As a therapist, I try to focus not just on concepts or insights, but also on tangible actions to help you make concrete changes in your life. No matter what issues you’re facing, we discuss what you can do about it.
The same things goes for facing empty nest. Fortunately, there are very specific things you can do to help yourself get on with life after that now-young adult child is creating a life on their own.
1. “Find something you love as much as you loved mothering (parenting…).”
This is a quote from Sharon Greenthal and conveys a thought-provoking challenge. Hands on parenting, slugging it out day-by-day developed a part of you that might’ve lain dormant if you’d not had that opportunity.
And now, that chapter has ended.
A healthy goal when you’re facing a big transition in your life – perhaps an end of an era – is to discover another potentially meaningful part of yourself that you haven’t the time or energy to investigate. That discovery could be within your spiritual, mental, emotional, or physical self. Maybe it’s something you’ve always secretly wanted to try, maybe it’s something that you stopped doing years ago, or maybe it’s something you’ve never even considered before.
Don’t allow the excuse of, “Oh, now I’m too old for that” to hold you back. Let’s face it. You may not be able to become an Olympian or an astronaut or a pop star, but there’s some form of almost every activity that can be enjoyed at any age. You simply have to look; perhaps you can become a fitness instructor, volunteer at a planetarium, or take art lessons.
One of the best compliments I’ve heard from my now 29 year-old son occurred a few years ago – after I’d told him how proud I was of what he’d learned and accomplished, but also who he’d become as a person. He smiled and looked at me, saying, “Well, Mom, I’m proud of you too.”
2. If you’re in a relationship, stay curious about how you could grow together.
Make a bucket list with your partner; talk about goals you have together, things for the two of you to share and that you can both work on to bring you closer. Maybe working on a garden together, going on a trip, volunteering for an organization, learning how to cook Chinese food, fixing up a room in your home, or learning how to ballroom dance. Notice how often the word “learn” appears in that list. Curiosity kills two bird with one stone; it helps heal empty nest and it keeps you from your own life growing stagnant.
So that you can fully be in the present together, you might also explore your relationship and talk about any emotional hurts that are keeping the two of you stuck in the past. You might need a therapist to help with this as you clear the air of old resentments or misunderstandings. This will allow you to enjoy each other’s company more deeply, and maybe even in ways that you couldn’t when kids were around.
If you don’t have a partner, you can do the same with friends, family members, and even neighbors. Look for what you have control over – and go for it.
3. Make new friends while honoring the old.
Your child’s life is moving on; they’re making new friends and traveling to new places. You need to have fresh things to look forward to as well.
Have a neighbor over that you’ve always wanted to get to know, form a book club, take a class, or join a community non-profit group. Research has shown over and over that being socially connected keeps us invigorated and energizes our lives.
Also make time for the friends that you’ve known for years, but perhaps haven’t had contact with recently. Reach out to them and renew those old bonds. You may rediscover a part of yourself that you’d forgotten or let go; this could be a time to reinvigorate and allow that passion to bloom.
4. Get comfortable with “not knowing” about aspects of your children’s lives.
Your children are changing; there’s stuff you have to ask now that you just knew before. Just as you once knew what they ate for every meal when they were very young and that fell away in their teen years when they’d eat at a friends or have meals away, now there’ll be things they do and ways they change that might feel jolting.
Get ready for you “child” to come home and talk about a weekend getaway that you had no idea they’d even taken. Or watch your daughter, who’d always hated tomatoes, toss them casually into her dinner salad. Maybe your son who loved his long rock-and-roll hair will inform you on the phone he’s chopped it all off.
While these changes may surprise and even sadden us (after all, they’re tangible reminders of what is no longer), it can reflect healthy adaptation on their part. And brings its own sense of pride.
5. Grieve and know that’s okay.
I used to always wonder why my Dad seemed to listen to music a lot more after I left for college. If I heard Beethoven or Debussy playing as I unlocked the back door, I knew my Dad was home.
Now I know.
The music he so loved also served to fill up the quiet. Kids leave and suddenly, the house is…still. Unearthly quiet. You actually physically feel it…that absence of laughter, footsteps, the refrigerator opening and closing. So grieve when you need to. But don’t allow that grief to overwhelm you so much that you can only see the loss. If you get stuck in grief, then see a therapist for help or talk to your family doctor.
You’l miss the opportunities of the moment you’re in if you’re looking over your shoulder at the past.
You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on August 24, 2017; revised and republished on August 20, 2023.