This comment came over the weekend from a reader named Sally who recently read Ellen’s post from August of 2013, Four Strategies for Surviving the Empty Nest.
My kids have always been my No.1 priority. My husband was in the military so we move around a lot and felt it was important to be there for my kids. When my husband got out of the military I still remained a stay at home mom. Fast forward twenty years all my children have left the nest. My youngest left for college a year ago and I am still sad. I did at one time have a part-time job but due to a disability I had to quit. I’m sure if I still had it I would be doing much better. I live in a small town and there isn’t much as far as volunteer opportunities go. I do have a few friends that I do things with and am able to talk to about this on occasion but I still can’t help being a little sad. I seem to do alright for a little while but then when they come home for the holidays and then leave again I get sad. I don’t live by any of my siblings and we are not very close. I am also not a grandma yet and both my parents are dead. I know this is part of life but I can’t shake the emptiness I feel. Any advice would be appreciated. Thank You!
I woke up this morning thinking about you and your empty nest. Your son and mine flew the nest around the same time. Though my beloved boy is in school 9½ hours away, I was able to return home to my empty nest excited to start or continue things around here that his presence made difficult.
I had laid the groundwork for this new phase a few years before he actually left when my daughter’s college departure was looming. As my son asserted more independence in high school and particularly when he started driving, my full-time parenting felt whittled down to meal prep and laundry. The writing was on the wall, and I didn’t want to be left with a huge hole in my life.
1. Awaken Your Creative Life
Fortunately, a few years earlier I had stumbled upon The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. It inspired me after I had completed a huge volunteer job that had consumed my life for well over a year and was at loose ends. While reading your comment, this book immediately came to mind.
The book is premised on Ms. Cameron’s belief that everyone is a creative being, not just famous (or notorious) artists. Some people are just more aware of their creativity than others, but inside we all have a creative spark. The key is to reveal and nurture it, and The Artist’s Way contains exercises for doing so.
Following Ms. Cameron’s directions to find a journal, early every morning for a couple of months I sat with a cup of coffee and let my stream of consciousness flow into the journal. For twenty minutes I would write pages and pages that were not meant to be read. The process of writing itself leads to opening up creativity. While journaling, I realized that I wanted to take a painting class.
Having nothing to lose but a couple of hundred dollars in tuition and art supplies and with little expectation, I signed up for an acrylic painting class at one of the teaching studios in town. Fortunately Ms. Cameron preaches keeping the self-critic out of the studio because there was nothing very pretty about my results, but the process of loading paint on a brush and putting it on a canvas was physically mind-altering. Like yoga, painting took me to zen moments. As I continued art classes, I often would literally feel my brain opening different pathways.
Taking these classes gave me the courage to jump into blogging with my first blog, Avad Fan. My legal training and prior career had honed my writing skills, and blogging became a new creative outlet. As I have put more energy into creative pursuits, I have more ideas for other ones.
After encouraging Ellen to jump into her own first blog, Ellegram, we started discussing how to manifest some of our creative ideas together. While we couldn’t afford to undertake one of our big dreams, The Gracious Posse was born from exploring others. Now we find pleasure in sharing The Gracious Posse with readers like you who have become our extended posse. We have met or gotten to know much better so many people as a result of our just deciding to go for it and not wallow in our empty nests.
After Ellen published Four Strategies for Surviving the Empty Nest, the ever-inspiring mEl chimed in,
… Having been through this transition last year, I think you are right on target! I would add one thing. Creativity is something everyone needs in some form. Parenting is a creative process that often leaves little time for other creative activities. When the nest is empty, it is a great time to delve into long lost creative pursuits, or perhaps ones you’ve always wanted to try. Gardening, throwing pots, music or voice lessons, writing, cooking classes, and painting are some of the pursuits that friends of mine and I have given more time to since our nests have been emptied and it is very rewarding. Plus, if you learn new and challenging skills in mid life it stimulates the brain and keeps you young!
Since her children left the nest, mEl has become a much-sought-after floral designer in Houston.
Why not start thinking about your empty nest as an empty canvas just waiting to showcase your creativity that you have channeled into parenting for so long? After so many years of taking care of others, it’s time to be a little selfish and let you shine as you and not so-and-so’s mother.
2. Find a Warm and Furry Companion
The Christmas before my nest was to empty, I felt the urge to surprise my family with a new dog. After 2½ years, the time finally seemed right to fill the void that Nicklaus’s passing had left. When Palmer arrived unannounced on Christmas Eve, I knew from my family’s reaction that he was the best Christmas present ever.
