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Who Are You Once the Kids Are Gone?

The unexpected—and confusing—perils of a newly empty nest

spinner image a daily planner with lines for each hour and a couple laying on those lines as if they were hammocks with nothing on the schedule
Dan Bejar

When Gwen Rowe’s son, August, left for college last fall, she and her husband, Tom, suddenly had a spare bedroom and an empty schedule. There were no more choral rehearsals to drive to or bag lunches to pack, recalls Rowe, 56. At long last, she thought, freedom.

When Rowe pictured her empty-nest life, she says, “I had imagined Tom and I might travel, explore different cities while working remotely.” Or maybe, she thought, the couple would practice the Argentine tango, as they had before their son was born. With their own parents getting older, the Rowes talked about downsizing from their three-story house into something more accessible. But then, what if August wanted to move back home later on?

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Instead of feeling liberated, the Rowes found themselves frozen with indecision. “We’ve had a hard time figuring out where to turn next,” Gwen says.

It’s a little-discussed pitfall of the newly empty nest: In addition to missing their children, many parents report experiencing confusion and anxiety about their own lives. They feel stuck and unable to plan.

Jim Burns, now 69, went through it in his mid-50s. A pastoral counselor, Burns had raised three children with his wife, Cathy, in their Dana Point, California, home. When their last child moved out, Burns recalls, the couple felt “desperation.”

“For 23 years, our identity was wrapped around being parents,” he explains. “We had to reinvent our own life. How on earth were we going to do that?” As part of that reinvention, Burns wrote the book Finding Joy in the Empty Nest: Discover Purpose and Passion in the Next Phase of Life.

Many parents of high school seniors, Burns found, are so wrapped up in getting that last kid through graduation and off to college that they don’t spend time imagining what their own lives will look like come fall. In his opinion, “people prepare for retirement or a trip to Italy much more than they prepare for the empty nest.”

At least Patti Smith had a head start. When her daughter moved out of the house last October, the Los Angeles–area life coach, 59, was putting the finishing touches on a book about life transitions called What Am I to Do Now? Simple Strategies to Navigate the Unknown and IGNITE What’s Next in Your Life. Having worked with many clients in their 40s and 50s, she knew that feelings of loss were a natural part of becoming an empty nester. But she also believed that the transition presented an opportunity to recalibrate her own goals.

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Empty nest opportunities

If you’re packing your last kid off this fall — or still feeling discombobulated after having done it earlier — experts suggest these steps for getting on track.

  • Think long term. You might be an empty nester for far longer than you spent raising kids. What will you do with that time? Think big: “Take up pickleball” is not a plan for what could be decades of life.

  • Pass the baton. If you’re still involved with your children’s sports, arts or service organizations, look for a succession plan. It’s someone else’s turn, Burns says.

  • Mind your marriage. Going from a family to a twosome can cause unexpected relationship stress, says Karishma Mukherji, a psychotherapist in Oak Park, Illinois, who works with older teens and couples. Any conflicts a couple may have suppressed for the sake of family harmony should be addressed, in therapy if necessary.

  • Strategize going solo. If you’re a single parent, the loss of your teenage partner in crime can hit especially hard. Take the time you need to grieve, but don’t be a hermit, advises Coral Springs, Florida, journalist Carol Brzozowski, 64, author of Empty Nest, Single Parent: Moving the Needle Toward a Repurposed Life. Getting together with the same people regularly can forge closer ties than spreading yourself thin.

  • Consider a canine. If you don’t have a pet, adopting one offers a lower-stress form of caregiving and loads of affection, Brzozowski says. And a good watchdog adds a sense of security if you’re home alone.

  • Walk your talk. Even though they’re out of the house, your kids are still watching you. What kind of behavior do you want to model for them? When you encourage them to take risks and pursue their dreams, “you’re telling them that it’s a big world out there,” Smith says. “Well, it’s out there for you, too.” ​

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