An Empty Nest: Now What?

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Twenty-six years ago, my world shifted forever the moment I held my 7 pound, 8 ounce, 21-inch-long baby boy. I knew right then that I would do everything I could to raise this tiny human, whom I already loved deeply, to be the best version of himself.

I think most parents can relate. And so, as we raise our children, we become time-management experts, doing our own work, volunteering, and socializing—often making sacrifices in all these areas—as we manage seemingly endless doctors' appointments, playdates, carpools, homework-helping, meal planning and the rest.

Our family grew to five, with the addition of two more boys and, slowly, each of them took over life's responsibilities which, eventually, included applying to colleges. And then, off they went, one by one, until suddenly, I didn't have all of that to manage anymore.

The quiet was at times wonderful and at times deafening.

While some parents are profoundly sad when their children leave home, others revel in their newfound freedom. Many, like me, fall somewhere in between. Either way, here are some helpful words of wisdom from women who've been there.

Reconnect with yourself.
When Terri DeBoer, meteorologist at WOOD TV and co-host of eightWest, navigated her children leaving home, she experienced deep emotions.

"What I discovered is that this transition is a process. Finding out who you are now is a journey, in the same way that parenthood was a journey," said DeBoer, who also authored Brighter Skies Ahead, an upbeat book that gives parents 50 strategies for weathering the empty nest.

She says the transition can be tough because, as our focus shifts, we have to give ourselves permission to do things we enjoy.

"It's not being selfish," she said. "It's healthy, and the healthiest thing you can do for your adult kids is to help them see you as a confident, healthy person."

After some introspection, you may find yourself drawn to volunteering, a new hobby, or even a part or full-time job.

Nurture relationships.
If you're partnered, you have an opportunity to rekindle romance after years of kid-raising, through shared interests and spontaneous fun. But friendships are important, too.

"Evaluating friendships is a tough part of the empty nest season," said DeBoer, who suggests examining friendships as you move forward. "If you don't, you can get stuck in a circle that no longer serves you, doesn't push you forward, and maybe doesn't push the other person forward either."

When you do connect with others, consider trying new things together. Sandi Clegg, a mom of three grown boys from Grand Rapids, vacationed without her spouse for the first time. She traveled to Croatia with a group of friends, something she says she would never have done when her boys were younger.

"It was so rewarding to know my girlfriends and I could do this on our own," Clegg said. "My boys and husband were excited for me. It was a great, guilt-free trip."

Level up your fitness.
When Janice VanVelsen Scharich, a pediatric physical therapist in Grand Rapids, found herself with fewer kid-related commitments, she decided to recommit to fitness and tried a Zumba class. A former athlete, she eventually found her way to the pickleball court.

"In some ways I questioned picking up a new sport at this stage, but the community is so inclusive," said Scharich. She woke up excited to play games after her workdays. Last November, she won gold in the 2022 Pickleball Nationals in Women's Singles.

"Pickleball has been a huge part of my transition to the empty nest," she said. "I've seen myself grow, it's given me excitement and energy, and my social life has exploded with new friends. It's also been crucial to my mental health."

Regardless of what type of fitness you choose, you can't lose by focusing on health and wellness.

Embrace your child's adulthood.
Your child was made for this: to learn, to grow, to launch. If you're struggling with grief, remember that while your role is changing, it's not ending. You can cultivate a deep friendship with your adult child, complete with new traditions.

Recognize, too, that it will take some time to adjust to the new normal. Don't expect to feel great about everything right out of the gates. You'll get there.

"It's a mental paradigm shift," DeBoer said. "Your kids aren't leaving you. They're going toward what's meant for them."

If you can't shake your grief, consider speaking with a therapist.

Kirsetin Morello is a Michigan-based author, speaker, writer, travel-lover, wife and grateful mom of three boys. Read more about her at www.KirsetinMorello.com.

You can order an autographed copy of Brighter Skies Ahead and its companion journal at terrideboer.com.

Explore communities like Revel (hellorevel.com) that offer online and in-person events for women over 40.

This article originally appeared in the Feb/Mar '23 issue of West Michigan Woman.


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