Coping with the Empty(ing) Nest Inquire Within

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Image by Stephane D’Alu, via Wikimedia Commons

By Chris Little

As mothers who have stepped “off the merry go round,” we’ve made the deliberate decision to set aside a hard-core career for a while so that we could spend more time with our young families. I stopped working full-time right after my first child was born, and while I’ll admit that sometimes I miss having a career to impress people with at parties, I’m thrilled that I’ve been able to spend so much time getting to know my two kids, and that I’ve been able to make sure my family has a calm, well-ordered home—at least some of the time! I think it’s been good for them, and it’s certainly been good for me.

But now my son is 18 and a senior in high school—he’ll head off to college this fall. My daughter, at 15 and a sophomore, isn’t far behind. These days they’re in after-school sports and other activities—typically they don’t get home before 5:30 p.m. The kids just aren’t around as much as they used to be, and I know that over the next few years I’ll see them even less!

So I’m adjusting to the fact that my career as a stay-home mom is drawing to an end, and just as a company man facing retirement naturally takes stock of his past and his future, I’m finding that I’m doing a lot of thinking about who I am and who I’ll be when the kids are fully out of the house. I wonder how other moms have managed this same transition. How do you go about stepping into this next phase of your life?

To find out, I gave my friend Rose Maturo a call—she’s a counselor with a practice not far from here. “I would compare it to a midlife crisis,” she told me. “For a stay-home mom, it’s been all about the kids, but now you have reshape your identity.”

Makes sense, right? We’ve loved being home with the kids, but stepping away from our careers can mean stepping away from our more independent selves, the people we are apart from our roles as parent and spouse. So when the kids, who’ve been so central to our lives and identities, pack up and leave for college, we can be left feeling a bit adrift.

“It’s a process of redefining yourself and your life,” Rose said. “In some cases, it’s getting to know yourself again, your likes and dislikes and dreams and hopes and wishes.”

But how to go about doing all that redefining and rediscovering? “It’s a journey inward,” Rose told me. “Journaling is really helpful because when you get past all the day-to-day stuff you can get to a deeper level with yourself. The same is true with meditation and reflection, anything from taking a walk to doing something on an artistic level.”

Rose suggested a few books that can also help along the journey:

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron
What Color is Your Parachute, by Richard N. Bolles
Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, by Gail Sheehy

But even more important than reading is talking, Rose told me. Talk with your friends about your feelings, talk with your spouse (who may have strong feelings of his own as the kids move on). But just as importantly, talk with your kids. “The relationship with your kids isn’t going to end,” she said. “A lot of moms think ‘my kids don’t need me anymore.’ But they do, it’s just in a different way. You can’t stop being a mom. And keeping in touch with your kids and keeping interested in their lives can ease the transition.”

A caveat: While many women embrace the freedom and opportunities this new phase of life presents, Rose warns that it’s not unheard of for women to fall into depression as the kids leave home. So certainly, if you find yourself stuck in a dark place, talk with someone about getting help.

But for most of us, this can be an exciting (though sometimes bittersweet) phase of life. I like the idea of taking some time to redefine myself and my life as I move into these empty(ing)-nest years and prepare for a less child-focused existence. In my next post I’ll explore another strategy: Expanding your circle of concern to include your community through volunteer work!

In the meantime, how are you going about preparing for “retirement,” that is, your life after kids-at-home?

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21 thoughts on “Coping with the Empty(ing) Nest Inquire Within

  1. I chose to leave my job almost four years ago with the birth of my fifth child, a daughter who was born with special needs. I have seven children ranging from 21months to 17yrs. And I find that I am already working on my plan. I plan to return to school, culinary school for my baking and pastry chef certification. If that would happen sooner rather than later I would love it but I doubt it. When the kids are finally away begining their own lives I plan on dedicating my self to opening my cafe/bakery. It has taken alot of soul searching but I know this is what I truly want for myself.

    • Oh I LOVE this idea! It’s wonderful that you have an idea of what to do next that will be creative, exciting, new, and something to really look forward to! Best wishes on your endeavor!

  2. Pingback: Guest blogging at Off the Merry-Go-Round « Christine Brandt Little

  3. Here is something that was unexpected during this transition from ‘mom’ to ‘Noreen’: I’ve discovered that I brought who I always have been to my parenting, that I never stopped being me. As the first and second of my three moved on to college, at first I felt adrift. “Who am I supposed to be now?” But I am who I always was….except with more years and wisdom that I can bring to new undertakings.

  4. This is an interesting topic! At 73+, I find my life often “too filled” because of my many interests and involvement. Presently, I work two days a week with kindergarten children in a church-based children’s center, I am treasurer of an arts organization in my town, my husband and I volunteer at a youth outreach on Wed. evenings, I am the co-ordinator for the Sunday School at my church and we are involved with an adult Home Group in our church! My faith is very important to me and God seems to lead me to those who need encouragement……or simply the opportunity to lend a hand. My kids are now 51 and 48…..and there was never a time when I wondered who I would be or what I would do when the nest was empty.
    I have been married for 53+ years to a wonderful man and life is an adventure each day! I think I’ll just keep going to see what the next day holds…..

  5. i dont think i am preparing at all… i do think about it alot so maybe that is the beginning of prep…but i have no idea who i will be or want to be or might be….

  6. Love your post–welcome! You really nailed it on the head. I’ve spent plenty of time over the years thinking about the next phase of me/my career. First I discovered what I didn’t want it to be–thanks to a bit of trial and error– then turned my thoughts to what made me happy in the past. From there I’ve been able to take baby steps in the right direction–so far, so good. I’ve discovered it takes a lot of thought, planning and definitely, for me, patience. And don’t let the journey ever end–there are always new things to discover and enjoy! All the best to you! 🙂

  7. Great blog, Chris! I think I better get to that reading list…I got emotional just reading your post. I have a little bit longer on this journey with my boys as my youngest is only 12. However, having a 17 year old gives me perspective. I realize how quickly the time has passed since my 17 year old was 12…it’s a blink of an eye! I keep reminding myself of the lesson I learned when I read the book “Tuck Everlasting.” If we didn’t change/evolve/grow older, life would be quite boring and monotonous. Change is good!! I’m just trying to figure out who I want to be when this phase of my life ends. Looking forward to your next post on this topic!!!

  8. I am facing a different situation, but I think the ideas are the same. I have been a stay at home mom for six years and I am working on returning to my career. It has been a journey, like some of the posts expressed. I would recommend creating a plan and then start working on the plan one step at a time. In my first weeks of developing my plan, I completed several exercises from the What Color is Your Parachute, by Richard N. Bolles. From Richard N. Bolles, I learned my strengths and weaknesses. From that information, I was able to start planning. Are good with planning, do you need encouragement?

  9. Pingback: Coping with the empty(ing) nest: Expand your circle of concern | Off the Merry-Go-Round

  10. Pingback: Coping with the empty(ing) nest: Invest in your work | Off the Merry-Go-Round

  11. Pingback: Coping with the empty(ing) nest: Step into your dreams! | Off the Merry-Go-Round

  12. Pingback: More guest blogging! | Christine Brandt Little

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