Entering the Empty Nest Stage: a Multi-Method Exploration of Women=S Life Experiences and Coping Strategies in Periods of Life Stage Transition


Carolyn Folkman Curasi, Margaret K. Hogg, and Pauline Maclaran (2001) ,"Entering the Empty Nest Stage: a Multi-Method Exploration of Women=S Life Experiences and Coping Strategies in Periods of Life Stage Transition", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Andrea Groeppel-Klien and Frank-Rudolf Esch, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 260-267.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2001      Pages 260-267


Carolyn Folkman Curasi, Berry College, U.S.A.

Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, United Kingdom

Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, United Kingdom

"Major role transitions are crucial times but little is yet known about the consumption behaviors of liminal people" (Schouten 1991:50)


This investigation seeks to increase our understanding of the complex relationship between consumer behavior and the psycho-social needs of individuals as they experience different life stages (Schouten 1991). In this project we investigate the life experiences and coping strategies female consumers use to negotiate identities and reconstruct the self in concert with role status transitions.

Specifically, we explore the behaviors and experiences of mothers whose grown children have recently left their homes. We seek to better understand the "lived experience" (Thompson, Locander, and Pollio 1989) of women who are negotiating the role status transition from being a mother with children in their homes to that of being a mother recently cast into the empty nest stage of the family life cycle. The strategies which contemporary women use to negotiate this role status transition are identified and examined. We explore the behavior and experience of 'communitas’ of empty nesters as 'liminal consumers’ and the use of disposition and consumption in the reconstruction of self during the transitionary period.


The Empty Nest Stage of the Family Life Cycle

The concept of the family life cycle has been widely studied in marketing and consumer behavior research (Arndt 1979; Danko and Schaninger 1989; Gilly and Enis 1982; Murphy and Staples 1979; Wells and Gubar 1966). Western society has changed dramatically over the last few decades with major demographic changes such as the postponement of marriage; an increase in divorce; more women entering the workforce in both full- and part-time capacities; the growth of step-families; the postponement of child bearing; an increase in the number of childless couples; and a growth in single parent and single person households (Yankelvich 1981). These dramatic changes in our population have resulted in the consensus that the family life cycle construct requires updating and renewed attention from contemporary researchers (Gilly and Enis 1982; Danko and Schaninger 1989; Glick 1977; Murphy and Staples 1979).

Our interest in this investigation lies in the empty nest stage of the family life cycle and its affect on women as they negotiate this life transition. Roper Starch Worldwide’s 1993 survey found that Americans feel, firstly that change is difficult; and secondly, that change is happening more rapidly than ever before. Further, watching the youngest child move out of the house was difficult for 46 percent of these empty nesters polled (Waldrop 1994). With baby boomers aging, empty nesters are a growing segment of both the U.S. and European populations; one that will continue to increase until approximately the year 2015 (Lefton 1996).

Although the popular press has devoted some attention to this stage of the family life cycle, most of that attention has focused primarily on the spending habits of this segment. Once children have left home married couples, especially those with two working spouses, often find themselves enjoying a big increase in discretionary income (Ambry 1993; Edmondson 1999). Consumers in the empty nest stage are prime consumers of gourmet foods, high quality fresh foods, take-out foods from restaurants and supermarkets; household furnishing and equipment; travel and investments (Edmondson 1999). However, most research into this segment has focused on basic economic projections and examining their spending habits; and there has been little attention to their psycho-social needs and wants in this phase of transition and adjustment to new identities and roles.

Theories Associated with Role Status Changes

There are three theories relating to role status changes that inform our research: role identity theory, role change theory, and role stress theory. Role identity theory argues that role loss will have a negative impact on psychological functioning. Role identities provide consumers with existential meaning and guidance in behaviors and actions. These qualities are thought to be essential to individual well-being. Therefore, according to role identity theory, the more roles individuals have, the better off they will be psychologically. Consequently, role identity theory suggests that, when children leave their parents’ home, their departure will be associated with a decrease in parental well being (Thoits 1983; White and Edwards 1990). However, this premise rests on the assumption that launching one’s children means that the parent then abandons the parental role. Many scholars reject this premise and believe that once individuals have had children, then they continue to occupy a parental role throughout their lives.

Role change theories, too, suggest that the role change associated with the empty nest stage will have negative effects on the individual’s psychological and physical well-being (Holmes and Rahe 1967; White and Edwards 1990). The empty nest phase of the family life cycle is thought to negatively impact parents transitioning into the empty nest stage because it accompanies a role transition in their parental role.

