Transition to Empty Nest is a Daunting Passage and Can Trigger Existential Angst: a Signal it’s Time to Identify Passions and Strengths, Act on Values and Priorities, Cultivate New Friendships and Contribute to Something Larger than Yourself.
When your last child leaves home, you can be caught in a swirl of emotions: emptiness, excitement, and angst. You start to grasp that your time on Earth is finite and that life is impermanent. You notice more gray hair gracing your temples.
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Your peers look better in evening light—and you do, too.
You get this uneasy feeling that what remains of your youth is slipping away.
The transition to the empty nest can catapult you into existential crisis. Your zeal for climbing the career ladder, striving for social status, and collecting material things starts to subside, as is common in middle age. Friends and relatives may suffer from illness or pass away, bringing jarring reminders of mortality. This triggers a need to make sense of it all. You feel a growing sense of urgency: How do I use my time in a way that really matters?
You are far from alone: there are more than 22 million empty nester couples in the United States grappling with the same questions. Empty nest distress prompts some people to dive headlong into their work, get a facelift, escape into travel, buy a flashy new car. While these may temporarily fill the void, they are only fleeting pleasures.
The existential angst we feel with the departure of the last child is a signal: It’s time to shift your energy elsewhere. It’s time to take a step back and consider the big picture. It’s time to cultivate new friendships, reconnect with extended family. It’s time to commit to act on your values and priorities.
It’s a time to focus internally to gain a better understanding of your interests, strengths, and values. You need to figure out where your passions and strengths intersect with what the world needs. It’s a time to slow down and envision your ideal life. Look at habits and behaviors that you want to stop, like ruminating, obsessing, or thinking negatively. Instead, move toward habits and practices that fulfill you. It’s a time to shift your thinking from “I or me” to thinking more about “we,” and how you can benefit the greater good. It’s a time to come to know yourself better by being mindful, cherishing the time at hand, and heeding wisdom of those who have gone before you.
With the kids away, you are well positioned to find purpose, challenge, and growth—the elements of eudaimonia, a term Aristotle used to describe human flourishing, or the happiness you attain when working for something beyond yourself. Eudaimonic wellbeing requires doing something you believe in and pushing yourself to achieve it.
After our third and last child went to college, I thought hard about where I wanted to invest my time and energy. I mulled over what has brought me the greatest challenge and joy.
As a child, an eighth-generation Vermonter growing up in the small town of Norwich near Dartmouth College, I would write little books and sew them together with yarn. As a student at Middlebury College, I loved literature, language and psychology. As a journalist, I spent three decades writing stories for newspapers and covering Capitol Hill for Hearst Newspapers from the Senate Press Gallery. As a parent of kids in middle and high school, I launched an online magazine for parents of teens. I felt lucky and privileged that I could interview top experts in the greater Washington, D.C. area and help get their knowledge and wisdom out to others.
I have always loved interviewing people and delving into important issues to dig up wisdom for myself and others. But when the kids left home, it was time to focus on a new topic. I wanted to explore how to live with grace, purpose and joy in the second half of life. Truth is, I was wondering how to do this for myself.
I dove into research and interviewed more than 300 people, including psychologists, sociologists and others including seasoned empty nesters who shared with me their wisdom, struggles, and strategies. I distilled research that was buried in studies on aging, romantic love, raising young adults, and long-term relationships. I gathered it all up for my book HappiNest: Finding Fulfillment When Your Kids Leave Home.
I drove around parts of the United States and found people in cafes, in universities, or friends of friends of friends. I wanted to gauge the state of empty nesting today.
I discovered that this is indeed a daunting passage in life. Unlike other milestones, this one is often ignored, swept under the rug, suffered in silence. But it’s a major rite of passage. And we can make it into the best time ever if we move mindfully and fully informed with the sage advice of those who have studied this area or gone before us.
Once I sent my HappiNest book to my publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, I wanted to continue interviewing people on how to live well in the second half of life. That prompted me to create my HappiNest podcast. Since then, I have interviewed experts on reigniting the spark with your spouse, and on surviving empty nest divorce. I have talked at length to specialists who study young adults who are now taking a more winding road through adulthood. Brace yourselves parents, these days 30 is the new 20. I have sat down to speak with researchers who study how to find and maintain soulful midlife relationships. I have interviewed actors who are performing and producing plays about life after the kids leave home. And the list goes on…
I have discovered that we have far more opportunities than our parents did.
We can find information in a flash on the Internet, connect to others around the world, and work remotely. We can travel faster and more efficiently. Better nutrition, more exercise, and advances in health care and medicine add up to us living longer and preparing for a second or third act. We have a longer time horizon to rediscover ourselves than our parents did, which can lead to far greater fulfillment. But it takes work.
As my husband and I adjust to life without kids under our roof, we are experiencing the themes of every chapter in my HappiNest book in a personal way. We are learning to listen more and lecture less to our oldest child Lindsay, a singer/songwriter in Nashville who writes “Americana” and is aiming for the charts. I have persuaded my music-loving husband John to stop trying to “improve” her lyrics to satisfy his middle-aged sensibilities. We like to drive our 155-pound Great Dane Hudson to visit our middle child Maddie, who is on the mend from a head injury and finishing college. We tell ourselves she is just as happy to see us as she is the dog, although it doesn’t appear that way. We are delighted that Maddie plans to take the insight she has gained to serve others through a career in the nonprofit world. We are getting better at calming jitters as our son Jack plays top college lacrosse, attempting to stop 100 mph balls from slamming into the goal—or him. I have learned to stop nagging him about homework, eating right, and getting enough sleep, now that he has become an NCAA championship goaltender and his lifestyle is more disciplined than my own.
I have become increasingly aware of the passage of time through the eyes of my parents, Barbara and Harry Holland who are in their mid-eighties. They recently moved out of their home in Hanover, N.H. into the Kendal community, where they are surrounded by neighbors and have less upkeep and more help.
I no longer take good health for granted, especially now that my youngest brother Jim is fighting early onset Parkinson’s Disease. A former national champion ski jumper, Jim, who like my other two brothers Mike and Joe competed in two winter Olympic Games, is embarked on a global crusade to cure the disease for himself and others. I have seen my sister Mary Anne continue to be joyful and savor simple moments despite her long fight against MS.
I have decided to view the fleeting nature of life as a gift, to pursue my passions with energy and courage, and find the best way to contribute to the world. I have finally figured out what works: You’ve got to be mindful and proactive. You’ve just got to “Make it Happen,” which is now my motto.
A few days before my last child left for college, it was those pint-sized boxes of chocolate milk that got me, the ones I bought by the case for my kids. Who would drink them now? A week later, I found a solution: My husband and I would add those chocolate milks to our coffee and make mocha. Now we stock those cartons for us. That’s what you do: reinvent with a twist.