Family: A Newcomer’s Guide to Nest Management

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By Dale Sproule

“Empty Nest” is an English language euphemism (expression) for the family home after the children have grown up and moved out. In traditional North American culture, an empty nest is considered a desirable state. Once the kids are independent, your time and money become truly yours once again.

People look forward to the freedom from responsibility that comes with an empty nest. They imagine enjoying leisure time, indulging in long-neglected hobbies and interests, traveling and fine dining.

But empty nesters not only have to deal with new dynamics like mid-life crisis and menopause, many people discover hazards they never imagined when they reach the empty nest.

Three Potential Hazards of an Empty Nest and Ways of Dealing With Them
(In no particular order, since the level of importance depends on what’s going on in your life)

○ Hazard 1 – The delayed departure
In marriages going through hard times (and immigration can add huge stresses to relationships), couples often stay together “for the sake of the kids”. The tensions that caused your marital problems in the first place can hide behind family and child-rearing responsibilities, and never be properly dealt with. But when the kids are gone, it is not uncommon for old problems to be dragged back into the open and old battles to pick up where they left off. Sometimes, one or both partners seize the opportunity to act upon a long-suppressed desire to separate. Sometimes one partner doesn’t see it coming.

• How to Turn the Hazard into an Opportunity
The key to avoiding this hazard is communication. If it is not possible to talk openly and honestly to your partner about the future, then a fork in your road may be unavoidable. But an open dialogue makes sure everyone is on the same page and may save you from a cruel revelation at a bad time in your life. When the kids leave home, many people are surprised to find that their relationship dynamics change with it. As likely as breaking up, it can be a period of re-discovering one another and falling in love all over again.

○ Hazard 2 – The really EMPTY nest
If you are a recent immigrant, Canada may already be a lonely place. The departure of your children could leave you feeling completely stranded, alone and unwanted.

• How to Deal with It
Look for opportunity and fulfillment outside your home. Get involved with community organizations. Volunteer at schools, libraries, community centers, old folks homes or settlement agencies. Host an immigrant family. There are lots of ways to get involved with people and causes outside of your home.

○ Hazard 3 – Reduced ability to cope with change
The empty nest comes at a time when your habits have had a lifetime to become deep and ingrained. Some people find change itself hard to deal with as they get older. Many people feel lost when the day-to-day priorities in their lives change.

• How to View It in a Positive Light
As a newcomer to Canada, you have dealt successfully with change in the past. After leaving the land of your birth, you survived loss of your social network, distance from your family, loss of communication ability (learning a new language can keep you at arm’s length from engaging with the world) and much more. Immigrants are – by nature – survivors of change. Draw on your experience and your strength.

The Crowded Nest

Statistics show that grown-up children are waiting longer to get married and often living at home into their late 20s and early 30s. According to the 2001 Canadian census, 24 percent of 25 to 29 year olds co-reside with their parents. With the tough economy in recent years, that trend can only have grown. There have been movies about the phenomenon, like the 2006 Matthew McConaughey film, Failure to Launch. One popular television advertising campaign slyly suggested that if you want the kids to move out, you should stop serving them cheese.

Immigration has undoubtedly had an impact on those statistics, since the attitude and traditions of different cultures make it much more acceptable for several generations to live together in the same household. Lack of financial resources along with lack of a solid foundation in Canada provides extra incentive for newcomers to hold the family unit together in what sociologists sometimes call a “Crowded Nest”.

In her paper, All In The Family: Canadian Trends in Multi-Generational Households Simon Fraser University gerontology researcher Dr. Barbara A. Mitchell relates an earlier finding that, “…the majority of these families report fairly balanced exchange relations and very positive experiences with the living arrangement.”

But, while a crowded nest provides support for everyone, it can also be a very stressful environment to live in. Lack of privacy, lack of independence, increased responsibility as well as frustrations with other family members and their living habits can keep tensions high, fuel resentment, create embarrassment and jeopardize romantic relationships.

Three Potential Hazards of a Crowded Nest and Ways of Dealing With Them

○ Hazard One – Conflict of Values
Your small children will grow up Canadian, your teenagers will be subject to peer pressure – anxious to show their friends that they “belong” in this society. Either way, Canadian culture and media has an enormous influence on their behaviour and opinions.

And according to Canadian culture, the sooner you become emotionally and financially independent, the more respectable you are. These values may be far away from the ones you grew up with. Especially regarding issues like family shame and duty of children to parents. According to a Stats Canada study (Mitchell and Gee, 2003) it is traditional for midlife parents in Chinese and South Asian households to assume all financial responsibility for their young adult children. If the children are caught between cultures, they may accept your largesse without recognizing the unspoken obligation that comes with it to care for their parents later in life.

• How to Avoid Getting Caught in a Conflict of Values
Learn more about the customs and traditions of your host society so that you can anticipate and deal with whatever problems you encounter.

○ Hazard 2 – Marrying the Family
In typical Canadian romantic relationships, the partners find and choose one another independently. It is perfectly normal for people to go on dates (dinner, dancing or movies) with many people before selecting a boyfriend or girlfriend, whom they see more frequently. Only a small number of those romantic relationships result in marriage.

The marriage contract (both legally and ethically) exists between those two individuals, but does not usually extend to either partner’s family. Those customs and obligations vary widely around the globe, but in many cultures, an understanding exists that when you marry an individual, you are also marrying their family. Inter-cultural relationships and relationships between two young people who hew more toward North American values may find the crowded nest to be an impossible environment to live in.

• Learn to Let Go
Sometimes the best way to deal with these sorts of problems is to simply recognize that your children will be happier moving out. Even if you are unable to help them financially, you can offer emotional support, understanding and acceptance. Make sure the kids understand that you are sad to see them leave – but you will be there for them if they need you.

○ Hazard 3 – The Bursting Nest
Children are born. More family members emigrate from your homeland and need a place to stay. Kids that have moved out decide to move back (sometimes called “boomerang Kids”). A crowded nest can quickly become too crowded. People get in each other’s way, privacy is an impossible dream, no one gets enough attention or enough sleep, tensions get out of control. “…for some midlife parents, being sandwiched between the generations, with competing caregiving demands and responsibilities can create a serious source of strain, which can lead to a number of work, financial and health-related issues.”

Sometimes it all seems to explode, people move out at the same time and your crowded nest turns into an empty nest almost overnight. Bad feelings can take years to heal and the core family can find themselves with a huge mortgage to pay and too few resources to deal with it.

• How to Prevent the Blow-up
Dr. Mitchell suggests that, “…counseling services that help family members develop positive coping strategies during stressful periods, or to successfully resolve intergenerational conflict may be highly beneficial.”

Whether your nest is empty or full, there is no sure way of avoiding problems. No matter how carefully you plan it out – life has a way of not following the script. Expect the unexpected. Keep your mind open. Be tolerant and understanding. Be ready to adapt and change your plans. Nest management is never easy – and the more variables you throw in (like moving to a new country) the more complicated it gets.

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