The Not So Trivial Pursuits of Empty Nesters
Liz Suneby writer
Can you really blame anyone for dreading a stage in life labeled a “syndrome” that’s preceded by the word “empty?”
Empty Nest Syndrome, according to Psychology Today, “is a feeling of loneliness or depression that occurs among parents after children grow up and leave home. This may occur when children go to college or get married. Women are more likely than men to be affected; often, when the nest is emptying, mothers are going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents.”
But that’s not how Linda Mooney, mother of four, who is also getting her Master ’s degree in nursing, would describe it. “I had played enough tennis, eaten enough lunches out with friends, cooked enough family dinners, and was ready for a new challenge,” she says of her decision to become a pediatric nurse practitioner as she made the transition to an empty nester. Linda’s youngest was a senior in high school with one foot out the door when Linda embraced this new stage in her life, “It was time to stop micromanaging my kids. It was time to use my own brain to its fullest.”
While Linda certainly used her brain working as a volunteer, including as a board member of A Better Chance, she looks forward to returning to nursing with expanded patient responsibilities. Linda also looks forward to working alongside her husband, a pediatric surgeon, on his trips each year to Haiti through Partners in Health after she earns her degree in May this year.
For empty nesters stymied by the idea of being an “older student,” Linda acknowledges the challenges: “Seventy-five percent of the students in my program at Regis College are in their late twenties, so you can imagine how much I needed to improve my computer skills. I used to think that ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ were advanced skills.” Today, Linda calls herself “psycho” about her grades; when she was 19 years old, she thought a B was just fine, but today strives to reach an even higher level. Fortunately, Linda has the support of her husband as she studies and works three days a week at Children’s Hospital’s primary care clinic for young parents. “No one complains that we’re eating a lot of take-out these days.”
Not all women step into empty nesthood with such aplomb. Roxanne Lyman, a brand-new empty nester, launched a blog called Mom in Metamorphosis to work through her own ambivalence and to help other mothers work through theirs. On August 16th, 2011, in a post titled “On the Verge,” Roxanne wrote,
Like any good parent, I spent many years deferring some of my professional and personal endeavors and I wonder how much momentum was lost and potential unfulfilled because I put the bulk of my energy into the family. Now there is no need to wonder and it is up to me to make good on my promise, my potential. In a sense, my son and I are faced with similar challenges. That thought brings to mind a different spin on this event. It’s not so much an empty nest that I’m left with but an opportunity to create within the space that is now available…
Judi Hindman, whose youngest child has been out of the house for three years, fills her empty-nest space with diverse passions – so many that you could call her a “Renaissance empty nester.” Judi is a personal trainer and also runs a catering business called Judy’s Desserts, which could be, come to think of it, a way to keep her personal training business thriving. She is also a foster parent to a “retired” capuchin monkey from Helping Hands, Monkey Helpers for the Disabled; she is a bee keeper and extracts honey to make beeswax cream from her backyard “Monkey Business Farm” to raise money for Helping Hands; she take courses at Boston University’s Evergreen lifelong learning program; she is an avid squash player and cyclist; and, she is a host family for a physician from Nairobi studying at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Despite Judi’s varied pursuits, she expresses her ambivalence about empty nesthood in no uncertain terms, albeit with a sense of humor, “What did I do wrong? My kids are very independent.” Judi readily admits she counts the days until her children come home on vacation or holidays.
Nancy Armstrong, like Judi Hindman, has always been a caregiver extraordinaire. As a “stay-at-home” mom, Nancy was a busy parent to three children while taking care of her elderly mother, volunteering in Wellesley Service League, and coaching older adults in basketball for Massachusetts Special Olympics, for which she was recently awarded the President Award from Massachusetts Special Olympics.
But, as Nancy explains, “My household went from chaos to quiet after my twins went off to college and my mother passed. That’s when I told everyone ‘I need a job.’” A mother Nancy knew from her stint as parent coordinator for her daughter’s rowing team took Nancy’s plea to heart and introduced her to the Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter on Newbury Street in Boston for women who are homeless or poor. Nancy, with a professional background in finance and accounting and years honing her organizational skills in volunteer roles, was originally hired to oversee a $3 million building renovation.
