missed her."
Shapiro, whose three sons had already left home for good, couldn't even go into the yogurt shop where her daughter had worked the summer before college without breaking down. The turning point came when she visited her daughter during "parents' weekend" about six weeks after school started.
"I realized she had to make it on her own and so did I. I realized I couldn't protect her anymore. There was nothing I could say or do to make her transition easier. I let go of worrying about her.
"I was very active. I had my own business, and I was doing triathlons and had an active social life. But I had to accept giving up the primary role of mother. We had to establish a different relationship."
Susan Miller, a 42-year-old Newport Beach resident who is divorced, has discovered the joy of building a new relationship with a child she had trouble releasing. When Heather went away to college two years ago, Miller felt like she was in mourning. She shut the door to her daughter's room and couldn't go in it for weeks.
"I didn't think I was ever going to get over this," she says.
Visits with her daughter were difficult because she grieved again after each parting. But then she began to focus on herself, starting physical therapy to recover from a back injury that had kept her from working and eventually returning to her career as a legal librarian.
When her daughter went back to college after a summer visit several weeks ago, Miller was finally able to sleep instead of cry. She's begun to enjoy a friendship with her daughter, who now shares her love for art galleries and classical music.
"She's becoming her own person," Miller says. "I've always been a very independent person, and I always taught her to be independent. She is now. But she doesn't hesitate to call and ask for advice. And she still cuddles up to me on the couch when we're watching videos. It's like having the best of both worlds."
The high cost of housing in Orange County has made it necessary for many people to take in roommates to help make ends meet. But it's tough to find someone with whom you are compatible. If you've been successful, tell us how you and your roommate have managed to work out a living arrangement that works well for both of you. Send your comments to "Relationships," Orange County View, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include a phone number.