Suddenly having a house devoid of children, when they’d been the major focus in my life for 20 + years, isn’t an easy adjustment. Having my sights set on my three children’s social, emotional, and academic development, made any other goal seem inconsequential at the time. So, when the kids were finally gone, and on their own, life felt pretty empty for a while.
As an empty nester over 60, I have entered into a new phase of my life. Studies show that women my age are the happiest segment of the population. It’s hard to believe, as we face aging, ageism, and loss. Fortunately for myself, I am more satisfied with my life than I have ever been. Most of the time, I have a deep sense of peace and gratitude for the gifts of my life. I notice friends my age who have that same sense of fulfillment and happiness and those who do not.
My experience as an Empty Nester
My husband and I entered a period of re-evaluation after our children left Maryland for New York and California to start lives of their own. We worked on rebuilding our marriage, developing a better sense of self (how do we want to live), and focusing on contribution to community and society. Most women have always had multiple roles, so we can generally reinvent ourselves. I went back to work, and my husband retired from his company to focus on advising and mentoring young entrepreneurs.
I learned that it helps to prepare in advance for this stage of life, and not wait until you suddenly find yourself alone and possibly depressed.
Develop a better sense of self
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What stories are you telling yourself that are strategies held over from your childhood, or early adulthood?
- What parts of yourself have you cut-off, or hidden?
- What is no longer serving you in this stage of your life?
Stories I tell include: “I have to stick with what I know.” Or, “I’ll never be good at….(fill in the blank)”. Parts I cut off may be that I used to love to dance, or run, or play the guitar? Ways that these stories or beliefs no longer serve me may prompt me to ask: “Why I am doing it. Is it for safety? People tend to operate in patterns and habits, some useful, some not. Some we have learned from the generation above us. Did you always hate to cook, and still feel like it’s an obligation?
- Discard the habits that are no longer serving you in this new stage of life.
- Stretch into the “lost parts” you were not allowing yourself to experience.
- Learn to quiet the negative self-talk that didn’t allow you to try.
The hesitation was there for a reason, to protect you from failure, hurt or embarrassment, but probably that reason isn’t valid. The greatest freedom at this age is no longer feeling that you have to prove yourself to anyone. You can risk doing new things. Failure doesn’t seem as scary
At first, I felt strangely guilty and selfish focusing on myself. Yet, there was no one there to displace my needs. Women most prone to depression at the empty nest stage of life are women who gained most of their self-esteem from nurturing their children and who limited their involvement in the world to their children’s activities.
Women may also have developed poor relationships with their husbands (perhaps because husbands felt as though the children had displaced their affections). We need to know ourselves and continue to have confidence in our abilities. To help you explore, dedicate a journal based on creating your life list of goals. Develop a meditation practice of gratitude and self-compassion.
Rebuild Your Marriage
I was fortunate to receive good advice when I was a young mother, to put my marriage first, above everything else, including the kids. This meant setting aside time to nurture our relationship, enlisting babysitters and friends where kids could stay for play dates, and sleepovers. Living near grandparents was a huge help. Our kids benefitted as much as we did from this time with friends and other adults. This helped us stay connected in spite of the craziness of raising three kids.
If you have mistakenly put the health of your marriage on the back burner for too long, recognize the fact. Take the time to become reacquainted with your spouse. If there’s distance and no kids are home, that space can feel like an ocean you will never cross. Now, is your chance to work on a new vision together. Date nights are still important because it allows focused time to dialogue, and be curious about each other. Brainstorm about your dreams.
People who are well connected to others are healthier psychologically than those who have very few or no connections. This can mean friends, family or work colleagues. The importance is the depth and frequency of the connection. We all need to feel that we offer something of significance to the world, that we have a contribution to make to society. Psychologist Alfred Adler calls this the need to belong. He feels that it is the most basic human need. Maybe I felt that belonging through raising my children, but now that they are grown, I have to find that sense of contribution in a new way.
Contribution to Community and Society
Women who gave up their careers to stay home with children hopefully have kept their foot in the door in a career through volunteerism, or some part-time work. Having a career to go back to, or invent, can have a huge positive impact on one’s self-esteem and sense of agency.
At this stage of life, security becomes an issue. Not everything can be planned, but those of us who have laid the groundwork early on, fair much better. It’s not fun to think about, but if we don’t die first, we will experience grave loss at some point.
Most of us at this age have lost one or both of our parents, and there’s a 50/50 chance, or more for women, that we will lose our spouse to death, (or divorce) after the kids have left home. Michelle Cooper offers great advice about her own survival as a single mother after her husband’s suicide in her great little book: I’ve Still Got Me: A Widow’s Journey to Love, Happiness and Financial Independence.
It’s important at my age not to ignore these hard facts. It’s worth it to put in the work to maintain good health and physical ability, and have the financial means to cover the additional care that will be necessary in old age. If we feel unable to have some sense of control over things that will impinge negatively on the quality of life, we lapse into self-blame or hopelessness and become less able to appreciate our own strengths.
Summing it up.
Lacking financial, physical and emotional security makes us less resilient in the face of stress, and more likely to become depressed when faced with life’s challenges. As Mary Pipher describes in her new book, Women Rowing North, Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age:
“For many of us, a combination of suffering and happiness is what defines this stage and our growth…Suffering gives us empathy, while happiness gives us growth and energy. The contradictions of this life stage make it a portal for expanding our souls.”
It’s a requirement to take the time to focus on health: physical, psychological and financial. We must recognize the inevitability of loss, and have the means to cope when it happens.
The wise psychologist, Alfred Adler in the early 1900s summarized our most important life tasks:
- Social: friendships, colleagues, neighbors
- Intimate relationships: family, love, sex
- Work: education, volunteerism, child rearing, service
- Self: fun, creativity, focusing, centering, health, exercise
- Spiritual: values, morals, philosophy of life
- Standard of living: financial security, longevity plan.
Finding balance and a sense of fulfillment in each of these areas is the key to a long, satisfying life at any stage.