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Career Change in the Midlife Empty Nest

Meet three women who followed their passions

Picture of three different women

Paul Spella. Photos courtesy of subjects

When Sandi Marx takes the stage at any of the many comedy clubs where she performs in New York City, she is prepared for the doubtful faces of the young adults in the audience who weren't expecting to see “their mom's frenemy or the saleslady at the Clinique counter” standing in front of them. Within minutes, those dubious looks have disappeared, as her talent for telling jokes and sharing stories erases any doubt that she is a great entertainer. “Just call me Mrs. Maisel's great-aunt,” Marx says, with a hint of triumph in her 62-year-old New Yorker's voice. Marx has done what many at midlife, when their nests empty, wish to do: She has given up a job and found a passion.

Marx's career began on the other side of the entertainment business, as a talent agent. She represented high-profile celebrities and working actors at one of New York's biggest talent agencies. While she had a great career, it didn't “scratch the itch” she'd had since she was in college to be a comedian. As much as she wanted to pursue her dream, the responsibilities of life and caring for her children, which were magnified by divorce, made her ignore that itch for many years. Once her youngest child left home, Marx said farewell to her 9-to-5 job and began studying the art of comedy. She took workshops and classes and performed in competitions (many of which she won against comics half her age). Her preparation led to a career as a stand-up comedian that has her in demand at clubs and bars every night of the week, should she choose to work that much.

"It's very liberating at my age to be standing on stage in front of people my kids’ ages and making them laugh,” Marx says. “I don't care what anyone thinks about me. I'm fulfilling the dreams I had as a 19-year-old who took the sensible route.” A documentary about Marx is in the works, and she is preparing a Ted Talk.

Nancy Hoffman, 43, is a devoted and involved divorced mom who worked her way up in the corporate world from secretary to office manager. Growing tired of corporate America and feeling the pain of the empty nest after her daughter left for college, Hoffman knew that something had to change. She tried group therapy, had a bit of guilt — “I had a great second marriage, a comfortable life. Why was I so upset?,” Hoffman kept asking herself — but she couldn't shake the feeling that she was just not happy with her life. Those who are new to the empty nest can experience this lack of purpose — something is missing, but they just can't figure out what it is.

When the company she was working for relocated an hour away from her home in Elkridge, Md., Hoffman saw an opportunity to shake things up. Committed to spending time with her new husband, she took the severance package she was offered and started doing temp work, thinking it would help her decide what to do next in her career. While temping, she heard about a job opening as a nanny right near home. She started filling in for the nanny who was leaving the family to relocate and immediately knew that being a nanny for that family was what she wanted to do.

"I always wanted lots of kids,” says Hoffman, “but it didn't work out that way. Now I get to work with a family I love.”

Not only did she take a new job when she became a nanny, but she and her husband sold their home and moved into a rental that her employers own, significantly lowering their monthly expenses. The stress level in her life has been greatly reduced, and she and her husband enjoy spending time with the family that she works for even on their off days. “My life is great, now,” Hoffman says.

Judy Freedman had a terrific life. At 49, she was the director of global communications for a large food company. Her two children were grown, and she and her husband were enjoying their empty nest — until he died unexpectedly. Suddenly, Freedman's life was no longer what she dreamed of or planned for. Empty nesting coupled with widowhood can be a crushing combination, but Freedman decided to make the best of a tough situation, and she has.

Ready for a change and a fresh start after the pain of losing her husband, Freedman retired at age 55 and became a blogger. Though she says she loves blogging and the travel opportunities that have come with it, she wanted more. She went back to school to become a yoga instructor — though she wasn't sure she'd be able to complete the course, because she couldn't do a headstand. After completing two years of school — without standing on her head — Freedman began teaching at the Jewish Community Center near her home in Marlton, N.J., where she had taken classes for many years. Her favorite people to teach are seniors. Helping older people to enjoy the therapeutic and soothing experience of gentle yoga gives her pleasure and allows her to share her knowledge with grateful students. “I use my corporate communication skills to make my yoga classes the best they can be,” Freedman says. “I organized every aspect, from the moves to the music.”

Now 61 years old, Freedman approaches teaching yoga as a labor of love; the money is not great, but she doesn't mind. She says, with a laugh, “I've come to realize that I don't have to stand on my head to help others.” For Freedman, her new career is all about giving back to her community.

Check out all these great resources from AARP that can help with your job search or career moves:


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