Empty Nest: Life Beyond Parenting – Now What?

Right now, in homes across the country, college acceptance letters are sitting on kitchen tables. Your own children may be deciding where to go to college. Excitement is high, but the reality is also bittersweet. Why? You know that there will be an empty chair at the table.

When your child leaves home for college, work, marriage, or service, the reality of a major change in your parenting role sits with you in your now silent home.

Whether you work, are single, married, or a stay at home parent, you will have moments of grieving. You will wonder, what do I want to do now with my free time?  At this major life transition, one that is both joyous and challenging, you are being invited to become curious about who you are beyond being a mother or father.

When I dropped my daughter off at her college dorm, three thousand miles from home, I felt a shaking in my heart. I turned and waved goodbye to what I still thought was her precious little hand, now blowing me a kiss goodbye. We often talked about how beautiful her hands are. I didn’t weep until I leaned into the window of the airplane that lifted me away from her.

All the to do lists, celebrations and last loads of laundry kept my energy focused and busy when I got home from work. The night before we headed to the airport, I wrote a letter to her that I sneaked between her t-shirts and sweaters in the cramped suitcase. I shared what I love about her, learned from her, and then ended it with blue and yellow colored pencil words that said, I BELIEVE IN YOU.

Light tears would fall unexpectedly senior year, but nothing like the runny nose tears when I was on the airplane. I knew this goodbye was different than off to camp, to grandma and grandpa, her aunt, or school trips. This was a goodbye to the way I parent and a hello to parts of me I didn’t know, yet.

Here are some tips for creating a life beyond day-to-day parenting:

1. Write a letter to yourself talking about what you love about parenting, what you will miss, and what you won’t miss. Read it out loud to yourself.

2. Honor all feelings that emerge in your emptiness. Past losses may arise. Allow yourself space and time to grieve for a role that is shifting. You have never been at this stage of life before.

3. Delete the need to compare yourself to how other parents are dealing with empty nest. You don’t know what went on behind closed doors.

4. Make a list of compliments people have said to you over the years in order to get a glimpse of what you might want to do next, “You are so good at organizing. You are a great listener. You are always the one who gets us together for fun.”

5. Count to five before you text or email your children, asking yourself, “What do I really need now? Can my children give that to me or do I need to let them be?”

6. Parents don’t like me when I say this and yet it is true, YOUR CHILDREN LEAD NOW. What I mean is: they decide when to call and connect. Would you want to stop what you are doing at 8 p.m. on a Sunday and call home? You also get to ask for what you want and negotiate. Learn to carry opposites by saying, THIS IS TRUE AND THAT IS ALSO TRUE. You are building self compassion and trust.

7. What did you like to do after school, before marriage, and children? Were you an observer, leader, day dreamer, best friend, artist, collector, drummer, biker, etc. You could be a combination.

8. You may be surprised at not missing the role you played and not missing your children as much as you anticipated. Honor who you are.

9. Allow yourself time to not decide what to do next. You may choose something, like tennis or a book group and change your mind. You are an adult. You get to change your mind.

10. Assess how you spend your time weekly. Put yourself in the middle of a piece of paper and then draw a line out from you for each category showing what is near and far from you. For example, work is near to you, spirituality far from you, health a little closer to you, finances further out than work, relationships of all kinds are closer to you, intellect, creativity, fun…where are they in relationship to you and how much attention you give them in a week? This gives you a quick overview of where your time is spent and not spent.

11. What part of you had to go dormant while parenting that you would like to awaken?

12. What new meaning do you want to add to your life and what are you doing that does add meaning to you?

13. Practice making friends with the unknown. ” I don’t know what I want to do and that is ok for today.”

14. You lose your school community. What ways can you build a new community?

15. Have fun discovering what you and your partner want to do together and not together.

16. What you are good at and what inspires you may not be the same. Notice what lifts your energy and what depletes you.

17. What are your gifts and your limitations? Get to know yourself better. The more you know who you are and aren’t, the more you know what inner and outer skills you want to gather.

18. Be open to what comes next for you. You may be heading in one direction and then life brings you another that might be a good thing.

19. Ask for help. No one needs to go through changes alone.

20. Play music at home.

21. What would be outside the box for you? Acting, travel, etc? Try something.

22. What would “go for it” mean to you?

23. What hidden talents have you never been able to foster or explore?

I had no idea I would shift careers, but I did. I left my long-time career as a Speech and Language Therapist in Los Angeles, to create and launch Empty Nest Support Services.

The idea came to me when I was sitting at my daughter’s school senior year parent meeting. I thought, “I will start an empty nest support group.” I turned to my friend sitting behind me, my husband was on my left, and said, “If I start a support group for empty nest moms, would you come?”  She said, “How about tomorrow? ”

Seven days later, I began with seven mothers in my living room. It makes sense that the thought would come to me since I facilitated mommy and me groups, women’s support groups, and now needed a what’s next group.

In the stillness at home and the emptiness of no schedule on the refrigerator and no kids running in and out of the house, I remembered what my third grade teacher said to me, “You could be a writer if you want to be.”

I started writing for fun. I took a class at UCLA sharing my writing with a group. I decided to write daily. I entered a 150 page manuscript to THE NY WRITER’S INSTITUTE and got a call saying I had been accepted. It reminded me of how I felt when I got the acceptance letter to attend Ohio University after high school.

My husband and I talked about this opportunity. Long story short, I went to New York and took the program. To this day, five years later, I still stay in touch with a friend I made there and we visit each other. I love writing. The idea of writing never crossed my mind until I sat in the emptiness.

I also had no idea I would love taking photographs. At my daughter’s college graduation, I was the only parent with a disposable camera. I was intimidated with the idea of a digital camera. Finally I bought a Canon digital and that changed my days and my happiness.

I am an early riser and start my day before work, in my small organic flower and vegetable garden seeing what is right in front of me, clicking away. I print at home in the evening in my office. I am obsessed with taking pictures for fun. I use them in my blogs and actually had a small show in a neighborhood frame shop where I sold some photographs. If you had asked me what I would be doing when I become an empty nester, I would not have said, writing and photographing.

Be open to what went dormant and what would be fun for you at this time of your life. You have a good thirty more years plus of creativity and happiness.

Keep your windows open. When one closes, lift another. Trust the relationship you have with your children and allow them to become who they dream to be. They love you even when they don’t call or answer your text or emails.

What calling do you want to answer?

Take good care during this major life transition called Empty Nest.

About the Author

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Natalie Caine has shared wisdom, tips, and comfort to thousands of people across the country as they deal with happy and challenging life transitions. She writes monthly columns for three top websites about transitions, as well as blogs and articles for her own active website, www.emptynestsupport.com and www.lifeintransition.org. Natalie has been featured in top media, including Time Magazine, USA Today, Huffington Post, Better Homes and Gardens, N. Y. Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Lifetime Radio for Women, Chicago Tribune, Sirius, Associated Press, Miami Herald, and many more. Natalie starts her day tending her organic vegetable and flower garden and uses her digital camera to capture its beauty. There wasn't time for that fun until empty nest.

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