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The Empty Nest and Beyond

April 28, 2010

Life ebbs and flows.  There are times when we are swept away by the task at hand. We are committed to our goal and have all the energy we need to see it through to its conclusion. During these times we feel connected and involved in life. At other times, however, we find we are living in a place of uncertainty. A kind of restlessness takes over. We feel discontent with our lives, lethargic and uncertain.

The childbearing years are a period of time when most mothers are caught up in the demands of the day as they chart the course for their children’s future.  We have little time in our days or space in our psyche to think about much else. A whirlwind of activity hurdles us through time and we hang on for dear life committed to the end.

One day, we wake up and find ourselves alone. Suddenly we are empty nesters. It was easy to laugh and joke about it as we anticipated this moment. We couldn’t wait “to do our own thing”, “have the house to ourselves”, and “be free at last”. The reality, however, is quite different.

The ending seems abrupt and the change in our day-to-day lives can leave us feeling bewildered.  We have been so focused on the children that we did not adequately prepare ourselves for parent obsolescence.  Wasn’t it only moments ago that they couldn’t take a breath without us? How did they become self-sufficient so quickly? Oh yeah, that was the goal!

The empty nest can feel dreadfully quiet and lonely. In that quiet space it is easy to let self-doubt and fear creep in. We lose our sense of value and feel we are no longer lovable. Our children have left our world for their own, both physically and psychologically. It seems they don’t have time for us as they build a life apart from us. We have forgotten how we felt at their age. They are doing what they are supposed to be doing.

It is difficult to prepare for the feelings that an empty nest can create. But understanding that it is a period of transition can help us quit fighting the discomfort and help us begin taking the necessary steps to make the most of it. We can get through it and we will. Life will feel “normal” again. But first we must go through the in-between time.

During any transition period in life, whether it be an empty nest, retirement or loss of any kind, it is important to take the time to grieve our lost identities. Our identity as a mother was a very important part of who we were for twenty plus years. It will take time to give up this part of who we are and replace it with something equally meaningful. What are the things about motherhood that you will miss the most? This is where your grief lies and as you feel the sorrow and let it go, you will heal.

In order to make a successful transition it is helpful to avoid obsessing over the past. Wallowing in guilt and regret is a clever way for the psyche to avoid focusing on the present or the future and avoid the pain of grief and loss. Parents whose children are having difficulty adjusting to adulthood, are most vulnerable to falling into the regret trap. Whenever possible, stop yourself  from doing this. What’s done is done.  It is now our children’s responsibility to make the most of what has been given to them just as we had to build a life from the hand that we were dealt. Our job is done. It’s up to them now.

Secondly, avoid the temptation to worry about the future. Living in fear of what tomorrow may bring is a very handy way of avoiding today as well.  Today is all we have. The future will take care of itself when we live today to its fullest.

The period of time between the ending of one phase of life and the beginning of another, is a   fertile opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Rather than filling the void with fear and guilt, we can use the time to learn about ourselves.  Dare to just “be” in this quiet time, this in-between time. By tuning into our inner voice, we can listen to the callings of our heart and follow where it leads.

Spark this journey by reading a good book or learning something new. When we indulge our creative selves we are providing fertilizer for the ground of our true selves. The answers will come and the future will unfold as it should.

When we take the time to mourn the loss of our identities as mothers and dwell without resistance in the uncertainty of the now, we will uncover a new version of ourselves. We will become the women we were meant to be in this part of our lives. We might just become wonderful, wise women.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. May 13, 2010 1:25 am

    Nice post, Dorothy. I agree that the empty nest is an important phase of adult development. Yes, time to grieve what we are letting go of, but also a very fertile time for discovering what the next part of life is going to be. The hard part is tolerating the ambiguity.

  2. May 26, 2010 8:34 pm

    I have drifted on to the next step – the senior in the family – how did that happen so soon. I am watching my daughter struggle daily with the fact that her son will soon be off to college. Through her eyes, I relive my empty nest anxiety. My father always said, you never lose your children – you just pick up more. I know now what he meant. I could not ask for better DIL’s and SIL. And the grandchildren – what can I say that has not already been said by every grandparent. Right now I see my daughter in denial – can’t be happening look in her eyes. Guess we all have to go through it – one of the passages.

  3. March 25, 2011 12:55 pm

    Dorothy,
    Thank you so much for your words and advice on empty nesters. I am 56 and am having a TERRIBLE time dealing with this stage in my life. It is just my husband and I, and though he is wonderful man in so many ways –he is not one for conversation. I feel so lonely. I always read how “liberating” the 50’s are…they are not for me. I feel I have no real purpose anymore ….Work fills up my time but I am not fulfilled. How do I stop worrying about the future and the fear of being alone someday. It terrifies me. Please any suggestions from all of you ladies would be very appreciated.

