Empty Nest: Life after Hard-Won Children
When I asked women over the phone about major life changes since we last spoke, many of them told me of their anticipation for life after children. By the time I called them for the update, women had begun to think about their lives once hard-won children left home, heading for college. Preparation for the empty nest was under way—these women again had become “thinkers,” contemplating their next major life transition. A smaller group had already watched their children leave for college and had their post-child life already in progress. As they began to think about what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, some talked about renewing old friendships or finding new ones; others considered developing new interests, while still others talked about maybe finding a partner as intensive child rearing came to a close.
Those women with children completing middle school or in their early high school years are in a new stage where they have a taste of life without their child. As teenagers become more independent and have their own social lives that often include a Friday night dance or a sports competition, a Saturday night movie or sleepover at a friend’s, mothers ask, “What will it be like without my child?” As Erika told me:
First it was unnerving. Then I sat down, had a glass of wine, and listened to some good music that I selected, and I thought, “This is actually nice.” But I knew that she would be home at the end of the weekend. As much as I did miss her, I knew that this next stage would be both of us exploring and becoming more independent. I have started to date in the last year and I have realized that even at my age I can do this and it is fun. Would I like a companion? You bet. I also want my daughter to leave for college and not worry about me. So, I am beginning to think about all the things I want to do—creative things and more—that I have put on hold.
Time for themselves is either lost or transformed when women become mothers. That time can now can be recaptured. Women reclaim hobbies or develop longstanding interests once the intensive early years of motherhood start becoming a distant memory. In the present, many dabbled with independent lives and their thoughts turned to how they would occupy themselves after the nest emptied, again finding time for themselves. They looked ahead even further to retirement, confronting a question mark as to how they would fund their post-employment years.
Among the women with a middle schooler at the time of the first interview, Colleen provides one of the most dramatic examples of a post-child life. When her daughter was in high school and her property was worth double what she had originally paid, Colleen sold the Victorian home that had housed her bed-and – breakfast. She bought a smaller home in the neighborhood, mortgage free, using the real estate profit to support her transition back into a full-time career as an artist. When her daughter entered college on a scholarship, Colleen made a big move, deciding to start a bed-and-breakfast again—this time in Africa. When I spoke to her on the phone, she was preparing for her international move, still planning on spending winters in Massachusetts.
Other women spoke of less definitive and daring plans for their empty nest. The words of one woman resonated in the group as a whole, saying, “I really need to figure out life separate from having a partner.”Many women still hoped to find a companion, and “finding a relationship” was still on their agenda. More broadly, women spoke of wanting to travel, explore old hobbies and new interests, and invest more time in friends. As another woman said, “We are lucky if we get to use all the potential we are born with. I’m trying to tap into some of the things I have let lay dormant. I don’t want to die not having tried those.” She continued, “We all have dreams at different stages in our lives.” The dream of these women to have and raise a child is coming to a close—they believe they must reinvent themselves one more time, finding a new dream to put at center stage.