Dallas mom Melissa T. Shultz treasured the years she spent at home raising her sons, Alex and Nick. But after her youngest, now 21, left for college, her house suddenly seemed like “a theater gone dark.”
Wanting to share her struggles with finding a new identity, the 56-year-old literary agent and journalist started blogging and expanded her writing into a book, From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived the First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life. We chatted with Shultz about parents reinventing themselves and preparing for an empty nest.
Q: Three million moms each year face what you call this “wonderful and horrible time.” Why such extremes?
A: It was horrible because the part of my life that was so magical was over. Raising a family was now in my rearview mirror. Now I have a blank page in front of me, where I am responsible only for myself. That’s what motivated me to write the book.
Q: Act 3 is what you call getting back to “me again.” What are the challenges of this stage?
A. You have to find the confidence and drive to be your own best cheerleader. You have to start saying “yes” to things like going out to lunch with new friends, as well as “no” to things you don’t want to do. You need to get out of your comfort zone. A lot of energy fades away when the kids leave, so you’ve got to push yourself. You can start a new career or just a new exercise class or hobby.
Q: Is there anything you wish you had done differently to prepare for the empty nest?
A: The high school years felt like the long goodbye, as one routine after another faded away. The kids move out emotionally at least a year before they do physically. I want to encourage moms with kids in high school to start thinking now about what to do after the kids leave. Think of it as you and your kids being on parallel tracks; you’re both progressing to something new.
Q: How did your relationship with your husband change?
A: We sat down a year in advance of the empty nest and started going out to lunch every Saturday. It’s very relaxed, and we talk about everything — movies, current events — that we never had the time to do with the kids. We got to know each other again as a couple, not as Mom and Dad. It opened new doors in our relationship, and that’s been very exciting.
Q: You write that the empty nest isn’t empty unless you let it be. Any tips on how to make that happen?
A: Even if kids leave, they are in your heart forever. I am always thinking about them. I stay connected by texting and emailing articles to them. I buy little items like a favorite food or a kitchen utensil and put a box together that I send every so often. I love sending things, and they know.
Mary W. Quigley, a journalist and author, has written two books about motherhood and work. A New York University journalism professor, she is the mother of three adult children and blogs at http://Mothering21.com