Shortly after Palmer’s arrival, my prescient son announced that Palmer was, in fact, his replacement in our home. Of course I denied it, but my son was not all wrong. Palmer has become my faithful companion when the house is quiet. His needs make me get out of my pajamas in the morning and into the fresh air. I might grouse a bit when the weather is frightful, but having a four-legged companion who needs tending and petting helps keep our nest from feeling quite so empty.
3. Share a Hobby with Your Husband
Since listing this in her Four Strategies …, Ellen has embraced it. Choir singing has been one of Ellen’s favorite outlets for many years now, and though it ties up one of her nights each week, it fills her with joy and has even taken her to Italy on a fabulous choir trip. With a choir trip to England on the horizon, Ellen persuaded her husband to join her in this pursuit. Having grown up singing in his church, he was game, and now this talented couple shares their love for beautiful music together.
More recently, Ellen has begun sharing her recent infatuation with biking with LDB, as well. Since she returned from her trip to Vermont with the Biking Belles, she coaxed her husband out on the Capital Trail in his cute biking togs. The couple that bikes together stays together.
While my husband and I haven’t committed to any hobby quite like Ellen and her hubby have, we do say yes to more things together. How nice it is to not have to worry about what your kids will be doing if you want to go out on the spur of the moment.
4. Purge and Organize Your Home
Maybe it’s just that time of year, but when my nest empties again next week, I will begin another round of purging my house of anything that is not useful or beautiful or brings me joy. In the process, I hope to continue the organizing plan that began when he first left.
Maybe your family’s military background has left you living in a well-organized, but unless you are Marie Kondo’s alter ego, I’ll bet there are categories that could use some help. Photos come to mind. Before you have children boomerang back into your life, why not organize those into albums, books or digital files that provide meaningful slideshows? Then when your grandchildren arrive, you will be able to easily share the stories of the previous generation with the new one.
5. Change the Way You Eat
Our son’s athletic pursuits demanded loads of calories and carbs. When I was regularly cooking for him, my husband and I ate the same foods, too, though we didn’t need them. We continued eating that way when he first left, but starting his second semester away, I made some drastic changes. My husband and I went Paleo, eating as many whole foods as possible, avoiding wheat and minimizing dairy. Like a new hobby, the process has changed our lives. I have more energy and fewer pains in my joints.
I am not recommending that you become a caveman like I have. My point is that without having our children to feed, we have been able to try a different approach that has had real results and gotten my experimenting in the kitchen. When our son is home, it is harder to be pure Paleo, and I can tell. When he heads back to school next week, our metabolisms will be much happier.
6. Get Out of the Nest
As I mentioned here, one of my favorite ways to handle the sadness of the empty nest was to just avoid it. While it can be avoided forever, planning trips and getting away definitely help to avoid dwelling on the emptiness and loss. Without having to be around to feed my children, I have managed to make several getaways since my son left for college. None of them were exotic or expensive, but each found me visiting with friends or family and often exploring locations differently than I would have with children in tow.
Ellen and a couple of other moms whose girls graduated from high school with her younger daughter spent their senior year of college on a Mom-tourage. Traveling together allowed them to share expenses and bond over similar circumstances. What a great way to experience a bit of what their children were living everyday without cramping the coeds’ style.
7. Just Say “Yes”
It’s time to break the habit of saying No because you had to when your home was filled with your chicks. Whether a request comes from a girlfriend or your church, don’t give them your automatic response. Instead decide how to make something happen. It could change your life, and in the process, you will prove to your offspring that there is life after children.
8. Talk to Your Doctor
I don’t know anything about your history or health, Sally, but being sad for this long doesn’t sound healthy for anyone. Fifteen years ago I had a nervous breakdown while I was heading to my doctor’s office for a completely different reason. I couldn’t believe how much better I felt after I talked to her and she prescribed an appropriate course of action. During my most recent g.p. visit, my doctor eased my mind about my menopause brain and the normal changes that were happening to my body. Trained professionals can offer a different perspective that might give you some new tools for dealing with your sadness.
9. Read The Gracious Posse Regularly
The Gracious Posse celebrates inspired living with practical style. Often we feature ideas being tried by our friends and acquaintances, many of whom are finding joy in the freedom of their empty nests. You never know what nugget you may find from their inspiring lives.
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10. Decide What Makes YOU Happy
I don’t mean to sound presumptuous, Sally, but why not resolve to make 2016 the year you figure out what makes you happy? Rarely do we have the opportunity to determine what it is that brings us joy. As mothers, we will always worry about our children, but if they have been able to fly the nest, head to college and beyond, then you should congratulate yourself on a job well done and give yourself a graduation gift: finding and doing what makes you happy.
So posse, do you have any other advice for Sally? I am sure that she and many other empty nesters-to-be would love to read it. Just leave your thoughts in the Comments section below.
January 7, 2016