When Betsy’s son, Sam, left for college, she cried for three days. He was the last of her three kids to go, and being a mother had defined her for 25 years. “It was as if I’d been at the center of the greatest party — and now it was over,” she lamented.
Waving grown kids off to college is not just about them. It’s also about you. It’s about how you’ll respond to the empty nest and what you’ll do to re-feather it. It’s about your marriage, your friendships, your work life and finances and the hobbies and passions you might now actually have time for. It’s about what you’re going to do with the rest of your life.
In our interviews and surveys with hundreds of parents of 18-29-year-olds for our recent book, Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years, we found an A-to-Z of emotions after grown-kids leave home: grief that the lively and meaningful, full-time parenting years are over; regret at past mistakes or time not fully savored; relief that the hard work of raising challenging kids is easing and joy, even giddiness, at the freedom ahead.
(MORE: How to be a Great Long-Distance Parent)
In this column, and the ones that will follow each month, we’ll draw on our research and expertise to offer suggestions for how to enrich this post-parenting time of life, as well as negotiate the delicate art of stepping back while staying connected to your 20-somethings.
Here, then, are five strategies to nurture the post-parenting stage of your life:
1. Give Yourself Time
Just as you wouldn’t expect your college freshman to learn all the ropes the first week on campus, be patient with yourself as well. Figuring out your next steps is a journey of self-reflection and reinvention that takes time.
“When I came home from taking Max to college, I was devastated,” remembers Mimi, a career counselor and single mother. “It didn’t matter that people said, ‘Your house is so much cleaner.’ I missed Max’s shoes in the middle of the living room.”
She spent the first year after his departure soul-searching and shifting gears, asking herself, “Who am I now? What am I engaged with? What is my life’s meaning? How am I needed? What’s my role in my growing-up kid’s life going forward?”
As she saw Max moving into his independence, she felt freer to explore new possibilities — a writing class, exercise, traveling. She even started an “off-to-college moms’ group” to get support from other mothers going through the same identity shifts. With kids at different launching points, all the moms are works-in-progress, gradually imagining their new lives going forward.
2. Revive Your Relationships
Yale psychologist Elizabeth Rubin sees many couples who are reevaluating their relationships at this post-parenting transition.
For couples who’ve kept their bond strong and their spark alive, grown children’s departure can present a positive opportunity and a renewal of passion. But, she adds, some couples have difficulties because the kids have been their focus, and now they’re looking at their own lives, including their marriage, and may not like what they see. About 25 percent of divorces in the U.S. occur after 20 or more years, often at this kids-to-college crossroads, and for those over 50, that number has doubled since 1990, according to a 2012 AARP study.
For some, there’s relief in moving out of a troubled marriage. But for those who want to revive an unsatisfying partnership or deepen a good one, use some of your opened-up time to tend your relationship: share exchanges about your joys and concerns, reinstate a date night (or two), have an adventure together and make time for intimacy.
(MORE: How to Fall in Love With Your Spouse All Over Again)
And whether you’re married or single, give the same loving attention to your friendships. People with strong friendship networks live longer and happier.
3. Take Stock of Your Work Life
While taking the temperature of your marriage, it’s also a natural time to reflect on job satisfaction.
For many, fulfillment at work peaks at this transition — good pay, important responsibilities and years of expertise. But others may need to make adjustments caused by burnout, losing jobs, changing paths, retiring early or re-entering the job market after a long period devoted to caring for children and running a household.
By midlife, most people have a spouse or partner, grown kids at college and perhaps grandchildren and elderly parents, all of whom may require financial support. Midlife adults also have more “stuff” than emerging adults do — a house, a car, a retirement plan — and may not be able to walk away from the job that pays for their stuff, even if they dread going to work each day.
So asssessing your future work choices and potential retirement becomes a complicated equation based on your earnings, savings and financial responsibilities.
4. Review Your Finances
Don’t sacrifice your own financial security to pay for your grown kids’ college educations and expenses, cautions Carmen Wong Ulrich, author of Generation Debt and an expert on Millennial money issues. “When parents help their kids at the cost of their own retirement,” she says, “that money will become their kids’ to pay back down the road.”
(MORE: 5 Best Money Strategies for Boomers)
Do the best you can to help your kids out with tuition and living costs and then let them take out loans, which they’ll have many years of rising income to pay off.
Meanwhile, increase your annual retirement contribution to at least 15 percent of your income, if possible, especially if you’ve been shortchanging it while raising your family.
5. Try Something New
Novelty is the spice of this time of life. On your own, with a friend or partner or for your community, make plans to do something you’ve always dreamed of doing — as simple as a nightly post-dinner stroll, as challenging as learning a new language, as helpful as tutoring at a school or as adventuresome as a far-flung trip.
Once your kids are well launched, you can focus on your own goals and dreams. Said one mom we interviewed: “My kids’ freedom is my freedom.”