A more general perspective is that of the role stress theories which suggests a very different effect when parents reach the empty nest stage. These theorists suggest that the effect of a role change depends on the stress associated with that role. If there is stress associated with a role, then the individual that is able to shed that role will benefit from the role loss. Many studies find evidence that the parental role is a stressful one. Thus, according to role stress theory, the role status change to an empty nest stage of the family life cycle will result in a positive effect on the parents’ well-being (Barnett and Baruch 1985; McLanahan and Adams 1967; White and Edwards 1990).

Although a few clinical studies report depression following the launch of children from the home (Curlee 1969; Bart 1972) most studies find that the empty-nest actually results in greater global and marital satisfaction, although the positive effects are modest. Families with children in the home are generally worse off than families without children in the home (Glenn 1975; Glenn and McLanahan 1982). Several studies using cross-sectional data report a U-shaped pattern of marital happiness, with parental happiness highest during the honeymoon stage, lowest when the children are school age or teenage, and higher again when the children have grown and left the home (Rollins and Feldman 1970; Rollins and Cannon 1974; Anderson, Russell, and Schman 1983). Glenn and McLanahan (1982) found no demographic groups for whom presence of children in the home was positively correlated with marital satisfaction, lending support to the role stress theory.

In summary, the empirical data appear to lend support to role stress theory. The role status transition from being a parent with children in the home to that of the empty nest stage should be accompanied by an overall, modest, but positive change in global and marital happiness. However, the theories of role change and role identity suggest that these will be stressful and difficult transitions for parents. This research seeks to develop a better understanding of these phenomena.

Role Status Changes and Rites of Passage

Transitions or liminal phases (Turner 1969) have been described as "a limbo between a past state and a coming one, a period of personal ambiguity, of non-status, and of unanchored identity" (Schouten 1991:49). Van Gennep (1960) posited that important role transitions generally occur in three stages and include: 1) separation, that disengages the individual from a social role or status, 2) transition, as the individual attempts to adapt and fit into new roles, and 3) incorporation, with the individual integrating the new role or status into the self. These three stages are very consistent with the role status change of empty nest mothers.

Role status transitions are accompanied by a liminal phase in which the individual holds an ambiguous non-status, and is between two different role statuses, but not firmly grounded in either. Turner (1974) describes how "culturally prescribed rituals, or rites of passage, provide individuals with an experience of "communitas" or shared psychological support throughout major status passages. In the modern, secular world, however, people often experience liminoid states (cf. Turner 1974) devoid of such supportive formal rites of passage" (Schouten 1991:49). Without some type of societal support system firmly in place, consumers attempt to cope with this difficult transition and their ambiguous self concepts in a myriad of ways. Contemporary consumers who are left to their own devices, create their own personal rites of passage which are carried out, at least in part, through symbolic acts of disposition and acquisition of consumer goods. These acts of disposition and consumption allow consumers to utilize products in their role status transitions and in the transformation of their new concept of self. The reconstruction of self, that began with separation from the parental role and the end of the original child-parent relationship, is assisted through the disposition of consumer goods, the reconstruction of identity played out with material objects and communitas formed with other consumers also in this transitional phase.

In consumer research empty nest women have not been studied from the subjective perspective of the individual consumer. With this as our phenomenological objective, we seek to better understand the lived experience of empty nest women and of the coping strategies they employ to negotiate this role status change.


This research design utilized mixed methods to collect two separate data sets using an interpretive methodology. Semi-structured in-person interviews and netnography were used to develop an understanding of the life experiences of contemporary women negotiating the role transition of the empty nest stage.

After examining relevant literature we began to explore these phenomena through semi-structured interviews conducted in person by researchers in three different geographical settings (the U.S.A, England and Ireland). In the first phase, we started with three interviews to develop an initial understanding of the phenomena. In the second phase, we collected a data set from an Internet bulletin board dealing with issues of interest to empty nest women. For this data set we employed netnography, an interpretive method developed specifically to study consumer behavior on the Internet (Kozinets 1998).

In the third phase, we augmented our data set with additional in-person semi-structured interviews, resulting in the final total of eleven semi-structured interviews for the in-person interview data set. [The informants interviewed in-person had not participated in any online bulletins boards relating to their transition into the empty nest stage. Informants for the in-person interviews were selected based on their recent ascent into the empty nest stage. Of the eleven individuals participating in the in-depth interviews two seemed to be negotiating it with relative ease.] This data set was complemented by the electronically derived data set collected via netnography.

