Empty Nexter: Spreading your wings in the empty nest

By Carrie Perrien Smith

Now that the dust has settled on back-to-school season, you’ve had a chance to breathe. Maybe you just sent your last child off to college or you just reflected on those days as friends and family members sent their kids back to school.

Myself, I was glad it was them and not me. I cheered them on and encouraged them to cherish those precious days, as they wouldn’t last for long. But thank God, those days are behind me! I have no idea now how I managed to juggle all of it back then.

By the time you begin to anticipate the empty nest coming, you’re probably a woman of a certain age [wink wink]. We all get to this age but our empty nest prospects don’t look the same. Some of us are sending our child back to college for the eighth time. Some are welcoming our kids home after college because they can’t find a job in this struggling economy. A few of us won’t ever have a truly empty nest because we have a child that needs lifelong care. Some of our empty nests don’t include a spouse. A handful of us are already caregivers for our parents. And a startling number are raising our grandchildren in our homes. The empty nest starts to look different than we were promised, doesn’t it?

Regardless of whether you are living the empty nesters’ dream or hanging on to the fairy tale, let’s focus on the reality. We know more than we did when we were standing at the threshold of adult life. We’ve experienced life — the good, bad, and mundane — through our life’s journey and that of our friends and family members. Those experiences have shaped who we are today — or maybe who we are becoming.

I’m convinced that each phase of life is about learning lessons we’ll use in the next phase. Each one makes us wiser as well as a bit more humble. The more we learn about the world, the more we realize we don’t know. We’ve been around to see that things aren’t as bad as they seem usually. Life has proven that we are stronger than we realize when staring in the face of adversity.

Regardless of our individual stories, we’re not seeing life as young person raising a young family in the front windshield anymore. We’re waking up and realizing that there’s more to life than the 175,000 hours between 20 and 40. I caught myself saying over the years, “If I had known that at 25 …” or “If I had just done that before I had my daughter …” That wiser, older voice of reason now says, “Those weren’t missed opportunities. Those were lessons preparing you for this beautiful, rich experience that lies ahead.” At the very least, I appreciate everything more now.

I’m the oldest of Generation X. We’re almost the lost generation. We’re a small population because we’re the first generation where birth control was widely available. We’re the first generation to realize that Social Security probably wouldn’t be there for us. We’re also the first generation who will grow old with the reality that our grandchildren will not because of today’s poor eating and lifestyle habits.

Generation X is the first generation to enjoy the opportunities in the workplace created by generations of women before us. I entered a corporate workforce where women could be anything they thought they were big enough to be. We didn’t have to claw our way to the top, and it was okay if we wanted to trade the corporate world for the mommy track. Sure, I’ve worked with morons along the way, but largely I received the same respect and opportunity I earned.

Now that our children are aging out of the nest, it’s time to focus on our needs. This is our time to find our calling, follow our dream, or redesign our world.

Calling is a funny thing. Some people are well into their forties before they know their calling. They stand in awe of young people who get it early in life. We need to remember that calling changes. It’s possible that our calling was to be actively engaged in our kids’ school activities when we were younger. You might not have realized that was your calling at the time, but did you find you were really good at it? Was it easy and you’d effortlessly stay up late at night to volunteer your time? That’s a good sign that it was your calling.

Now, you probably realize your calling is different. And just as your calling today has changed, you’ll see it change again. Each time it happens, we get a little better at recognizing when it is time to move on to our next challenge. There’s nothing worse for our personal joy than sitting contently in a hot, steaming pile of old calling.

Over the coming posts, I’ll talk about the things women like us think about, experience, and need to know. I want to kindle the fire inside you for that dream you’ve tucked away, to tackle the wrong in our world, or to nurture the relationships in your life. I’ll walk alongside you as you intentionally create the picture for what the next 20 years looks like. I’ll cheer you on as you set your goals and stretch your wings. I can’t wait to watch you make a difference in whatever arena you choose. Let’s take that journey together.

Carrie Perrien Smith is mama to Darcie and a pack of black dogs (Speckles, Snappy, Jazmin, and Midgieboy — in pack order), grandma to Robert, wife to world-traveler and Walmart-blue-bleeding Tom, daughter to Wayne and Phyllis, speaker bureau and publishing company owner, community activist, and home improvement junkie. Follow her on Twitter @soarwitheagles or contact her at carrie@soarhigher.com.

Photo by Eljay