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11/03/2013 07:21 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Flight Path Of The Empty Nester

Is your son or daughter now off to college? Is your only son or daughter now off to college? Numbers count. The relative silence can be loud. With a different mix at home, you have time on your hands. Thoughts arise: Now, what do I do? Now, who am I?

As a cognitive anthropologist I have recently been traveling around the US talking with women, age 40-59, about how they experience and relate to the changes and transitions of mid-life. As is normal for all us humans, their talk is propelled more by emotions of hope and fear, than by logic.

For the most part, the women in this age group are positive about their life and outlook. They feel a certain maturity and self-confidence that comes from a better understanding of life, they trust their gut more, and they have come more often to ask themselves, not in an angry or defensive way, Does "It" Work For Me? They are also coming to terms with the fledgling insight that you can't compartment nurturing others and nurturing your-Self.

The other side of the coin is heard in their typical refrain: "Aging sucks." For many, they feel young inside, but self-perceive themselves as old(er) on the outside. They intimate a fear of physical decline and loss of attractiveness. And they bemoan -- and laugh at -- the fact that "aging is not gradual, it's a catapult."

A perfect summary of how they feel about the double-edge sword of jumping from their 40s into their 50s is: "Wow! Ugh!" They are proud of how they feel and look, and also face "being closer to the end than to the beginning." They say they are energetic, but less so; sexy, but with a bit less sexual desire (near the end of the 50s), and that romance and intimacy is now more important than "the itch."

Having the privilege of talking to these women, and being a man who, by definition, has few "clues," I was somewhat surprised to hear an essential paradox in the life of many middle-age women: That paradox is, on one hand, the joy that comes with nurturing and care-giving; and on the other, the ease with which their life became too routinized, too numb, and how they forgot to nurture themselves. Many of these women were stay-at-home moms, but a good proportion of these women with the same sentiments were successful career women.

It was not uncommon during these sessions to hear comments such as: "I just lost myself, but it didn't matter. I was mainly paying attention to my kids. You know you are lying to yourself, but you just can't a grip on it. I'm ashamed of how I dishonored me by losing myself."

Now, reflecting on this circumstance, the majority of these women see being an empty nester as a "re-awakening," and they hope for a balance, a "new middle." But they ask themselves, out loud: "Do I know how to nurture me?"

For the women who seem to display an intention to take flight, here's an amalgam of what they say:

Crisis can be freeing -- it makes you realize you are alone, even if you have the best husband and support system. This is because you are the only one who can make the best decision for you. So you get down to basics and become intensely focused on learning about who you are. When you 'see' the answer to: Am I going to roll over or am I going to fight and survive? You become more aware of who you really are.

The story then continues: To nurture myself, I have to be responsible to my-self, for my-self, and put me first. I'm responsible for what I put in my body; I'm responsible for my days; I'm responsible for my life; I'm responsible for how I talk to others... and I'm responsible for the daily management of all of the above (not just once every 6 months). The result is, I'm more alert to my life and to life itself.

These women are also smartly practical and realistic. They recognize that "A little change is a BIG change." One women called these, 'Stretching Sessions', similar to yoga, saying "But it's not only your body you're stretching now, it's your-SELF." The new goal is not wearing a smaller size dress, but what many verbalize as "Wearing a life that fits you."

These women state their requirements for evolving their self-story: (1) Self-Esteem ("fight for who I am"), (2) Conscious of my-Self ("Of what I wasn't doing, and of losing my-Self; Who's dream am I living, anyway?"), (3) Readiness ("I asked, where is my strength? I answered, I have it."), (4) Openness ("I have to wrestle myself out of my cocoon"), (5) Have a Wider Vision ("I need to have a curiosity about what's out there"), and (6) Sensuality ("I must become aware and feel my reactions to what's out there and act on that").

The Hero's Journey entails living one's present condition and finding the source of life to bring you forth in a richer or more mature or other condition. At least for the nationwide, cross-section of women, age 40-59, I talked to, many just might do just that.

Happily, these women almost always ended our conversations with a laugh. Here's one: The real traumatic birthday is 30, not 40 or 50. At 30, as one women said, "I had to say, "Oh my, now I gotta grow up." Another humorous comment I frequently heard as our talks came to an end was "Having an empty nest provides for a 'second puberty'."

I can imagine these women taking flight.

Earlier on Huff/Post50:

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HuffPost
BEFORE YOU GO
5 Tips For Empty Nesters With Newly Empty Nests
PHOTO GALLERY
5 Tips For Empty Nesters With Newly Empty Nests