The in-person interviews were conducted in two phases over a period of six months (June- November 2000). First, three in-person interviews were conducted in early summer 2000 as an exploratory measure to introduce us to the topic using informants’ perspectives. Subsequently, a further eight in-person interviews were conducted. The interviews lasted between 30 minutes and two hours, averaging one hour in length. They were audio taped and transcribed verbatim, resulting in approximately 300 pages of data. Transcribed interviews were read repeatedly by all research team members; and themes were identified independently and then discussed amongst the team members. Consensus was reached for each theme discussed in the final manuscript.

The second data set was collected by participating in an on-line (Internet) bulletin board Netnography, a computer mediated data collection and analysis technique was selected as an appropriate method for researching our topic because it provided us with an excellent tool for unobtrusive observation of the population of interest. Data was collected by participant observation to develop a better understanding of the experiences of empty nester women and how they negotiate this transition in their lives as expressed via cyber-space bulletin boards. [We do acknowledge the concern of self selection in this data set. By the act of seeking out and actively participating in this online bulletin board, these women may have been experiencing more difficulty with this transition than other that did not. However, we are not claiming generalizability in this project, but instead to develop a better understanding of our informants= experiences with this common transition.]

The site selected in this investigation is specifically designed for women who are dealing with the day-to-day experiences of recently becoming empty nesters [Problems of verifying the identity of participants in bulletin board discussions remain a central issue for all consumer behaviour researchers seeking to collect data unobtrusively from such sites. In the case of this project, there seemed >internal evidence= (from careful reading of the postings) that the participants were genuine empty-nesters. However we recognize the research issues surrounding the pursuit of identity/identification and roles on these sites by both participants and researchers.]. Thus, it provided an excellent site for us to learn more about the phenomena of empty nest women. Through our on-line participation we were able to take part in these consumers’ discussions of their experiences of consumption, disposition and the informal rituals employed to negotiate this role transition.

Netnography is a new qualitative method developed specifically to investigate consumer behavior on the Internet. Netnography is based on the evaluative standards, the history and the techniques of cultural anthropology (Kozinets 1997, 1998; Kozinets and Handelman 1998). Resulting from a netnographic investigation is the written account derived from the fieldwork conducted in a computer-mediated environment. A large number of methodological tools are currently being adapted that arm consumer behavior researchers interested in studying cultures and communities residing on the Internet (Kozinets 1997, 1998; Kozinets and Handelman 1998).

Netnographic methods require the researcher to become immersed in the activities occurring on the Internet, through observation and participation in a particular site, community, or subculture existing on-line. Clearly, netnography, like cultural anthropology, and cultural studies requires the full participation in the culture being studied. The resulting data from a netnographic investigation are the field notes taken about the researcher’s participation, combined with the text downloaded from the site of interest. In our investigation, the second data set resulted in approximately 200 postings to the bulletin board.

Following research ethics suggested by other researchers involved in netnography (Sharf 1999), we announced on the bulletin board our presence as researchers interested in the topic of empty nest women, and of our plans to prepare research papers on this topic. We believe that we benefitted from the fact that the three members of our research team are women, and that two of the three team members are themselves empty nesters negotiating the same role transition as the participants in the bulletin board.


In the analysis and interpretation of our data sets four main themes emerged: the distress caused by this role transition and identity transformation; the evaluation and redefinition of self which flowed from this experience of role status change and identity transformation; the use of transitional objects in the reconstruction of self; and enacting love and mothering through production and consumption. We will let our informants illustrate each of the themes we have identified, using representative comments from both the bulletin board and from the in-person interviews.

Role Transition & Identity Transformation

Clearly, the empty nester phase of a woman’s life cycle is a liminal state (van Gennep 1960). Our exploration found that informants’ adjustments are complex, idiosyncratic and affected by many factors including: their relationships to others, especially their children; roles occupied outside the home, including employment, and involvement in church or other organizations; and the length of time spent adjusting to this transition.

In a few cases our informants spoke of only minor difficulty negotiating this transition. For example, Priscilla, an accountant, is weathering this transition with seemingly minor problems in adjustment. She has two daughters, ages 18 and 21. Her oldest daughter has been attending college in another state several hours away for the last three and a half years. Her younger daughter started her college career this year and is approximately an hour and a half away. She often comes home with her laundry on Sunday afternoons. When Priscilla was asked about her life now that her children are grown and moving away, Priscilla responds:

