The Empty Nest: Making the Most of Your New Freedom

When raising children has been your raison d’etre for multiple decades, it can be hard to know what to do with yourself when the kids move out and move on. But the sometimes bittersweet shift to a child-free household can offer a great opportunity to find your groove.

“What’s so important for people to ask themselves when faced with an empty nest is, ‘What turns me on?’” says San Francisco-based Rachel Fleischman, a licensed social worker and Registered Expressive Arts Therapist.

After identifying so closely with your children, “it can be a really hard turning point to look into your own eyes and ask, ‘Who am I?’” says Fleischman, also founder of Bliss Psychotherapy. “You have to learn to re-identify with yourself and get selfish in a really healthy way.”

The transition can be a happy one, though, when you take the time to be mindful, to move, to get creative and to connect, she says.

Mindfulness moments

Mindfulness can be as easy as stopping to take five deep breaths or even writing a note to a friend, just five minutes out of the day to really concentrate and be attentive to your thoughts and feelings.

The benefits of these meditative moments for reducing anxiety, depression and pain, especially during difficult times of transition and grief, have been well-documented in studies from Journal of the American Medical Association and elsewhere.

Get a move on

Movement is likewise crucial to stave off nagging pessimistic thoughts that can pop up when the noisy busy-ness of child-rearing is done.

“Getting moving is the best brain medicine,” says Fleischman. “The mind is a worry-seeking missile, so being sedentary can be a zip line to feeling blue. But when you’re really in that flow of movement, for even 15 to 20 minutes a day—walking, playing golf, dancing—you are present to the moment and able to stave off any negative thoughts.”

Often, it’s helpful to find an accountability buddy to meet for a walk or a dance class to make sure you set aside time for movement.

Creative exploration

The departure of kids from the house can also be a great excuse to find your own inner child, to go back to a time when you got your hands into a pot of paint and felt the colorful goo ooze through your fingers and onto the paper without concern for the end result.

“Somewhere along the way we often get shamed into believing we aren’t creative, and we lose that spark, but we’re all creative geniuses,” says Fleischman.

Find your sassy self with something as simple as putting together a fun outfit, or arranging flowers or plants, she suggests. If you do want to pick up some paint supplies—watercolors or pastels are the most forgiving—“let your hand dance, and draw for the sake of drawing, not even to make it beautiful. Enjoy the process,” she says.

People power

Connecting to community is another important aid to staying positive during a potentially challenging transition.

“If you’ve primarily defined your ‘community’ as your kids and family, the new empty nest might feel lonely,” says Fleischman. To alleviate that feeling, try getting more involved in your church or religious community, or volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Even just being conscious of making eye contact with that barista at Starbucks or the guy on the corner in a wheelchair can go a long way to staving off loneliness.

“Sometimes these days we can feel we connect through Facebook or Twitter, but there is so much we gain through those moments of warm hand to warm hand [contact],” she adds.

Social media does, however, offer lots of opportunities for finding like-minded people to add to your social circle., for example, helps link fellow music lovers, wine connoisseurs, foodies and outdoor enthusiasts in 180 countries.

And of course, don’t forget the person who may have helped get those children ready for the outside world—your spouse. Elizabeth Schmitz, author with her husband, Charles Schmitz, of “Building a Love that Lasts” (Jossey-Bass, 2010), recommends that empty nesters take stock of their relationship and set some goals and direction for life post-kids.

“When the two of you have devoted so much of your time to your children over the life of your marriage, it’s time to start thinking about the life you want for yourselves,” she says.

Be careful not to fill the void with too much work at the expense of time with your spouse, adds Elizabeth Schmitz. Plan to rekindle the romance and passion of your pre-parenting life by being spontaneous with dates and travel, and get healthy together by cooking good meals and adding in a daily exercise routine like bike riding or walking the dog.

Remember: Your new kid-free house is half full, not half empty.

4 ways to transition to an empty nest

  1. Add moments of mindfulness to your day.
  2. Make time to walk or exercise regularly.
  3. Get involved with community organizations.
  4. Rekindle the romance with your spouse and make new plans for the years ahead.