Mothers' Transitions to the Empty Nest Phase
Thorn, Elizabeth Kathleen
Bianchi, Suzanne M
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Much of the sociological research on women as mothers focuses on the transition into motherhood or the work and pleasure of raising children. This dissertation uses mixed methods to examine a rarely studied aspect of motherhood - the transition out of day-to-day parenting and into the empty nest stage of the life course. Three very different data sources and analysis techniques are used to develop a rich understanding of how women's daily routines are affected by this transition, as well as what these changes mean to the individual women going through them. The first analytic component draws on time diary data from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) to explore two transitions - the initial transition into motherhood and the gradual changes that occur as children grow. This analysis focuses on labor force engagement, care work, and leisure activities of women as they move through the childrearing years. The second analysis, based on a series of 12 in-depth interviews with women whose children have recently left home, concentrates on the perceived meaning of the transition into the empty nest phase. New sources of meaningful activity and the effect of this transition on women's relationships are also described. In the third substantive section, longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey-Young Women (NLS-YW) are used to investigate differences in labor force, helping work, and psychological well-being outcomes between empty nest mothers, mothers with young adult children living at home, mothers with adolescent children living at home, and women without children. Together, these three analyses paint a picture of the transition into the empty nest as one dominated by emotional changes - lower levels of depressive symptoms, new feelings of freedom, and changes in relationships. While some evidence of new activity was found, especially among the women interviewed for the qualitative analysis, the transition to the empty nest is not typically associated with substantial changes in labor force engagement or other activities.