Well, I guess one thing Its’s all [expenses are] budgeted and its predicable, so that, I don’t get surprises that can’t fit into things well. I know that I sound like an accountant talking about budgets, but you know it’s just the way I think. (laughs) I am an accountant. The thing that seems the oddest is how quiet it is in the evening. I used to go home in the evening and I’d rush to make supper and then there’d always be, nearly every day, there’d be a load of laundry. Of course you’ve got to run errands every day or two. Kids going to school for events, and it was very, very busy, and you know we were very stressed because we had to get everything done that had to be done. Now, the evenings are pretty quiet, and too quiet at times. I’ve started working a bit more. Joe’s actually sort of cooking a little bit which he’d never done before. So sometimes, not quite half the time, when I get home it’s made. (Priscilla, in-person interview)

Certainly Priscilla is experiencing and adjusting to a transition in her life as she speaks of the quiet in her home and how it is "too quiet at times." She also alludes to a coping mechanism of working "a bit longer" which she talks about in greater depth later in the interview. Priscilla spends much more time, however, in introducing us to her life now, by talking about the predictability of budgeting, the reduced stress in her life and of her husband’s newly acquired interest in having supper prepared when she arrives home. These changes accompanying her transition to the empty nest stage are discussed positively, although she doesn’t like the quiet that has accompanied her children’s departure, there are many positives that have accompanied this new stage of her life.

However, many more of the women interviewees and all the bulletin board participants articulated difficulty dealing with this transition. The following informant illustrates just how difficult she found this transition to be:

"Hello to all, Melissa here, one daughter, Sandy, age 19. Sandy married on July 7 and moved to England to live. Needless to say B I crashed and burned. It has been 4 months and I am happy to say, I am having some good days, more good days than bad. Between seeing a great doctor and some assistance from prozac, wellbutrin, and ambien, I am making my way back. I am hoping to be drug free soon." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

Illustrative of the great difficulty this woman was having navigating her way through this liminal state is her need for pharmaceuticals as part of her coping strategy for dealing with the role transition and its associated identity transformation. The next informant, too, was having trouble dealing with this transition. Although she says things have gotten much better for her, it is clear that this has been an incredibly difficult transition for her:

"This year hasn’t been bad. It’s the second year. The first year was The first year started about Christmas time of her senior year and her graduation from high school and it was just devastating for me. I mean, I stopped eating. I stopped sleeping. By the time she graduated from high school my parents were looking at my husband and going(laughs) "Feed her, make her sleep" (laughs), because I looked horrible in the graduation pictures. Then we took her to school and I thought I was going to die. I cried all the way home. I literally made it from her dorm room to the elevator, which was probably about 6 yards and completely came unglued". (In-person interview)

Many others who used the bulletin board to communicate discussed how difficult this role status change was for them. Many empty nester women openly questioned just what their role was. Women asked about their roles as mothers, wives, and career women. Most commonly though, women asked about their role as a mother, and what their identity was, now that that role seemed to lie behind them. The following two postings to the empty nest bulletin board illustrated this:

"My nest has been empty for about one and a half years. Our daughter is married and lives 90 miles away. Our sons are in the army and will be for nearly another 3 years. So far empty-nesting is kinda like limbo. Putting up the Christmas tree was a bittersweet task. So many pieces of my life that now are part of the past. I am not the me I understood myself to be. I love being a Gramma but I miss being the mom I was." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

"Our youngest son (of three) is about to finish his sophomore year in college. When he first left all I noticed was how much I loved giving up the mommy duties (Food, clothing, worry), so I thought I had escaped the dreaded Syndrome. Now, I’m not sure. If I’m no longer a nurturerCmy most satisfying role thus far in life, what am I? Has anyone else been through this? Any suggestions?" (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

As this informant illustrates, many women discuss the fact that they find it comforting to be able to talk to others going through the same experience they are. Participants commonly said that it was a relief to hear from so many others who were also having a difficult time with this transition. This bulletin board site focused on issues relevant for empty nesters and served as an important vehicle for participants, negotiating this role transition, to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences with others who might understand.

Participation in this site served as a way to communicate with others also trying to make this transition in contemporary society in which there are no visible rites of passage to help those in this liminal state cope with the transition. Throughout the discussions a sense of 'communitas,’ a form of shared psychological support associated with changes in role status, emerged clearly (Schouten 1991) among those participating in the empty nest web site, as discussants helped each other in negotiating this major role status change. As we participated in this web site, it became clear that for most of the active participants, visiting the empty nest bulletin board site became an informal ritual that helped the transition in role statuses.

Women contacted for in-person interviews often also had their own form of 'communitas,’ or informal shared psychological support groups (Schouten 1991) that helped them, too, to negotiate this role status change. These women commonly became very close to other women also going through this same transition. The ability to feel a sense of communitas with others going through a similar situation, helped these women cope and negotiate a difficult transition.

