The prospect of the empty nest, while raising children, was for me as foreign and distant as the Siberian tundra. Imagining myself without children to care for as my primary occupation seemed at once impossible and slightly seductive — the idea of my kids off and on their own, while I had hours to pursue my dreams (whatever they may have been), was something I thought about only in the abstract. The allure of quiet for me, someone who craves solitude like others do the ocean or long bike rides, was a little bit of glitter in the dull wasteland of the empty nest I saw looming ahead like a long asphalt-covered highway.
The first year was, in fact, a jumble of emotions that were exacerbated by the untimely death of a friend, just days after my youngest had begun college. I had been at a party with this man on a Sunday night, then heard that he had been killed instantly the following Tuesday, when he was hit by a semi on the freeway as he got out of his car to check on some engine trouble.
In the short term, my friend’s death was shocking and horrible. In the long term, it was something I thought of often when, during that first year, I found myself feeling aimless and afraid that the rest of my life would be spent watching shows on my DVR and reading countless magazines and books, with a lunch date or two each week. The void left by my children in my empty nest was not as painful as the void my friend left in his family when he died, but in a lot of ways it was just as pervasive. I remembered him, handsome and laughing one day, dead the next, and it spurred me on to keep working at reimagining my own life.
As Madeline Levine said in her New York Times op-ed piece After the Children Have Grown:
Part of our sense of disruption around identity comes not only from the loss of a particular kind of relationship with our children but also because this loss is temporally close to other losses in the life cycle. Our younger selves have dissolved into menopausal clouds. We are too old to realize certain dreams. We’ve made choices that are now irrevocable: not making partner because of the kids or making partner and always feeling guilty about the kids. Chickens tend to come home to roost at about the same time as our children grow up.
Because my life, as I’d known it, came to such an abrupt change — one day I was a stay-at-home mother, the next day I wasn’t — the initial pain was deep and scary. But as I tiptoed into to the next part of my life, I found myself glad to be able to leave behind those full-time responsibilities to focus on my new goals and experiences with all of my attention. I may be too old to realize certain dreams, as Ms. Levine says, but there are plenty of others that I’ve found that are most definitely attainable.
Now, three and a half years later, my day-to-day life has a completely different rhythm and purpose than it did when I was raising my children. Having spent my first year as an empty nester trying to figure out what I was going to do the next 40 years of my life, I found my way to blogging, which has opened many doors and is expanding my world in ways I never could have imagined. No longer do I spend my day caring for others — instead I am doing things that are exciting and fulfilling, reaching back to parts of me that had been quiet for a long time.
I don’t know if I would have been able to make this kind of drastic change if I had been a working mother. The empty nest might have been far more jarring for me if, in fact, I hadn’t been able to completely change how I was spending my time. For women who have worked while raising their children, in many ways their daily lives retain the same patterns and experiences as they did before their children left home, and it would seem to me that this would make adapting to the empty nest, in some ways, more difficult and challenging. My opportunity to radically change my day-to-day life has helped me to get past the emptiness of my childless nest.
It doesn’t take the death of a friend to remind us that life is short — we all know that. But as one confronts the empty nest, remembering that the pain of change is also filled with opportunity can be amplified by the realization that it can all end, tragically and abruptly. The best thing we can do for ourselves — and our adult kids — is to find a way not to replace our children in our lives, but to enhance what we are as individuals. The empty nest is just waiting to be filled up with you.