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And Then There Were Two: What I've Learned About Transitioning To An Empty Nest

12/23/2013 06:59 am ET | Updated Feb 22, 2014

It seemed only fair that I take the time to do it right.

After all, I had 9 months to prepare myself for each child's arrival, why not prepare for their departures, as well? So last Christmas I made a promise to transition in stages, and the transition began with a blueprint of sorts -- a list of questions about how the empty nest might affect the many aspects of life including my home, children, work, lifestyle, and marriage.

From December to December I answered most of the questions, ignored a few, and added a couple more.

And now, here we are, one year later, and I've graduated to Act III. All in all, during this process, I've learned a lot about the importance of letting go, moving forward, sitting still, and the many benefits of white cake with butter cream frosting. Here are some of the highlights:

The house -- do I stay or do I leave?

I couldn't get over the idea of living in a house without kids. Why would anyone want to live in a house without kids? Of course, that is what people do, it's just that when you take away what was always in that house -- the energy and love that comes with raising a family -- it's awfully quiet. Memories are triggered by the simplest things: a light switch, a hallway, a smudge on the wall. So when both my sons were away at school, all I could think about was how much I wanted to move -- how much I needed to move.

Over many months and return visits home by the kids, that sense of urgency began to wane. The memories became a good thing, not a painful reminder of what once was. Here, in this house, this home, there is a place for them still -- a place for all of us, to reconnect. At some point soon enough that will change, but for now, as we continue to adjust to our new lives -- the kids especially, as they move from dorm to dorm, apartment to apartment-- it seems there really is "No place like home."

My career -- what's next?

Let's face it, raising a family takes time. It's a job, and a very important one. When I left my full-time work to go freelance, it was so that I could be present for my family in a way that was important to me. Along the way, my freelance career changed focus. Now, all these years later, I am, as always, considering a number of different paths, working on a number of projects. The difference is, I can focus more on me. It's taken some getting used to, this shift in focus. It's more about permission. About giving myself permission to do what I need to do to stay relevant and engaged. To feel creative again.

For many moms this is the hardest part of Act III -- finding the confidence, the drive, to focus on themselves, to be their own best cheerleader. And I can tell you this: it's not a quick process -- but it's the key to everything moving forward. You have got to believe in yourself.

If food is love, how do I adjust from cooking and shopping for four to cooking and shopping for two?

It's my upbringing. I can't help it. Food is love, and when the kids are home, trips to the grocery store are to buy foods that not only nourish their bodies and minds, but their hearts. I want them to feel loved, even if it's with a bowl of pasta. And I make most of our meals from scratch. Now that they're away, not only has my food budget been slashed, and not only does my husband sometimes do the grocery shopping, but I'm less stressed about mealtime. Let's just say that I no longer count bananas. Or care if I run out of something. It's not unusual for us to eat eggs for dinner, or to skip it altogether and eat cheese and crackers and something green to relieve the guilt. Sometimes, when my husband is away, I forget the guilt and eat a slice of my favorite store-bought white cake with butter cream frosting for dinner along with a glass of milk. When we both really want to feel loved, we go out to eat.

It's liberating not to be the main link in the food chain anymore.

Who Does the Chores?

The biggest secret I learned after the kids moved away is that chores are highly overrated. Now they get done when I feel like it. The things that once drove me batty -- that seemed to be about teens dissing parents and their requests -- drive me batty no more. There is no yelling. No dividing chores up. My husband and I live simply. Quietly. And surprise of all surprises -- the world has not yet ended because laundry is still in the laundry basket.

Just don't tell the kids.

Will I date my husband again?

I've written about it before -- the need for parents to make time for one another while raising a family. It's not an easy thing to do. The cost of a babysitter, coupled with the actual cost of doing whatever you decide to do, can be prohibitive, let alone finding the energy after a long day. My husband and I missed a few thousand dates along the way, and I worried about what might happen when we didn't have the kids around to focus on. But time has a way of healing all wounds if you let it, and conversation, common interests, and a shared history go a long way as well. So yes, I'd say we're dating again. Getting to know the new, old us, after 25 years.

Will I become a couch potato?

I used to hate the idea of sitting on a couch. It was for the occasional nap, visitors, aesthetics. There was much too much to do to sit still, and sitting still is unhealthy, besides. Now that the kids are gone, I understand that it was partly all that, yes, but mostly, there just wasn't a place for me. Now, I have a couch of my own. And in moderation, like everything else in life, it turns out it's not only quite healthy to sit still, but downright pleasant. And I've earned the right.

As for travel to faraway places, it's on the list. But with two kids in schools on opposite coasts, that's a lot of airline miles. Still, I'm starting to let myself dream. Paris is looking mighty fine.

It's been twelve months, and I've got a while to go yet. There are issues to be resolved, questions to answer. Making friends unrelated to being a parent is tops on my new list. So too is being a part of my children's adult lives, but from a wholly different perspective -- one where I'm connected in a meaningful way, but not the same way I once was. I'm here for the asking, but I'm asking less and less of them and more of me.

No, I still don't have the laundry room I always wanted, but I do dance to Al Green when I fold clothes. Nor do I have the good set of knives and the enamel pot I was going to buy for the last 20 years. Somehow, roasts were made, cucumbers were sliced paper thin, and onions, finely diced.

As for time, I'm learning to measure it day to day without the framework of raising children. It turns out they really do return for school breaks, and when they do, those notches on the pantry door for every inch they grow are still being added.

They go away, yes. But not forever. Just for longer and longer. Transitioning to their absence is about shifting the focus, allowing yourself to re-evaluate your own needs, hopes and dreams; eating cake, finding love, reconnecting. And understanding that the empty nest isn't really empty unless you let it be.

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