Many women had found that the distress surrounding the experience of entering the empty nester stage was not often openly discussed. Until they found the bulletin board, therefore, many had felt that it was abnormal for them to have such problems adjusting to this change in their lives. For example, the following comment is representative of many voiced at this bulletin board site:

"Thanks for your response. I guess that’s life. Thanks for listening, and yes its great having this board to just pour out our feelings to people who can understand." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

Or the following response:

"Thanks for your support. It is great to know that there are others out there who feel the same way I do. I am doing some better. This has meant so much to me, and I hope it will help you too. Please feel free to email me at [her email address] if you would like. Thanks again. " (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

As these and many other participant comments suggest, this bulletin board seemed to fill a need in helping these women successfully make this life transition. It provided the emotional support necessary from others who were also in a similar liminal state. What emerged clearly from an analysis of the postings was a sense of the support offered by established participants to new entrants. Initial postings by new entrants to the site often expressed powerful and raw emotions associated with the early stages of the transition or liminal phase. The anonymity provided by the Internet bulletin board granted greater freedom for these women to discuss their feelings that is otherwise often not afforded a satisfactory outlet.

However, sometimes relief followed children leaving the nest, which reflected the role stress theorists’ view (Barnett and Baruch 1985; McLanahan and Adams 1967; White and Edwards 1990) that the effect of role change depends on the stress associated with that role, and sometimes children leaving the nest can result in positive effects on parents’ well-being. This is illustrated by this informant’s experiences as her first born child left for college:

"David had been problematical at home, bless him, and it was with some relief that we felt (laughter) that he should go, you know, because he was such darned hard work and we felt that if he goes, it might do him good, so there was a relief thing but the interesting point is now that [he’s] in Australia which is a long way, I am suffering 'Emptynest’ syndrome with David and .. I do find I’m missing him quite badly which is interesting but possibly also because, of course, he came back home after University and was, in many ways, much more mature and we were entering a sort of nice stage in more communication and more understanding which unfortunately, you know, has been broken by his going away" (In-person interview).

Role Transitions & Identity Transformation: Evaluation of their Role as a Mother

With this role transition, many women started to examine themselves. There was an interest in learning about self and a serious evaluation of the lives they were living, often for the first time in a long time. This self appraisal typically included an evalation of their role as a mother, their role as a career woman, and their role as a wife.

Many women examined their role as a mother. Often this appraisal was bittersweet. Although they relished their role as a mother, they felt that it was a role they had outlived. Commonly, there was also a note of anxiety concerning how well they had performed their mothering role. The launch of their grown children into the adult world served as an ultimate test of their mothering ability. This launch was repeatedly met with uncertainty and some trepidation:

"It was time for the children to leave and I was ready. I knew they needed it as well as I needed it. It is just a fact of life. It was going to happen. ...It was just a good way of knowing that I was somewhere close to being a good parent if they could stand on their own. If they could become productive individuals in society then I have done what I was suppose to do as a parent. The other thing was just loving them to the point that they could become this individual that could function in society." (In-person Interview)

Many women referred to the success of their children along with a statement about their success as mothers B this was illustrated by the comments above.

Role Transitions & Identity Transformation: Evaluation of Role as Wife

In addition to their evaluation of their roles as mothers, informants in this project also evaluated their role as wives. Thus relationships with partners, as well as with children, were reviewed and evaluated. Some respondents recognized that their role as wife had often become secondary to their role as mothers as the family had been growing up; and thus, some were concerned they had neglected their role as a wife and evaluated this role with apprehension. A few women expressed considerable fears about the direction their relationships with their partners might take once their children had left home. The following informant illustrates this evaluation of self:

"My problem is that because I’ve been so wrapped up in the children that I feel I don’t have much of a relationship with my husband (and he’s probably not aware that I consider it a "problem.") He’s basically a very nice guy, but is content sitting in front of the TV much of the time. We do go out to eat at least once a week (sometimes with the youngest daughter joining us), we go to the beach several times a year, an occasional movie, occasional visits/dinners out with friends. I feel I need to make a real effort to get to know him all over again and certainly we’ve both changed quite a lot in the last thirty years-me probably more than him. I’m not talking about a sexual renewal, but just having things to talk about, new things to do, etc. Does anyone understand wha I’m saying and have a good starting point?" (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

Again, we also see the importance of the bulletin board for a vehicle for understanding, as well as negotiating, this role transition by sharing experiences and feelings with others who might understand.

