The etiquette of the empty nest can bedevil even the most sophisticated parent. Take, for instance, the actress Alfre Woodard. Ms. Woodard said that when her younger child (her son, Duncan) went to college in 2012, her depression caught her in a bind.
“Suddenly the thing that made my life vibrant and not like a showbizzy person’s life was gone,” said Ms. Woodard, who can be seen in Netflix’s coming series “Marvel’s Luke Cage.” “I was leaking. I not only lost Duncan’s presence, but I lost having a lot of big, smelly kids — his friends — in the house all the time. They used to play lacrosse in my driveway. I used to cook for them.”
Lest she make her son uncomfortable, Ms. Woodard tried to obscure her sadness. “I would hide in the bathroom and weep into a wet face towel,” she said.
But then she worried that maybe she had overcorrected course and seemed unfeeling. “So I told him, ‘Let’s cry together for a couple of minutes so that you know I’m gonna miss you.’ He said sure. So we stood there for a couple of minutes and then finally he said, ‘O.K., Mom. I’ll be upstairs.’”
Parents have been crying into face towels for centuries. But empty-nest syndrome has gained especial piquancy in a world in which parents and their college-bound offspring are in the habit of texting one another a few times a day, and in which accounts of shootings on campuses are repeated on social media with a frequency bordering on the abject.
The pot may be further sweetened by a recent Pew Research Center study’s determination that, for the first time on record, the most common arrangement for people aged 18 to 34 is living with parents. So now those parents whose children do move out are alone in their aloneness.
For many empty nesters, landing on the proper spot of the Umbilical Cord/Cold Arctic Gale continuum can be tricky.
“You have got to leave your kids alone,” Ms. Woodard said. “The only time you text is if you have something really slammin’ to say. Something you know they’re really into. Like, Duncan is a big golfer, so I’ll text, ‘Oh, no, Rory didn’t!’ That’s all I’ll say. What you don’t want to write is ‘Your room is so warm!’ Or ‘Have you eaten?’ Or ‘Do you have any friends?’ ‘Are you drunk?’”
Some parents and students are tempted to use Facebook and Instagram as the world’s cheapest baby cam, though “some students say that no way do they want their parents on social media,” said Karen Coburn, the senior consultant in residence at the office of the vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Others say they like it because it means they don’t have to communicate with their folks as much because the parents get an idea of what the kids are up to,” Ms. Coburn said. “But one of the worst things a parent can do is to ‘friend’ one of their kid’s friends. One of my students told me, ‘Another student came up to me and said, ‘This old woman friended me on Facebook, I think it might be your mom or grandmother.’ The ‘old woman’ was probably 45.”
Indeed, fences are usually built for a reason. Robert Lindquist, a freshman at the University of Connecticut who is majoring in digital media and design, has imposed a 48-hour-warning rule on visits from his family. “It started out as a joke,” Mr. Lindquist said. “I’m going to school only an hour and a half away from my parents. It’s not quite as inconvenient as I’d intended.”
Mr. Lindquist said: “The rule applies to any family member. We have a term, ‘the Lindquist Confusion Factor,’ because I have nine aunts and uncles. They’re excellent people, but that many of them can be a little much if you’re not prepared.”
Asked how his parents reacted to the demand, Mr. Lindquist said, “I don’t recall them being overjoyed.”
Some people view the concept of empty-nest syndrome itself as suspect. Shayla Rivera, a comedian, says in her stand-up act that she had to look up the term on the internet: “White women get sad when the children leave the house. What?”
Asked about the routine, Ms. Rivera, who has a 31-year-old son and a 28-year-old daughter, emailed from Kosovo, where she was performing for American troops, “As I was born and raised in Puerto Rico, some of the North American vicissitudes were not part of my paradigm. They say that women actually go into their kids’ room and smell their clothing! Are you kidding me? I spent 18 years shutting my son’s door so the smell of dirty socks and other mysterious aromas wouldn’t come into the house. When he left I had to go in there with sage, holy water and a priest.”
All joking aside, Ms. Woodard said that working-class parents may feel a child’s absence even more acutely. “Their house or apartment is smaller, so the kid’s presence is missed more,” she said. “Also, working-class parents probably raised that kid on their own.”
Regardless of the factors when a household is decanted of its young people, it’s clear that kids who leave their home need a lot of room to grow in, and that parents need to hone their listening skills.
Once, when Ms. Coburn asked a Washington University student to give advice to a group of the school’s parents, the young woman offered: “Sometimes we want your advice and sometimes we don’t. The challenge is, we won’t tell you which time is which.”
“Most of them don’t complain about their parents being in touch too much,” Ms. Keneally said of her clients in their 20s. “But a lot of them talk to me about stuff that they wouldn’t talk to their parents about: relationship problems, or things they’re contemplating doing or not doing. Parents would jump in too quickly, or would be embarrassed about what the kid is proposing.”
Indeed, the greatest lesson for many empty nesters may be learning to be their child’s coach or inspiration rather than a child’s concierge or critic.
In 2014, when students at Keene State College in New Hampshire injected a local event called the Pumpkin Festival with fire-starting and car-flipping, the president of the college chastised her students for failing to “pumpkin responsibly.” It seems only natural that a parent, on hauling the last box of his child’s shinguards and Harry Potter effluvia into the unsupervised blankness of a dorm room, may fear the advent of pumpkin irresponsibility.
In the end, empathy and patience are an empty nester’s Xanax. I asked Ms. Woodard what she would say to her parents today about keeping in touch if she were a young person going off to college.
Ms. Woodard didn’t miss a beat: “I would say, ‘I’ll hit you up.’”