Searching for the New in a Midlife Empty Nest

2014 was the first year I had no children starting school since 1992.

The memory of dropping off my daughter for her first day of pre-school, my 3-month-old baby boy in my arms, is so vivid. Everything in my life was brand new – my children, my home, my marriage, my minivan, my friends. There was so much to wonder about and plan for the future.

Raising children was filled with new experiences, opening doors for both my children and me. Each new teacher, new friend, new team, new skill, new interest – the ever-evolving lives of my growing children kept me constantly changing my focus and adapting to new expectations. The sense of anticipation at the beginning of the school year was always the most exciting for us – the teachers and classmates, textbooks, assignments, field trips, and special events all laid out on a school calendar, sent home in my children’s backpacks on the first day of classes (now I’m sure available only online).  I would diligently add everything to our color-coded family calendar that hung on the refrigerator – green for my daughter, red for my son. Along with all of the new events came new supplies to purchase – bats and balls, folders and pens and binders, costumes and uniforms and tap shoes and cleats and socks and tights.

The constant new is something I miss sometimes.

With my children grown and an empty nest, it’s not as easy to find things that are fresh and exciting in day-to-day living – and it was so easy when they were growing up. My children brought home news every day, from the good to the grumbly, and though sometimes their lives often seemed to overtake mine, they were a constant source of newness in my life. For months my son was obsessed with David C. who lived around the corner, the only boy he wanted to play with. Then he moved on to Alan P. Then Brad H. Each new friend became a different story to be told, another family to get to know, another parent to communicate with, another phone number in my DayRunner (remember those?). My daughter was in a children’s theater program for many years, and every 4 months they staged a new musical. There were auditions; then songs to learn, costumes to make (or hire someone to make, in my unskilled case), dance moves to memorize. Week after week we’d hear the soundtrack to The King and I, and then when that was over we moved on to Lil’ Abner. Then Oliver. I was carried along on their waves of newness with almost as much enthusiasm as they were.

And then there were the sports teams…the drama of being picked, or assigned, a squad, finding out which, if any, of their friends (and mine, of course) were on the team. The excitement of what major league baseball uniform he would wear, what her team name would be (a decision of monumental importance in girl’s softball).

And that was all before middle school.

Sometimes, it seems like there’s not much new at midlife.

Some of my friends travel a lot – they’re headed somewhere nearly every weekend, every month, planning trips and adventures. Travel is a great way to experience new things. I envy their spirit of adventure, not to mention their tolerance for frequent air travel, but that’s not something I’ll be doing on a regular basis.

I find the new in my life in books and films and television shows. I find it each day on social media, with entertaining and enlightening friends who share updates and news that I would never have found on my own. I find it in my friends and their lives, their children’s lives…post-children careers begun, their kids’ engagements and weddings, their grandchildren.

A generation of new is starting to grow in my circle.

I find the new in my grown children, whose lives are so vastly different from mine now, who spend their days in places I know little about, with people who know even less about me.

There are days when it seems as if everything new that will ever happen to me has already occurred – as if the future, which is all about me, about my midlife, is missing something. Where are the bright, shiny new school sneakers? The calendars to be filled in with endless activities? The growing, changing, new people my children were, each time I turned around?

This is middle age, this settling in. This is good. But even so, I’ll never stop looking for that new and shiny thing to get excited about. Some days I find it. And some days, I don’t.

Some days are as familiar as my husband’s face smiling as he walks in the front door, my dogs and my own thoughts.

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  • I have been wondering how it will feel when I no longer have school supplies or new clothes to buy, or the college calendar on my bulletin board. After reading this today, Sharon, I have a glimpse into my future when kids are no longer front and center.

  • Just this weekend I wistfully wandered over to the school supply aisle at Target.

  • My empty nest turned out to be temporary, but each time our son left, it felt the same. Children have to separate, and parents have to grieve.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Yes, and I think sometimes, as with when someone dies, grieving comes and goes. Usually I’m fine, but then WHAM I have one of those moments…

  • There is always husband swapping

  • This made me a little sad. Since my son started high school, I’ve been thinking about how I’ll feel when he goes off to school. I know I’ll be sad and will miss him terribly. But there’s also been a little excitement too because I figure it will be fun to be able to do what I want when I want and not have to worry about schlepping him to friends, school, baseball, etc.

    But your post made me realize that I should enjoy all the schlepping, all the dirty clothes in the bathroom and all of the eye rolls because pretty soon he will have his own life, a life I won’t be a part of 24/7. *SIGH* I knew today was going to be challenging when I got lost in my own neighborhood. LOL

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Most of the time I’m quite content with the empty nest, but yes, this time of year does bring up mixed feelings.

  • Thank you for this. It will make me enjoy the college “starting school” as a “starting” and not an ending. Still so hard.

  • I think this happens to all of us at this time of year when summer is almost over and we see kids and mothers school shopping with that list of new supplies. I use this as a time to reevaluate what I am doing and to find new goals for the next year. Alot of people do this at New Year but it is something I have always heralded in the fall. A new journal, a new trip to plan or even a new website to start. I will always be the Diary of An Alzheimer Caregiver but I am ready to include something else for me, it is a new travel blog that I am preparing to launch and maybe a new business along with it. We still have dreams. Let’s make them come true!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I’ve always thought of September as the start of the new year, too. It’s a great time to reevaluate, as you are doing.

