Empty nest preparation is no joke—and if you’re the parent of a teenager, it’s time to start now.
When our youngest child, Sam, was a high school sophomore, I became superfluous. He got his driver’s license and the family’s battered old Toyota and peeled off into the teenage cosmos. Jesse and Owen were away at college, and I was left without a job.
While I had spent the child-rearing years doing volunteer work and working part-time in my husband’s photographic studio, I lacked my own, autonomous agenda. My primary purpose, as a mother, was supporting my family members’ agendas. Now at the brink of the empty nest, I had to face myself. What was my agenda?
Years before, I had been a contender: a newspaper and magazine reporter with a real career.
I’d been itchy for some time, wondering if my brain still worked. Years before, I had been a contender: a newspaper and magazine reporter with a real career. I wrote profiles of all kinds of people, coaxed the most recalcitrant subjects to talk, and fancied myself a practical psychologist. I traveled, lived in Miami and New York. Now here I was, an 18-year gap on my resume, in a city—Austin—where 20-somethings ruled. I was old and technology deficient.
Empty Nest Preparation: Searching, Connecting, Finding
I began making notes: what were my skills, abilities, and natural inclinations? What did I really want to do? What was actually possible, as a “woman of a certain age”? I revamped my resume, over and over, with my adult children’s help. “Quantify, quantify,” they told me. “Resumes now are results oriented.”
I finessed the child-rearing gap. I networked with everyone I knew who worked, especially with those who loved their careers. I went to therapy. I joined a spiritual group, the focus of which was life purpose. I searched job sites, endlessly. Nothing seemed appropriate, feasible, or compelling. It began to dawn on me that I needed further education and training. I was not willing, in my 50s, to settle for just a job, or something menial, or to be subject to some young manager telling me what to do. I needed to be the architect of my own destiny.
Finally, it boiled down to this: What kind of career would offer autonomy, part-time opportunities, enough complexity to fuel my growth, minimal technology, and meaningful work? What would be a true fit? The answer: psychotherapy. Once again, as in journalism, I’d be getting people’s stories, albeit with a different, more compassionate objective. I had fantasized about this for years. So I applied to grad school—a research project in itself.
I am so grateful that I anticipated what was coming—the potential identity-less “dead zone.”
St. Edward’s University embraced me, swallowed me up. But Michael, my husband, protested. He wasn’t traveling as much any more, and he was used to having me around. We had to forge a new dynamic. I forced myself to wake up at 5am and write my papers before my husband and son emerged. I sacrificed my favorite Netflix series at night to get all my reading done. I spent weekends hitting the books. But I relished every moment. I remembered how to study. And this time, I was laser focused.
School was the easy part. Next came the dreaded national exam, the search for a supervisor who could sponsor me under her umbrella in private practice, and the whopping 3,000 internship hours I had to log. Finally, I had to find a place to work on my own.
Empty Nest Preparation: Reinvent Before They Leave
That was a decade ago. My reinvention took a few years, quite a few if I include the research and prep I did before embarking on a path. But it was worth it. I am so grateful that I anticipated what was coming—the potential identity-less “dead zone,” a neither-here-nor-there existence devoid of children and life purpose that can define the empty nest. Because I got the jump on it, I was already in my Masters cap and gown and poised to begin my counseling internship when Sam left for college. I was so engaged—and, yes, empowered—in my new life that I had little time to mope.
Today, I work at the very tranquil Austin Counseling Center, five minutes from home. I share space with a good group of like-minded therapists. We occupy the floor above a classical music school and hear only trilling piano notes as ambient noise. I bring my elderly Bichon to work as an unofficial therapy dog: a canine Xanax. I go home for lunch. I take Fridays off.
The best part? The children witnessed my new becoming. They are proud of me. And all three have settled in Austin. We host family dinners on Sundays and otherwise try not to intrude. We are in the in-between: that nether-world between being parents and grandparents.
But we stand ready.