Some informants were less pessimistic as they evaluated the impact of their changing role as parent on their role as spouse. This informant mentioned how shared activities and interests with her husband had started to reemerge, having been in a period of almost hibernation whilst the children had been growing up and been the centre of attention:

"We have got interests in common which we can pursue even without our children.. all sorts of things.. not just music, we are interested in art, we like walking, we just have many interests in common sometimes during the period of bringing up the children, they [the interests] went in the background, but we are bringing them out now" (In-person interview).

Role Transitions & Identity Transformation: Evaluation of Role as Career Woman

Informants repeatedly revealed that they were evaluating their role as a career woman, or their lack of a career role. Consistent with role identity theory, many women without a career now wished that they had cultivated one. These women were evaluating themselves and asking what they would do with the rest of their lives. With the reduction of what they saw as their most important role, that of a mother, many were envious of others, including some of their husbands, who had been nurturing careers. The following woman left this posting, illustrating this point:

"...Husband works full time. He is reaching his pinnacle at work. I’m a has-been. I’m going through a rough time with this second one. Something hurts inside, thought I was depressed but I think its a role change. I’m not sure what my role is. Never had much time to think about myself." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

The transition seemed to be easier for those women who worked outside of the home. This observation is not limited to our present project but has also been suggested previously (White and Edwards 1990). Consistent with role identity theory, the more roles individuals have, the better able they are to cope psychologically wih changes in one or more of their roles (Thoits 1983). The following informant illustrates how she has not had as difficult a time adjusting to this role transition, and had been able to focus some of her extra time on research projects instead of her children.

"I think I work more. I just spend more hours on work. I work at home at lot more. Not that I am on campus more. But, I work on weekends, which I never did before. I often have supper and then work 2 or 3 hours again in the evening. So, it changes the number of hours and the location, I think for my work. I am getting more research done that I did before." (In-person Interview)

Role Transitions & Identity Transformation: Role Transformation from the Role of Mother to the Role of Mother/Friend

Adjustment to becoming a successful empty nester seems to include a transformation of the mother-child relationship. Many of our informants suggested that the mothering role changes from being a "topBsergeant" to becoming a friend and a good listener.

"I look at her as more of an adult now definitely I feel on a par with her more as a friend" (In-person interview).

Informants suggested that once grown children leave the home, then parents lose their right to make judgmental statements as they were able to do previously. Not all parents are able to traverse this transition effectively as the following mother illustrates:

"Today I talked to a friend of my daughter’s whom I ran into while I was shopping and she is making plans to move out but her Mom doesn’t know yet. She is moving because she said at this time in he life she needs a Mom who can be her friend, but her Mom can’t seem to make the transition from Mother to friend. She always has to get critical about any situation her daughter shares with her. I try not to do that and my daughter shares many things with me." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

This transition from the role of mother to that of mother/friend is not an easy transition for all to make.

Role Transition & Identity Transformation: Role Transformation from Parent-Child to Adult-Adult: Loss of Control

Informants also discussed how difficult it was for them to give up control of their children. Their children could now come and go as they pleased at their new homes, without any parental control. However, as many informants talked about this new lack of control, it sounded like the loss of control they were speaking of was strongly based on a loss of information. When the children lived under their roof, much information was communicated informally. Overhearing a phone conversation or siblings talking, parents were able to pick up a great deal of information without trying. Suddenly these women found themselves with a paucity of information about their children and what they were doing. They now were only able to learn about their children’s lives through more obtrusive means; and when their children chose to share the information with them B thus control of information had switched, and with this came a sense of relinquishing power as the power balance changed in the relationship:

"It’s so hard, yes, things have changed. (laughs). And I’m trying to back off and not ask a million questions on the computer[via email], but, you know, as I’ve told her many times, give me time. It’s a weaning process and you sort of have to try to sit back and take what they tell you. You know, I’ve been there asking a billion questions, she’ll finally go "quit Mom." It’s real hard." (In-person Interview)

This lack of information is very tough on the informants, because when they ask questions their grown children may feel that their privacy is being violated. Further, adult children may also feel that these inquiries reflect a lack of confidence in their maturity and judgment. Thus, parents’ questions are often ignored or rejected as inappropriate in an adult-adult relationship, as opposed to a parent-child relationship (Berne 1961 cited Pitman 1982:47ff).

Role of Transitional Objects in Re-construction of the Self

There were many examples in our data of how women found comfort in objects left behind by their children. Similar to the ability of a blanket to provide security to babies as they start the 'separation phase’, so adults, too, are often able to feel comfort with a particularly meaningful possession which helped them deal with the 'separation’ phase from their children in this liminal or transitional state. The role of material objects and their symbolic properties during transition was a common theme found in the data for this investgation (Belk 1988, 1990; McAlexander et al. 1993; Price, Arnould and Curasi 2000; Silver 1996).