Since March 2011, Nancy gets on the 8:20 train in Wellesley Hills bound for her job in the Back Bay and typically comes home on the 5:36 train with a smile on her face. “My husband expected that by now the shine would have worn off, but I feel as if I have died and gone to heaven. I get paid to make a difference with one of the most marginalized segments of the population.”
Like Nancy Armstrong, Sandy Honeyman is part of the sandwich generation and for years cared for both her children and her aging parents. Sandy’s extensive eldercare experiences led her to her empty-nest career choice. Rather than return to practicing law, Sandy is now taking classes at University of Massachusetts Boston in gerontology management, and recently began work as Vice President, Advisory Services at Circle of Life Partners, a service that helps families support aging parents and maintain their financial health. For Sandy, the prospect of an empty nest was worse than the reality: “My daughter’s senior year with her departure looming was hard, but when the time actually came and my kids were both in a good place, I felt everyone was where they were supposed to be.”
Not all empty nesters have a grand plan. In fact, when Judi Rizley’s second child went off to college, she took a retail position at a boutique in Wellesley by default. Judi didn’t want to go back into software engineering, a career she pursued until her children were in early elementary school, but wasn’t sure what to do. To her surprise, Judi found she really liked the retail business and had a knack for helping women find clothing that suits their body types. When the shop where Judi was working closed and the space became available, she took a leap of faith to start a clothing boutique called Clementine that caters to women ages 30 to 60. Clementine’s address is 445 Worcester Street, but the entrance faces Route 16, west of Marathon Sports.
In addition to returning to school and work outside the home, travel is another characteristic pursuit for empty nesters, and how many mark the actual transition. Soon after joining the ranks of empty nesters, Liz Cua traveled to the Buddhist country of Bhutan. Liz and her husband have always loved visiting far-flung locations with their children during the summer. Now, with more flexibility about when they can travel, Liz’s husband is busy planning trips to South America and Cuba during the school year.
When not off enjoying the world, Liz is a radiologist. She worked as her two children were growing up despite sometimes feeling overextended. “There were times when I thought I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air, but now that my kids are off, I am glad that I did.” With fewer balls to juggle, Liz has taken up piano lessons. “I didn’t want to lose touch with my kids’ beloved piano teacher, so I decided to learn to play the piano myself.” As Liz practices, her husband is pursuing his new empty-nester hobby: cooking. Not a bad arrangement.
The following eight ideas for adding fulfillment to this inevitable stage of life offer options for mothers and fathers, since men are not immune to Empty Nest Syndrome. Whichever sound good to you, perhaps the best advice is to plan ahead.
- Go Back to School: Pursue a new degree, update your professional skills, or simply take continuing education classes in subject areas that interest you — either online or at one of the many local colleges or universities in Boston, Cambridge and the MetroWest area.
- Volunteer: If you enjoyed the sense of community gained from volunteering at your children’s schools, then look for a new non-profit community to devote your time and energy to.
- Find a Hobby: After years of driving your kids to and from sports practices, music and art lessons, why not pick up a hobby yourself? Do squash, guitar, or painting lessons sound good to you?
- Adopt a Pet: If you long to parent another soul on a daily basis, adopt a dog or cat from a shelter. Taking care of a puppy is almost like having a newborn in the house.
- Travel: Explore exotic locations around the world or local ones along the Eastern seaboard. If you can’t get away overnight, New England offers many scenic, cultural, and educational day-trip spots.
- Get a Job or Start a Business: To rejoin the workforce, reach out to former colleagues; contact a temporary agency that specializes in your line of work; network with friends, neighbors, and parents of your kids’ classmates for their professional, board, and volunteer connections; set up informational interviews; seek out apprenticeships and internships; post your résumé on online job sites; or craft a plan for your own business.
- Focus on Your Health: With more time to spend on you, start an exercise and healthy-eating regime. Enlist a friend or relative to join you to help keep each other on track.
- Ramp up Your Personal Life: Re-focus on your relationship with your spouse or significant other. Not in a relationship? Now’s the perfect opportunity to join a special interest club, participate in activities at your house of worship, or register on online dating sites for 40- or 50-year-olds and above.
If you’d like to share your empty-nest experiences or ideas, please e-mail Jill Nilsen at firstname.lastname@example.org.