  • Teresa

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have two kids to move into dorms this year, including my youngest. Don’t know how I’ll get through it. Wish I was buying school supplies instead of dorm things.

  • Love this post – love how self-aware you are and how you cherish such fantastic memories. Good luck in finding and enjoying all the new-ness that’s yet to come!

  • I actually felt quite sad reading this compared to your usual posts, but I guess it’s a reflection of the emotional roller coaster associated with an empty nest. The good, positive aspects have to be balanced with the not so good…

    I still have four more years of buying new school supplies, noting down school trips, getting to know new friends and their mums, etc with our youngest, but this time next year will be getting eldest son ready for uni. That thought gives me the heebie jeebies!

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I didn’t mean to make you sad! This is just one aspect of the empty nest. It’s so different, but most of it is good. Missing the excitement and fascination of raising my children is sometimes harder than others.

  • Love this, Sharon. I so relate to this. I miss the newness and even the tension of all those events and activities you describe! And for me, travel is not in the horizon these days for us either, as some of our friends have in their live… Oh well.. Alas… newness has taken on a new meaning for me these days…writing a new article, becoming acquainted with a new friend, resolving something regarding our adult kids that they ask advice about…watching the grandkids do something new for them…e.g. our 6 year old borrowed a sleeping bag for a camping trip yesterday… it’s so bittersweet a time for us now…thanks for sharing that…it’s wonderful to read.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      I do look forward to grandchildren sometime down the road, Miriam.

      • Yes! Before you know it, Sharon! Honestly, even with the grandchildren, I find myself pretty wistful certain times of year- feeling the “loss” of a sweet time that has passed…where we were still forming and molding our children…

  • This is beautifully written. I love the beginning of the school year. It’s such a time of fresh starts and I will definitely feel its loss someday. I’m sure it’s very hard. I look forward to reading your posts and hope you’ll let us know how it changes as time goes by.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Thanks so much. Most of the time I’m very happy in my empty nest, but sometimes I do miss the excitement of all those firsts. Maybe it’s the back-to-school stuff getting to me 🙂

  • I always looked forward to back-to-school shopping and the start of a new year. I miss the newness and the routine. Sometimes I go through phases of trying to do something new everyday, doesn’t matter how big or small, just to mix things up a bit, but it doesn’t last long. Sharon, we’ll just have to wait for grandchildren, and it will be even sweeter the second time around.

  • I guess that’s one good thing about being almost 40 when I had my little one. I have at least 17 years of it left. I think I’ll miss it too.

  • Maria Soles

    This blog was near to my heart and so very true. I can relate to everything you wrote, and it will give me something to reflect on today.

    We decided a few years back, during the crash of real estate market, to buy a second home. We spend a lot of time and money on this house, but it gives us something to be excited about and look forward to, as we plan on making this our full-time retirement home.

    At the same time, I see friends who are now off on trips every weekend or fabulous vacations, which are in fact, now very affordable because going with your husband is a lot cheaper than bringing the entire family.

    We all make our choices, and whatever they are, we need to have something new and fun to look forward to.

  • I know what you mean – back to school always felt like a new year to me – a chance to start over with something new and refreshing! I have a few more years until my nest is empty, but it’s already not the same – my boys can handle so much on their own now, so I’m not involved like I used to be. I started blogging because I needed that something “new” in my life. Reading your blog is always so comforting for me – helps to know that I will survive this!

  • Becci Michalski

    Our son is almost 25 and our daughter is 23 years old. They live on their own, 1,700 miles away from us, on different coasts. Since they’ve been gone, I haven’t been able to put a finger on where the melancholy I feel comes from this time of year. I realized through your writing, it is the lack of newness they spun into my everyday life that I’m missing. Your insight became my insight. Thank you, new friend.

    • Sharon Greenthal

      Your comment means so much to me – so glad you found my blog. It would be very difficult for me to have both of my children so far away from me.

  • Lisa L

    I always found September to be much more “new year” than January. And as much as I hate the end of summer, I’ve always loved fresh school supplies and first day of school outfits. We have one more year till the last first day of college for our youngest. Perhaps that’s why Rosh Hashanah comes at this time of year, to be a constant “new” when we need it most.

  • Greetings, neighbor! I live in Long Beach and signed on to your blog for the first time today, having read about it in a NY Times article, perhaps published a long time ago: not sure. I am getting ready to say goodbye to my 17-year-old only child, leaving on Jan. 18 for a semester in D.C., as a Senate page. I am divorced, looking for a job, and terrified about what life will be like without her: just me and the cat.

    Thank you for giving voice to my own thoughts and feelings. If you have suggestions, especially local resources, I would be grateful for you to pass them along.

    Less than four weeks and counting…

  • Hi Sharon! I’m proof positive that it is possible to stay curious and open and welcoming of the new without children. Because I’ve never had any, I’ve always had to create my own newness. And while not always easy, it keeps me reaching forward instead of just settling down and letting my world shrink. In many ways parents have it easier because they are so busy they often don’t even think about how newness shows up on their doorstep because of their kids. Fortunately my husband is similar to me and we are always “cooking up new things together” and perhaps that is something that has helped to make my relationship/marriage so very good. We’ve relied on each other for 38 years to keep things fresh and growing. Of course, the one thing that you have above all else at this stage is your writing career. When you think about it, as long as we keep writing about new and interesting things–there will ALWAYS be something new to come! ~Kathy

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