Filling the Empty Nest
Recently, I caught up with my good friend Karen whose younger son is headed to college next year. We have often compared notes about how we structured much of our adult lives around raising children and overseeing our households, given our spouses had professional roles that didn’t allow for a 50-50 share of family responsibilities. At one point in the call, I asked her if she had considered how she might spend her newfound time once her son leaves for school, and in response, she asked me how I had managed the transition from a home where my kids’ day-to-day defined how I spent my time to one where they were barely present. I thought about the question and then explained that I did not think my answer would be helpful; I told her that I didn’t think I ever really experienced an empty nester state because my twins left for college during the pandemic, so Jim was home more than ever, and before the pandemic ended, Jim retired from full-time work. My house was never empty.
This week, I find myself in a different place. Three years into my kids’ undergraduate experience, Jim has embarked on a May which, for various professional reasons, involves three-to-four days per week of travel for four weeks straight. I honestly cannot recall a month where he has traveled this much since 2020. Yesterday marked Day Two of Week One, and I believe I have finally felt my first real pangs of being an empty nester. On Day One, I was very busy finalizing my novel’s first draft and turning it over to my coach (hurrah), and so on Day Two, I had myriad things I needed or wanted to plan or do, but yesterday, I felt so lonely that I was paralyzed by indecision. I have felt this way before when Jim has traveled since the kids left home, but looking forward at the whole month has made this time feel different, sort of just especially large.
I have always considered myself a confident and capable soloist when I have had the opportunity to be one, but reflecting now, I think my time alone was precious for being peppered with frequent company –i.e., kids would inevitably appear soon. The gift of Jim’s presence since the twins left seems to have plastered the hole that would have appeared when they stopped showing up to interrupt my solo time. That gift, now taken away for most of this month, may also have obscured that, after twenty-one years with kids and/or Jim in my daily life, I may have forgotten how to be myself by myself.
It is fair to say that my situation is exacerbated by Jim’s and my decision to change pretty much everything all at once when the kids left. We didn’t just send both of our kids to college at the same time. We also sold our home of twelve years and decided to embark on a seasonal life in three new locations. We resumed travel and bolstered it, given we weren’t prisoners to school schedules or Jim’s full-time job. And I started looking for a new pastime that would allow me to be purposeful while mobile, both to serve travel and our new shifting residencies. The result has been that Jim and I are having a wonderful time together, but we haven’t yet been able to develop deep connections in our new communities. I have to believe that my empty-nester friends who didn’t uproot their whole life when their kids went to college chose a slightly easier route.
I have a colleague with whom I have discussed these concerns, and her advice was to be the planner I am at heart. Don’t sit at home, she said. Most would give anything to have extra time in New York City. Buy timed tickets that force you to go to museums. Find a coffee shop where you can read in the community of others. Take the subway to the 92Y and attend something. And don’t worry if it’s not exactly what you want to do – just get in the habit of doing. She also told me to let myself feel lonely long enough to realize I can conquer it. It was all great advice, and I am trying to follow it, but I’m stumbling a lot.
It gets worse because I berate myself when I am unable to jump the hurdle. I consider myself to be an interested person who likes to read, experience all kinds of arts, and engage in interesting conversations with others, yet when I look out at what feels like an endless amount of solo time, I just spiral. Yesterday, I asked my sister if she wanted to visit me in Florida next week, and when she declined, I spent at least an hour deciding if I would rather return to New York next Wednesday or Friday – the dilemma was where to be alone. I asked Jim’s advice; I looked at weather; I checked airplane loads, and after I decided New York, so that I could force myself to plan some activities, I spent another hour questioning my decision. Finally, by late in the afternoon, I managed to commit myself to two museums and a networking coffee on that week’s calendar.
This may feel like a non sequitur but bear with me. How much of my inability to be myself by myself stems from the years I spent making choices and living a life that subordinated “me” in favor of my family? Serving as the primary partner running our household and raising our kids has been my life. By not prioritizing me as an individual for so many years (which would have manifested most prevalently if I’d engaged in a full-time professional career), am I now unable to define enough of an individuality outside of that family existence? I’m not expressing regret – my family focus was a gift, as was the flexibility to pursue personal passions with the free time I did have. But, that focus for twenty-one years also meant I have spent over twenty years living with family as the built-in, predominate organizer of my time and purpose.
And now, without the structuring obligation of kids around full-time, and even though I am excited about the decision to write as my purpose and profession, I still have landed on a purpose chosen in the context of prioritizing my life with Jim. That’s not a negative statement at all, but it’s true. It’s an amazing privilege to be able to choose to write, and it allows for flexibility and complete self-direction. Yet, having my purpose and my life be fully flexible without kids at home comes with a level of freedom that I don’t know exactly what to do with. I’m completely out of practice. So, I find that instead of putting myself in first place now, or at least as tied for first, I am organizing my time around being with Jim. That is wonderful when he is the same city as me, but I am starting to realize that only by prioritizing me sometimes will I learn and become comfortable with my own company again. I have to put me first – not at Jim’s expense – but for the good of us both because he should travel for professional experiences and personal ones that don’t include me sometimes. And I should too. Despite the fact that this idea scares me at the moment, deep down I know it will make our togetherness richer.
I am not naïve to think that next week will mark a huge leap forward in my quest to re-become comfortable in my own company, but with the consciousness that comes from these musings, I am hoping to show at least a little improvement. Maybe just enough to not weigh Jim down on the road with texts and calls, and maybe also enough to find more comfort in my own company as I push myself to do the things I have planned. I believe success on this journey is going to be one of those cases that requires pushing myself to practice the uncomfortable. So, the best change that could happen next week is that I start to see the majority of May as an opportunity to do just that.