First the Pirros went on a family hike together and then they brought their eldest son, Chris, up to Willimantic to begin college. “I remember bringing his stuff in, and I was crying because of the change, but more because I was so proud of him. It felt like an immense moment,” recalls his mom, Gaby Pirro, a chemical engineer in Stamford. “But driving back without Chris was so weird. That’s the part when I felt empty.”
Planned activities helped keep tears at bay for Roe and Brian Field after both of their sons went off to college. The couple visited their youngest son, Dylan, at Connecticut College for parents weekend, then their boys returned home from school for Thanksgiving. Christmas came with its whirlwind of activity. But in the long winter that followed, the silence was nearly too much to bear.
“When the kids were gone, the house was too quiet. That’s when it hit me very hard,” Roe Field says. “For me, parenting was a full-time job. There were groceries, the scheduling, the activities at school. Now there wasn’t anything.”
For many families, the year leading up to college races ahead at full throttle, as applications and essays get prepared, SATs and AP tests are taken and college visits are planned. At the same time, there are proms and graduations to plan for and attend, shopping and packing to do, and move-in day to prep for. And then? For some couples, emotions run from excitement to exhaustion and then to empty nest.
Or is it empty next.
“There are normal life stages or milestones that require us to adapt and change. When our children finally successfully launch, it’s a good thing. But on the back end of that is sadness and loss of an active role as parents. It redefines our roles as everything we are,” says Diane Ferber, a psychologist and family therapist with Therapy for Change in Stamford. “Based on my experience with clients, the more hands-on parenting—whether the child needed the extra attention or the parent provided that attention—the harder it is to regain your balance when your children are launched.”
Roe Field’s youngest son Dylan received an autism diagnosis when he was 2 years old. Her skills as a former art teacher in Bridgeport and Norwalk helped keep him on track in school in Fairfield, where he was mainstreamed with accommodations. Field worked a few part-time jobs and did lots of volunteering, but mostly she devoted her days to her family. “We put ourselves in such a bubble,” she says.
On college move-in day, her two boys broke the news: “They said that for the first three weeks, I wasn’t allowed to contact them. No calls, no texts,” she says. Dante, her oldest, had advised his brother to spend those weeks making connections and defining himself. Dylan had similar advice for his mother.
“Dylan said to me, ‘You treated me like a special project. I’m not a project. You are your project,’” Roe recalls. What followed was “a lot of grieving and a lot of crying. It was due to a mixture of many things, primarily not really knowing my purpose,” she says.
Sending the kids off to college or out on their own can become daunting, Ferber says, plunging parents into a spin cycle of grief, emptiness, anxiety and fear, especially when a mother or father has devoted decades of his or her life caring for kids at home and, as a result, lacks an identity beyond parenting. Where sports schedules and sleepovers, homework and meal prep once provided the infrastructure to the family’s calendar, days can loom long and lonely once the kids are gone. Empty-nesters might feel pride and relief one moment, and stress and worry about their children the next.
“There is an overlay of stress to this situation,” Ferber says. “When people are in their forties to sixties, that’s also a time when many will become caregivers to their parents. It’s a recognition that you’re aging.”
Such was the case for Roe Field. Her father had died not long before her kids went off to college, and her mother was on a decline. “I thought, am I going to be a caregiver again after watching my kids? There was a teetering line of caregiving and caretaking. Where was my window?” she says.
Therapy and anti-depressants helped Roe through the winter. She turned to journaling, meditating and praying. She applied the same skills that had helped her raise self-assured boys to figuring out her own path. She created an inventory. “I asked myself, what are your talents, what are your skills, what brings you joy? I knew there needed to be a physical part, a spiritual part and a social part.”
Roe joined Fairfield’s Empty Nest book club to connect with other readers. She enrolled in the Saint Ignatius prayer and reflection program at Fairfield University for spiritual exploration. She joined an online coaching group for creatives to figure out how to infuse her fabric design interests with joy and purpose.
At home, Roe and Brian embarked on weekly “novelty dates” together, incorporating scary activities like ax-throwing, hoverboarding and indoor skydiving with centering activities like sunrise paddleboarding and hot-air ballooning. They tapped maple trees at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center, hiked at Bartlett Arboretum & Gardens, and explored Stamford’s Duck, Duck, Goose Art in Public Places. They also visited vineyards and comedy shows.
Many couples pay a price when the nest empties—and it goes beyond tuition. The divorce rate among couples in their 50s and older has doubled since 1990, according to U.S. Census figures. Says Ferber, when children first enter the picture, couples tend to focus less on each other. When the kids move out all those years later, cracks in a relationship can deepen.
“There is a very common pattern among families: When there’s too much tension or anxiety between a couple, they tend to detour to the child. The child gets all the energy or becomes a problem. The couple role becomes a much smaller landscape. When you remove that child from the family, there’s no place to put that. I see a lot of couples in therapy at this time saying ‘Do I even know you?’”
The Pirros experienced something similar. They’d married as teens and helped put each other through college while raising their two boys. During Covid, Luis Pirro worked long hours as a nurse at Bridgeport Hospital and isolated at home. Gaby, also an essential worker who shepherded health and hygiene products to consumers, hunkered down with her sons and worked remotely, then was hospitalized with a near-deadly case of Covid herself.
Once the quarantine lifted, her sons were out of the house with college and girlfriends. “In the span of a year, my life changed completely. I’d been focused on being Super Mom and Super Wife and being a career woman. I was lost in that mix. Now, the kids I’d dedicated my life to raising didn’t need me anymore. Life was completely different,” says Gaby, who turned to therapy when her days felt too dark to bear. “It took a lot of energy out of me to be a supportive spouse, to be a mom. It didn’t leave a lot of room for me.”
Kids leaving home might trigger a normal grief process that can last for a couple of months, Ferber says. But what if the malaise is too tough to shake? “If there is a ‘Wow, I’m not really moving forward. I don’t have the energy. I’m starting to cut myself off from other people. I’m calling and texting my kid at all hours. I’m not getting any pleasure out of anything I normally do,’ then it’s time to reach out for help,” Ferber says. “Talk to friends or talk to a therapist, to remember who you are. You just need help getting through a difficult situation.”
Gaby Pirro realized that transitioning from “mother/nurturer to mother/mentor” felt natural, but her role as wife was a different story. While she and her husband were eager to begin the next chapter in life, they realized that they weren’t on the same page or even in the same book. “We wanted different things in life, and our values kind of clashed. It was a flashbulb moment. After 20 years, I didn’t have to do this anymore,” says Gaby, who subsequently split up with her husband.
Though they went their separate ways once their kids were college-bound, the Pirros took their counselor’s words to heart. “The therapist said, ‘You raised these kids and you did a good job,” Gaby says. “You let them spread their wings. Now let them fly away and start focusing on yourself. Do the things that bring you joy.”