Make the Most of Your Empty Nest
As Hélène Stelian’s twin daughters prepared to leave for college, she felt the twinge of loneliness but also the stark realization that she no longer knew herself. As a stay-at-home mom in Chicago, much of her identity was wrapped in theirs.
“I looked into the future and wondered what my life was going to be about now,” she says.
Giving your kids wings to create a life of their own is your job as a parent. But what happens at home, after the kids leave, can take parents by surprise. It’s not uncommon to experience empty nest syndrome, a temporary feeling of loss and loneliness that comes when our kids move out, says Beth Leydon, a licensed marriage and family therapist and integral life coach in Grass Valley, California.
“Every time we call something a syndrome it sounds like a disease, but it’s really not. It’s a grief reaction,” says Leydon. “Oftentimes the degree to which it is a child-centric family is the degree to which they experience that sense of disorientation, loss, sorrow and worry. A family that’s a little more independently oriented may experience less of that loss and sadness.”
How you get through that transition and occupy the newfound space in your life can make the difference between feeling fulfilled and feeling adrift.
To find her new bearings, Stelian began interviewing women age 40 and older who had successfully navigated the transition and made other big life changes, sharing their stories in a blog called Next Act for Women.
“A lot of women in my situation shared my fears and my anxiety,” says Stelian. From there, Stelian decided to become a certified life coach, specializing in midlife empowerment.
Stelian and Leydon offer these insights to get you through.
The first thing Stelian does when she works with clients is help them prioritize self-care. “As women, so much of our lives is about caring for others — the family, the home, everyone else,” she says. Learning to say no to things that add stress, and say yes to healthier habits like practicing meditation, getting more exercise, and prioritizing sleep can give you renewed energy, says Stelian. Women also need to be aware that the timing of kids leaving the nest may coincide with the onset of menopause, which can provide a burst of creativity in some, but also further complicate emotions, says Leydon.
Reclaim Your Time
Raise your hand if your daily and weekly calendars included a kaleidoscope of colors denoting camps, extracurricular activities and patchwork daycare. It’s time to build a life that doesn’t revolve around kid’s schedules and activities, says Leydon. “Be self-indulgent,” she says. Take back those evenings and weekends that used to be spent on the soccer field or at scout meetings.
“A lot of us will question, ‘who am I if I’m not a mother,’ and this can be really scary,” says Stelian. “It’s also a new opportunity to connect yourself in a whole new, and maybe more authentic way.” To discover a purpose outside of motherhood, Stelian has her clients evaluate these four questions:
- What are my values?
- What are my strengths?
- What are my interests?
- What can I contribute?
Find New Goals
From the moment our children come into our lives, our main goal is getting them to adulthood, says Leydon. “Our job is to work ourselves out of a job in terms of creating independent human beings,” she says. Now that you’ve accomplished that task — give yourself a huge pat on the back — you get to set some long-term goals for yourself. Do you want to open a business, make a career shift, go back to school — do something you were to afraid to undertake before or couldn’t because of your kid’s schedule? You now have to time to take classes of your own, for example, for fun or to advance your career or re-enter the workforce.
Replace Your Kids’ Activities With Your Own
Resurrect previous interests or hobbies you had before you had kids, says Leydon. “When my son was born, I put my guitar under the bed for 20 years, so when he went off to college, I went back to music and joined a band,” she says. “If you can’t resurrect them — for example you can’t ski because of bad knees — figure out how can you do something similar enough that brings meaning and purpose to your life.” If you’re stuck, says Leydon, ask yourself: What did you like to do when you were 10? “That really helps people go back into their imagination,” she says.
Reinvest In Your Romantic Relationship
“Research has shown that raising children can be stressful on a marriage,” says Stelian. “This is a time when it’s critical to re-engage in our intimate relationships, emotionally, physically and sexually, because it’s just the two of you now.” It’s not uncommon for romantic partners to drift apart physically and emotionally during their parenting years, says Leydon. “It can be challenging to reconnect with your partner when you don’t have the distraction and diversion of children,” says Leydon. “You may have to reinvent your relationship. It may not be the same as it was 20 or 30 years ago.” To reconnect, you have to mindfully and consciously make time for one another, says Leydon. Consider taking up hobbies or other activities together. Plan special outings. Take those adult-only trips you’ve always wanted to take but couldn’t because of the kids.
Focus on Friends
Friendships are critical to our well-being. As our children and their friends embark on new life adventures, we also lose the friendships built around parenting, says Stelian. “Once our kids leave home, those friendships may weaken. It’s important to strengthen the ones you want to keep and reconnect with old friends,” she says. As you take up new hobbies and activities, try to cultivate new friendships along the way.
Change the Scenery
Along with space on your schedule, when your kids leave home, you acquire physical space, too. Hold off on converting your kid’s bedroom the minute they’re out the door, says Leydon. “In this day and age it’s also not uncommon for college graduates to come back home for a bit of time for a second re-launch.” Leydon recommends talking to your kids about slowly transitioning the space so it’s more functional for both of you.
Once your children have flown the coop, that four bed/two bath home may seem too big. It may be a good time to downsize or move altogether. The community you chose because it was in the best school district may no longer fit your lifestyle. Take some time to decide where you want the next phase of your life to take place, says Leydon.
Redefine the parent-child relationship. Don’t make assumptions or expectations about what your relationship with your child will look like once they move out, says Leydon. It’s also time to break old habits of checking in on your children constantly.
“A healthier model is you as a parent are a consultant, instead of as a director or leader of your children’s lives,” says Leydon. “The hands-on stuff is over, we’re in a new phase where we’re still available, but we have a much different role.”
Congratulate Yourself on a Job Well Done
“It’s important to give yourself space to grieve your loss, but also to celebrate the changes, because it is an accomplishment that your children are ready to leave the nest,” says Stelian. “Look at it as an opportunity for your own renewal as you face the next 30, 40, 50 years of your life.”
Now, pamper yourself before bed tonight, and enjoy all those uninterrupted nights of sleep ahead! For inspiration on how to improve your sleep habits, try the free Sleep30 Challenge by Sleep Number.
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