    • March 25, 2011 1:19 pm

      You are so far from being alone in this feeling and concern Sally. I love my husband dearly but men and women communicate differently even in the best of relationships. Women find so much meaning and purpose in life while raising their children that when that very intense phase of life has passed we feel an emptiness. That empty place is just waiting to be filled with something else that gives your life meaning and purpose. It’s a wonderful opportunity to reach out for a new dream. Change may seem a painful process but we are often slowed by fear rather than pain. Living an unfulfilled and unhappy life is far more painful than change and change doesn’t have to happen in one enormous step, it’s more often little steps taken one by one that adds up to big things. If you don’t mind reading non-fiction may I suggest you reading “Finding Your North Star” by Martha Beck. It helped me tremendously when I was where you are. I listened to it over and over on headphones at night when overwhelming fear kept me from sleeping. I also found that reaching out to other women our age enormously fulfilling. Are you following us on Facebook?

  4. March 26, 2011 8:24 pm

    Thank you Dorothy for you words of encouragement, and I greatly appreciate ANY books that you can recommend. I have been reading books that deal with the empty nest as well other transitions in life. They have been very helpful, but I know I need some type of “strategies” that can help me move toward a more peaceful state.

    • March 26, 2011 11:01 pm

      All of Martha Beck’s books were tremendously helpful to me when I was where you are now. If you like and benefit from North Star, Steering by Starlight is next! They gave me tools to take the steps I needed to take make a major change in my life and finally reach for things I always wanted. I will be writing more reviews about some of them over the next few months.

  5. Linda K permalink
    March 27, 2011 4:23 pm

    I just turned 60 this year and my situation is fairly similar to Sally’s. It is just my husband and myself now. We are empty-nesters; children all live far away, and no grandchildren. I retired early, and my husband is still employed. He too is a very good husband; but, after working long hours during the week, he needs time to unwind during the weekend. I find I have so much time to myself and feel lonely. I do volunteer once in awhile but I just feel like I am waiting for something to happen but I really don’t know what. I feel so disconnected. I really lost contact with friends and interest in things. I can’t say that I am worried but I just can’t put my finger on what it is that will really make me happy now. I guess for now, I too will try your suggestion, Dorothy, and read the book. Thanks!

    • March 27, 2011 4:53 pm

      Linda, is there something you have always wanted to do but never seem to find the time? What were your dreams for yourself before children? Apart from raising your children, what has brought you the most joy and fulfillment over the years? What is your secret longing? What do you enjoy doing so much you forget what time it is? What can make you jump out of bed in the morning in anticipation?

      Life can be an adventure, but very often as women we get pulled into those things that are at hand and in need of doing and we get pulled off the path we were intended to follow. The childbearing years were very important to us and that is as it should be. But now, we get to live for something else and that something else may take some time to percolate to the surface. Your unrest and dissatisfaction with things as they are is your inner voice nudging toward your future.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. You are not alone as you can see. I hope that you will find some support and encouragement in conversations here. DS

  6. Sally Caliendo permalink
    April 21, 2011 8:00 pm

    I have a question, Dorothy, that perhaps you can lend me some insight on. I love the concept of reinventing ourselves, but how do you fit your husband into the equation? This never seems to be addressed and it’s a reality that has to be considered when pursuing a goal. My husband and I honestly do not have much, if anything, in common. I am not trying to paint a negative picture of him, nor am I saying I cannot do things for “me” (I’ve had to do that for years). I wish I could say this “rebirth” would just about me, but in reality I feel it’s more complicated. Can you share on this…

    • April 21, 2011 8:44 pm

      Sally, you have opened a whole can of worms! You are right that I have not addressed the “husband” issue, partly because so many women are opting for divorce that being married seems almost anachronistic and irrelevant. And yet, to many like myself and perhaps you, my marriage and my husband is and has been so important to me that it’s like a giant hole in this discussion on aging. My married life has been far from easy and I have had to deal with many issues during this particular period of transition in my own life. I understand the confusion you are facing. It feels overwhelming but when you start to take apart the pieces of the puzzle you will find your answer. I know I did. Pieces still remain to be untangled but it is always a step by step process and learning to live with the ambivalence and confusion while you work it out separately and together.

      You have made me realize that I have been neglectful in not addressing this aspect of aging. And I will take up the challenge and let the chips fall where they may. In the meantime, feel free to contact me via email and if you would like to talk further about your particular situation. Sanderdoe@gmail.com

  7. Sally Caliendo permalink
    April 25, 2011 10:05 pm

    Dorothy,
    Please do not feel “neglectful”…you have been helping so many others like me try to find our way. Thank you so much for your offer to contact you to discuss this further. I look forward to what insights and advice you have regarding the husband’s role ( or lack of) in this transition and our search for an identity.

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