"Basically, as strange as it may seem, when you walk into their rooms, their rooms smell like them, even this one. When you just pick up something, even the odor smells like whichever boy it is. That’s a strange thing when you walk into there, you think (sniff), that’s them all right." (In-person Interview)

This woman used her grown children’s rooms as a transitional object, that provided her comfort and made her feel closer to her boys who were away at college. She simply walked into their rooms and sniffed, and she immediately sensed and felt their presence. The following mother is comforted by the idea that when her daughter graduates from college that she will move back home and into her room again. When she sees her daughter’s room, she is convinced that her daughter will return home again:

Her room is basically, she left it like it would be when she came back She left her room as in tact, as if she would be home for the weekends or come for a visit. Its just there and I can walk in at anytime and feel her presence there and know that she is going to be back. And see her school pictures and know as time has gone by those pictures will be taken down and replaced with other pictures of her new found friends and her new life. (In-person Interview)

This mother copes with this role status change by telling herself that the only change in her mother/daughter relationship is that the pictures currently hanging in her daughter’s room will be taken down and replaced with new ones. Thus, this woman is reinterpreting the meaning of material objects based on changed relationships (McAlexander, Schouten, & Roberts 1993). She now expects this room to become the residence for her adult daughter once she completes her college education. It is no longer the home of her little girl. She finds comfort in the idea that her daughter will move back into her home upon graduation.

Enacting Love & Mothering: Through Production and Consumption Production Based

Many informants discussed how they missed their previous ability to express their love for their children through doing household chores for their children (Miller 1998; Oakley 1976) and other tasks (e.g. taxiing their children around for different activities). Simple acts of 'mothering’ such as cooking, cleaning and laundry, are often missed when children leave home. Also, the companionship of doing such ordinary, everyday tasks togther is often missed. The following informant discusses how at one point in time her daughter depends on her to do "everything," and the next day they are all grown up and doing things on their own:

"I still have a 17yr old daughter at home, so the nest is not completely empty. I do think about how its going to be when my baby goes off to college and it just tears me apart. I know I’ll get over all of this eventually, but it is really hard to just shift gears. One day you’re a mommy who your children depend on for everything and the next day they are all grown up and are doing things on their own. It’s great to see them doing so well and making their own decisions. I am so very proud of my girls and love them sooooooo much." (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

Although this woman is proud of her daughters, she still misses the feeling of being needed by them. Another woman described how much she missed her old routine of cooking 'proper meals’ for her children; and how much she loved to make her daughter’s favorite dish when her daughter came home to visit. This woman used this act of production to recreate her mothering role, if only temporarily. At the same time, this informant also described how much she and her son had enjoyed cooking together in the kitchen before he left home, thus this everyday task of co-production had reinforced their relationship:

"Coping with the shopping and the cooking.. yes I miss that really, because I do quite like cooking, but Alec [her husband] will quite happily have.. a slice of toast and cheese.. or something.. whereas I always cooked a nice meal for the kids with a pudding and all the rest of it.. [Cooking].. was a pleasure because Lea [her daughter] loves eating ..:’ Shall I do you a Sausage casserole’? 'Oh, mum, a sausage casserole. I haven’t got a casserole dish’.. so she does no cooking apart from baked beans, which is quite nutritious I suppose. Now Ewen [her son] is good in the kitchen now, he is vegetarian and has been for ages and he can concoct beautiful spicy vegetable curries and things and he’ll come and do that at home he did enjoy food, and yes he was always the one in the kitchen who would come and mess around with me when I was making biscuits.. whereas Lea didn’t do much". (In-person interview).

Not only do these acts allow informants to express their love, but after their children leave home, the reduction of household chores that need to be done accentuate the void resulting from the children’s departure.

