Saturday, August 26, 2017

Empty Next: What will you do with all that you?

My empty next - writing full time

When our four children were under eight years old, I remember asking my husband not for a spa day or trip for my birthday, but a weekend alone in the house. What would I do with a weekend alone in the house, he wanted to know? 
"I'll spend two days in my own company, in my usual surroundings and eat Triscuits and cheddar slices for dinner," I said. 
Sixteen years later, our youngest left home and there I was, facing endless days in my own company, in my usual surroundings. And was I still as thrilled to have the house to myself? 
Yes. I was. 
However, a new challenge was before me that I hadn't expected, and it was this: to put myself at the center of my awareness where my kids used to be. 
I didn't need to embrace my freedom or go back to school, or volunteer. I needed to learn how to come first again, which felt like wearing shoes on the wrong feet. 
If you're going through this, or think you will, let me offer some pointers for getting used to this quirky twig of the empty nest. 
Starting now, journal and keep track of how you're changing. 
Before our youngest graduated, I started journaling every day; putting my feelings about the events that were changing me on the page where I could see them. The following year, when our house was empty, the proof of how I coped with ups and downs was right there.
When you've filled your awareness with other people for possibly decades, that awareness needs to go someplace when they leave. Be the someplace. Write to yourself. 
Empty nest is only one of the issues. The other is about empty "next." 
I remember leaning in the doorway of the first empty bedroom feeling a need to do something. If your empty nest is a couple of years or less from now, I can tell you, the "something" must  be planned in advance. It shouldn't be a thing to help you pass time, but a thing you would do now if you had time.  
I went to the local Boys and Girls Club and signed up to help kids write their life stories. It changed my life to blend my affection for teens with a passion for writing. It was hard to make time for it while my son was in the nest. But it was waiting for me when I needed the "next." 
The ghost in the house. 
When our kids were at home, I loved 5:00 in the afternoon. It was when I settled into the kitchen for cooking and conversation and where I felt most connected to everyone. When the house was empty, the old rhythms and the new ones collided in the kitchen at 5:00.  
When the kids leave, they leave that behind – a feel and rhythm in the house that has probably taken years to evolve. This phantom "feel" to things  can sting at first, but it won't last forever.
It won't be just a change in what you do and who you see that will move you back to the center. It will be the new feel and rhythm that grows around you if you let it. 
 Everything up or down, is just right now. 
After I'd become pretty good at my new me-in-the-middle life, a mid-November day sent me into a sudden, near-panic at the thought of November days that would feel nothing like the old ones.The ghost was back and with it came the earlier feelings of disorientation.  
And then they went. 
I helped myself by remembering a thing I had said so often to our kids:
Everything up or down, is just right now. No level of intense emotion, happy or sad can be sustained forever, unless you're a chipmunk. 
What you expect, you'll make true. 
Notice the relationship between your expectations and what you experience. I did not imagine I would be lonely and I wasn't. I did not fear I'd wander, but planned to meander mindfully.  More than I noticed quiet, I felt peace. 
Think hard about what you expect from a day, because with amazing consistency you'll see things happen as you envision them, up or down. 
Your work on-site is done now. But you are not through parenting. 
My children had my love, all the patience I was capable of, and the best of my intuition and intelligence as they grew. As adults, our relationships are true, and deep. 
I detect, in the expressions of some in my parent communities, their sense that an uncertain time is coming, like distant rain; something that might be overwhelming and cold, even dark. 

I say, get your rain coat and umbrella, and keep them handy.  The rain may come, as it should, but so will the sun shine, and growing things will be grateful. 

You included.  

A version of this post was originally published at


  1. Love this post! There's so much about ourselves that we forget or lose in the process of growing a family. "Empty Next", what a perfect combination of words :-)

    1. Oh, haha, thank you! It's true, that we lose that old footing, but good that it comes back if we look for it. I think so anyway. I had no trouble putting "my" stuff to the side, but coming back to it truly felt like I had a place to go "next."

  2. We downsized in 2013. Sometimes I miss THINGS, but then I realize how good my life is, that I'm healthy, that I can still look forward to the future and so if there are rains, I have SAVED enough from my OLD LIFE to support me for what is to come. That alone is a treasure that I have not given away. Lovely post.

    1. Beth, I love how you put that, "saved enough from my 'old life'." It's really important to know what not to give away.