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Coping with the empty(ing) nest: Expand your circle of concern

Community_garden_2

Image by Klest, via Wikimedia Commons

by Chris Little

So, in my ongoing exploration of the transition years when the kids are getting older and leaving home, last time I wrote about the importance of looking within, of getting to know yourself again after what so many years of raising the kids, when our own concerns are often placed far into the background.

In this post I’d like to talk about another strategy for coping with this sometimes-painful transition: expanding your nest. When the kids were little, after I had stepped off the merry-go-round of my full-time career to devote my time to raising them, my focus was pretty much entirely on my family and my home—my nest. I stenciled walls, mixed up batches of homemade play-dough, baked bread, made scrapbooks, the works! Sure, I taught some Sunday school and helped out at the kids’ school, but for the most part, my focus was on my young family. Nothing wrong with that!

But I find that as the kids inch their way out of the house—they’re 15 and 18 now—I’m finding that I have a little more space in my life, a little more time and energy, and a little more interest in looking outward and broadening my circle of concern to include more of my community.

In a way, I’ve begun to think of my entire community as my nest. And it strikes me that getting more involved in my community through volunteer work might be a meaningful strategy for transitioning out of the child-rearing years into my life as a mom with children who are out in that world themselves, instead of living at home with me.

Doing meaningful volunteer work doesn’t pay, of course—but it’s work that our communities desperately need. And who is better positioned to do this work than those of us who aren’t tied down to full-time careers? What’s more, in addition to helping make our communities richer, healthier places, we’ll be setting a great example for our kids.

So here are three steps to keep in mind as you think about expanding your nest to include your community:

1. Take stock of your heart.

What do you love? What are you really good at? What excites and motivates you? How do you spend your free time? Focus your energy on these things, and volunteering will feel meaningful and rewarding. I know a mom who always loved to play tennis with her kids, so as they grew up and out of the house, she started a young peoples’ tennis league in town, and now she’s teaching kids of all ages to enjoy her favorite game.

2. Take stock of your community.

What’s going on in your community that interests or excites you? What’s not going on in your community that you would like to see happen? If you’re concerned about funding cuts to your kids’ schools, it might be meaningful for you to volunteer for the high school sports booster club. If you love to exercise, how about teaching a fitness class at the local YWCA?

3. Step into it! But strive for balance.

It might take a little courage to step into volunteering in your community, especially if you haven’t been involved previously. Start small, and be careful not to overcommit. And remember that the work you do, no matter how small it seems to you, makes your community worth living in—and worth coming home from college to visit! And I can only think it will make your own life richer and more rewarding too.

So I wonder, what volunteer work is meaningful to you? How do you find ways to engage meaningfully in your expanded nest?

Next time I’ll write about another strategy for adapting to your empty(ing) nest: Investing in your work.

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?