Consumption Based

Interestingly, we saw a shift in the data illustrating how the informants in this project moved away from an emphasis on expressing love through doing, or through production (cooking, cleaning, and laundry) to a focus on purchasing for their children or consumption as a way of expressing love (phone calls, cards, care packages, things for apartment or dorm). Thus, there was an interesting shift in the data from production to consumption (Firat & Venkatesh 1995) during the role transition. This woman discusses how she, her husband, and their church express their affection through tangible gifts to the children who have moved away to college:

"Did you all send your "kids" Halloween boxes? Daddy sent Mandy tons of M&M’s, or m-em’s as she always called them. We sent her four boxes in the past three weeks plus she got one from our church and her grandmother! Does anyone else’s church send the college kids care packages? I sent her a food box, then she got very sick and I sent her a medicine box! Then daddy sent her a dehumidifier. Then the candy. And I know daddy has sent her $$’s in there, also!" (Empty Nest Syndrome Bulletin Board)

And another mother trying to traverse this liminal period talks about the things she has purchased for her daughter, now starting her second year away at school:

"I bought a new rug for her apartment, because we only bought one set and I figured she needed more. ...And I send her care packages. I send her a card, like once a week and in between I think I’ve sent her two or three care packages, no two. But I have some other things I like to buy for her when I see them, like last time I sent her a care package I sent her a CD and a magnet for her fridge and some jiffin pops they’re like a kool-aidy stuff just fun stuff She loves getting real mail! She says e-mail is great fun and she hears from everybody, but My mom will send her a card occasionally, sometimes with cash involvedCshe likes those. ...And it’s fun for me too." (In-person Interview)

An outlet for expressing love and enacting the parental and mothering role seems to be aided by helping adult children adjust to their new homes. Although the empty nest women cannot continue to express their love as easily through cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry, informants commonly express their love and use consumption as an outlet for the enactment of their mothering role. Thus, the enactment of love and the mothering role change from an emphasis on expression through production related activities to activities related to consumption and purchases (Firat & Venkatesh 1995). The purchases informants made often still revolved around food and items for their children’s new homes. Consumption for items related to increasing communications and activities are also evident however, as parents seek to spend more time with their children who are no longer as accessible as they once were.


This initial data analysis suggests that during the empty nest liminal state identity is evaluated, the self is reformulated and new consumption patterns emerge as these liminal consumers reconstruct their sense of self around the changes in their role status. Although a very difficult stage for those who find themselves recently in the empty nest stage, respondents seemed to suggest that with time they adjusted to having their grown children out of the house. Thus, we suspect that with time a rebirth or metamorphosis of the self may occur as the adult parent has time to identify who she is and reconstruct her identity into a self more consistent with her present role and with who she would like to be (a possible self, Markus and Nurius 1986). This is consistentwith the three theories suggested earlier on, related to role changes. Role change theory and role identity theory, argue that initially, role transitions are very difficult for individuals to cope with. However, these data extracts all lent support for role stress theory, providing evidence that after the parent becomes accustomed to having children out of the house that the reduced stress is welcomed.


This study has the limitation of only collecting and analyzing two data sets. This research stream could benefit from more empirical investigatory research involving more extended engagement with additional bulletin board sites and a longitudinal approach to bulletin board postings. The discipline could also benefit from further research using a multi-method approach which includes nemography as at least one method for generating and analyzing data sets. With the dramatic increase in the use of the net much remains to be learned about consumers through their use of the Internet to communicate with other liminal consumers.

This research project raises many questions that are worthy of investigation. Future research could explore related issues, such as, the experience of mothers who have one child as compared to mothers of more than one child; the different experiences of mothers involved in mother-daughters as compared to mother-son relationships; and the empty nest experiences of single and divorced mothers as compared to those who are married. This study was also focused narrowly on women to the potential neglect of men's experiences. Our understanding of this important life transition would be improved by research investigating the experiences of men also going through this transition. In addition, dyadic research exploring parent-child experiences would provide valuable additional insights; and researching the wider family context of the empty nest experience could also be useful for promoting understanding of consumer socialization as the family unit changes and evolves.

However, this research clearly provides a rich arena for future research that could help us better understand an important consumer transition that will be occurring more commonly in the next decade and a half. Better understanding of consumer behavior during this transition could help us meet needs and wants more effectively during a time that is especially difficult for many consumers. We join others who have previously called for additional research into changes in consumption related activities that accompany role status changes (Andreasen 1984; Belk 1988; Schouten 1991); and the associated issues of identity and identification.

Further research to investigate the role of objects in reducing the emotional difficulty of the transition could be very helpful. This investigation does provide some evidence that tangible objects may provide emotional support and comfort for those undergoing painful life transitions. Some preliminary work has been done in this area (Belk 1988; Price, Arnould and Curasi 2000; Schouten 1991; Silver 1996), although more is needed before we will be able to understand this life transition and the many others consumers deal with. The changes in enacting mothering from production to consumption are clear from this data but could benefit from additional attention.


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Carolyn Folkman Curasi, Berry College, U.S.A.
Margaret K. Hogg, UMIST, United Kingdom
Pauline Maclaran, De Montfort University, United Kingdom


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5 | 2001

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