Can you really blame anyone for dreading a stage in life labeled a “syndrome” and beginning with the word “empty?”

Empty Nest Syndrome, according to Psychology Today, “is a feeling of loneliness or depression that occurs among parents after children grow up and leave home.  This may occur when children go to college or get married. Women are more likely than men to be affected; often, when the nest is emptying, mothers are going through other significant life events as well, such as menopause or caring for elderly parents.”

That’s not how mother of four, Linda Mooney, getting her Master’s degree in nursing, would describe Empty Nest Syndrome. “I had played enough tennis, eaten enough lunches out with friends, cooked enough family dinners and was ready for a new challenge” explains Linda of her decision to become a pediatric nurse practitioner as she transitioned to an empty nester.  Linda’s embraced this new stage in her life,  stating, “It was time to stop micro-managing my kids. It was time to use my own brain to its fullest.”

For empty nesters stymied by the idea of being an “older student,” Linda acknowledges the challenges, “75% of the students in my program at Regis College are in their late 20’s, so you can imagine how much I needed to improve my computer skills.  I used to think that ‘cut’ and ‘paste’ were advanced skills.”  Today, Linda calls herself “psycho” about her grades; at 19 years old, she thought a B was just fine. Fortunately, Linda has the support of her husband as she studies and works three days a week at Children’s Hospital primary care clinic for young parents. “No one complains that we’re eating a lot of take-out.”

Judi Hindman fills her empty-nest space with diverse passions – so many that you could call her a “Renaissance empty nester.”  Judi is a personal trainer; she runs a catering business called Judy’s Desserts (maybe that’s how she keeps her personal training business thriving!); she foster parents a “retired” capuchin monkey from Helping Hands, Monkey Helpers for the Disabled; she is a bee keeper and extracts honey to make beeswax cream from her backyard “Monkey Business Farm” to raise money for Helping Hands; she take courses at Boston University’s Evergreen lifelong learning program; and she is a host family for a Nairobi physician studying at The Heller School at Brandeis University. Despite Judi’s varied pursuits, she expresses her ambivalence about empty nesthood in no uncertain terms, albeit with a sense of humor, “What did I do wrong?  My kids are very independent.”  Judi readily admits she counts the days until her children come home on vacation or holidays.

Nancy Armstrong, like Judi Hindman, has always been a caregiver extraordinaire.  As a “stay-at-home” mom, Nancy was busy parenting three children, taking care of her elder mother, volunteering in Wellesley Service League, and coaching older adults in basketball for Massachusetts Special Olympics, for which she was recently awarded the President Award from Massachusetts Special Olympics.

But, as Nancy explains, “My household went from chaos to quiet after my twins went off to college and my mother passed.  That’s when I told everyone ‘I need a job.’”  A mother Nancy knew from her stint as parent coordinator for her daughter’s rowing team took Nancy’s plea to heart and introduced her to The Women’s Lunch Place, a daytime shelter on Newbury Street in Boston for women who are homeless or poor.  Nancy, with a professional background in finance and accounting and years honing her organizational skills in volunteer roles, was originally hired to oversee the $3 million building renovation.

Since March 2011, Nancy gets on the 8:20 train in Wellesley Hills bound for her job in the Back Bay and typically comes home on the 5:36 train with a smile on her face.  “My husband expected that by now the shine would have worn off, but I feel as if I have died and gone to heaven. I get paid to make a difference with one of the most marginalized segments of the population.”

Not all empty nesters have a grand plan.  In fact, when Judi Rizley’s second child went off to college, she took a retail position at a boutique in Wellesley by default.  Judi didn’t want to go back into software engineering, a career she pursued until her children were in early elementary school, but wasn’t sure what to do.  To her surprise, Judi found she really liked the retail business and had a knack for helping women find clothing that suits their body types.  When the shop Judi was working at closed and the space became available, she took a leap of faith to start a clothing boutique called Clementine that caters to women ages 30 to 60.

In addition to returning to school and work outside the home, travel is another characteristic pursuit for empty nesters, and how many mark the actual transition.  Soon after joining the ranks of empty nesters, Liz Cua traveled to the Buddhist country of Bhutan. Liz and her husband regularly visited far-flung locations with their children during the summer.  With more flexibility about when they can travel, Liz’s husband is busy planning trips to South America and Cuba during the school year.

When not off enjoying the world, Liz is a radiologist.  She worked as her two children were growing up despite sometimes feeling overextended, “There were times when I thought I couldn’t keep all the balls in the air, but now that my kids are off, I am glad that I did.”

Eight ideas for adding fulfillment to the inevitable Empty Nest stage of life:

  1. Go Back to School: Pursue a new degree, update your professional skills, or simply take continuing education classes — either online or at a local college or university.
  2. Volunteer:  If you enjoyed the sense of community gained from volunteering at your children’s schools, then look for a new non-profit community to devote your time and energy to.
  3. Find a Hobby:  After years of driving your kids to and from sports practices, music and art lessons, why not pick up a hobby yourself.  Does squash, guitar or painting lessons sound good to you?
  4. Adopt a Pet:  If you long to parent another soul on a daily basis, taking care of a puppy is almost like having a newborn in the house.
  5. Travel:  Explore exotic locations around the world or local ones along the Eastern seaboard.  If you can’t get away overnight, New England offers many scenic, cultural and educational day-trip spots.
  6. Get a Job or Start a Business:  To rejoin the workforce, reach out to former colleagues; contact a temporary agency that specializes in your line of work; network in person and through social media with friends, neighbors and parents of your kids’ classmates for their professional, board and volunteer connections; set up informational interviews; seek out apprenticeships and internships; …or craft your own business plan.
  7. Focus on Your Health: With more time to spend on you, start an exercise and healthy-eating regime.  Enlist a friend or relative to join you to keep each other on track.
  8. Ramp up Your Personal Life:  Re-focus on your relationship with your spouse or significant other.  Not in a relationship? Now’s the perfect opportunity to join a special interest club, participate in activities at your house of worship, or register on online dating sites for 40 or 50 year- olds and above.

This article was originally published in WellesleyWeston Magazine.  You can find more about Liz Suneby here.

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