This is the time of year many of you are dealing with your children going off to college, the military, trade school, career opportunities, or other major life changes as they enter adulthood. Of course, with the pandemic this year, things will be different than they would’ve in former years. But those changes will still be ahead and the advice offered below is still very relevant.
As a therapist, I try to focus not just on concepts, but also on tangible actions to help people make concrete changes in their lives, no matter what issues they are facing.
This goes for facing an empty nest as well. Fortunately there are very specific things you can do to help yourself get on with life after your now 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 converys a thought provoking challenge.
Hands on parenting, slugging it out day by day and finding immense fulfillment in that role, developed a part of me that would’ve lain dormant if I’d not had that opportunity. And since I became pregnant through IVF, I especially feel very lucky. But that chapter has ended. A healthy goal now is to find another part of yourself to be developed, another aspect of yourself that’s lying asleep and waiting to be discovered. That discovery could be within your spiritual self, creative self, or physical self. Maybe it’s something you wanted to do “years ago.”
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 some goal that requires youth, there’s some form of almost every activity that could be enjoyed at any age. You simply have to look.
2. Stay curious about what the two of you could learn/do/be together.
Get out that 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.
Perhaps this would be 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 with empty nest and it keeps you from growing stale and stagnant in your own life.
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. This will allow you to enjoy each other’s company more deeply, and maybe even in ways that you could not when kids were around.
If you don’t have a partner, you can do the same with friends, family members, and even neighbors.
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 have always wanted to get to know, form a book club, take a class, or join a community non-profit group. Research gas 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. Now that you have more time, 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 is 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 will be things they do and ways they change that might feel jolting.
Perhaps your child will come home and talk about a weekend getaway that you had no idea they’d even taken. Or you’ll 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, because they’re tangible reminders of what is no longer, it’s healthy adaptation on their part. And it can bring its own sense of pride.
5. Grieve when you need to.
I used to always wonder why my Dad always had music on when I came home.
Now I know.
It fills 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 September 12. 2020.