If you are middle-aged and your last child has left home or is preparing to, remember: This is not your parents’ empty nest. Those images of distraught, bereft and depressed parents one step away from the rocking chair are relics of the past. When the kids leave, it’s an opportunity to reinvent yourself.
There’s never been a better time to become an empty nester: You have far more opportunities than previous generations. You can connect to others around the world in a flash on the Internet, work remotely, and travel faster and more efficiently. Better nutrition, stepped-up exercise, and advances in health and medicine have led to greater longevity. If you have made it to age 65, you can expect to live another 20 years, prompting many people to prepare for a second or third act. This longer time horizon opens doors to new opportunities and new forms of success. When the kids leave, it’s time to reinvent yourself by reassessing your values and priorities, resurrecting interests, setting new goals, cultivating relationships, adjusting parenting and contributing to something larger than yourself.
If you are among the 65 million Americans born between 1943 and 1960, you’re considered a baby boomer and are particularly well positioned to reinvent yourself sans enfants. Boomers are known as rugged individualists, living lives full of interests and passionate causes. After their kids leave, many are returning to earlier pursuits such as painting, dabbling in politics, or playing the piano, according to Robert W. Levenson, a Berkeley psychology professor, who has conducted an ongoing study of baby boomers and their parents since 1989.
Most parents today are experiencing a renaissance in their relationship when their kids leave, Levenson says. His research shows that baby boomers who are together with their spouses after the kids leave are finding their connection gets stronger and “they are reminded of the reason they got married in the first place. . .This is a chance to go back and rediscover that person who got pushed aside.”
But there’s no question this transition is rattling. Parenthood isn’t like other close relationships. The whole point is that the other person is going to leave you—and that can be heartbreaking. After you finish the marathon of child-rearing, your zeal for climbing the career ladder, striving for social status and collecting material things is likely to subside, as is common in middle age. Friends and relatives may suffer from illness or pass away, sending you searching for purpose and meaning.
Here are tips for fending off empty nest depression and reinventing yourself:
· Find a sense of purpose beyond being a parent: Identify your earlier interests. Set a goal or learn something new: Run a 10K or learn a new language. People can fall into depression when their kids leave because they lack purpose, says Chicago psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. Take steps to pursue areas that bring you more passion and purpose. “You can reinvent or you can fade away,” Lombardo says.
· Contribute to a cause greater than yourself: Find a cause that moves you, join an organization and volunteer. Is there an injustice that outrages you? If you volunteer in an area of interest, you will find kindred souls. “It’s impossible to be lonely if you are helping another person,” says Eve Markowitz Preston, a Manhattan clinical psychologist who focuses on older adults. And volunteering often leads to employment.
· Keep moving! Find a form of exercise you love and do it daily, which drums up endorphins and makes you feel great. Joining a class or corralling neighbors to create a walking group has the double benefit of bolstering your social life. “You really do need to get in there every day to feel good and be your best self,” says Marjorie Schulte, a Scottsdale, Ariz., psychotherapist.
· Reframe your view: Empty Nest Syndrome is not a psychiatric diagnosis, but rather part of a normal progression through life stages. Tell yourself a positive narrative: Congratulate yourself for doing a good job as a parent and realize that you are promoting your legacy by letting your kids go and find a place in the world, says Robert D. Hill, an expert in adult development and author of “Positive Aging: A Guide for Mental Health Professionals and Consumers.” Keep touch with your fledglings and remember that you have not lost your child, you have gained time to pursue new interests.
· Embrace the Empty Nest and Find Fun! When the kids go, there is an expected sense of loss, sadness, or even grief. But a large burden has been lifted and you have more time. You earned it. Don’t feel guilty, says Dr. Michael Kaplan, an assistant clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. Re-connect with friends, launch a new hobby, binge watch a Netflix show, go out to dinner during the week, go to the movies. “Remember, you are free!” Kaplan says. “And when you go out, don’t spend the time talking about your kids!”