One week ago my husband and I drove our only child to college.
Yes, we officially became empty nesters!
I have transitioned through other roles with glee and delight; for instance, when I became a wife and then a mother. But becoming an empty nester not only raises a whole new set of emotions, but it also earmarks a transition in parenting and an opportunity to recalibrate my own priorities.
No longer is there a need to attend high school athletic games or volunteer on various committees to support my son’s activities. Suddenly there is free time in my schedule and free space in my brain as I experience the range of benefits from my new empty-nester role.
But underneath the joy, freedom, and more time to focus on myself, there is a sense of sadness. And it’s not really about missing my son. It is more about what it means to be a mother. Somehow the college transition boldly highlights my 18-year old’s need for a different type of parenting.
Mothering now requires a careful tap dance along a very fine line of encouraging increased independence while delicately providing support for my college-age son. I am moving from parent-in-charge to parent consultant. Ultimately it’s all about learning to let go and for me to keep my mouth shut most of the time; two big learning opportunities.
More importantly and perhaps the tougher issue will be to embrace a paradigm shift where I now have the bandwidth and time to consider my interests.
- Where do I want to focus my attention?
- How do I want to spend my time?
- What do I want to do for myself?
These questions have been tempered for the last 18 years while I have put my family at forefront.
If you are in a similar transition, here are some suggestions.
3 New Habit Nuggets:
1. Identify and accept all your emotions.
Transitions evoke a range of emotions and reactions some of which are often contradictory. Practicing emotional openness is key to moving through any transition. Drawing on the work of Stephen Hayes and his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), it is important to honestly accept your feelings and be present with them.
Here are some questions guide you:
• What am I feeling now?
• What is the sadness, joy, fear, loneliness trying to tell me?
Repressing your emotions has its health hazards and can induce anxiety and stress symptoms in your body. It is much better to accept those so-called negative emotions and be present with them.
Once you have mindfully acknowledged your feelings, you can diffuse your emotions by using cognitive reframing. For instance you could say; “ Oh, I am having the thought that I am feeling sad that my son is gone now.”
Reframing helps to unhook your emotional energy from the situation and provides you with increased agility to navigate forward.
2. Clean up your home environment.
De-cluttering your environment is pivotal to creating psychological space to reflect on what is next in your life.
A study conducted by a team at UCLA, “Life at Home in the 21st Century,” observed 32 couples over four years. In addition to finding “75% of garages in the study had no room to store a car” because garages were filled with 300 to 650 boxes, storage bins and other storage items, it found that mothers who thought their home environments were a mess experienced greater stress. Your surroundings impact your well-being.
Your brain is not wired to multitask and to do so comes at a cognitive cost. Research shows that a messy closet, house, desk, impacts your brain and its ability to focus and to process information.
Before my son left for college we gave away or threw out old toys, school papers, and other items no longer needed. This purging of the old was a physical step in acknowledging the transition we were both going to face while reducing the cognitive load on our brains and freeing up energy to consider what is next.
3. Follow curiosity.
For many, myself included, the road ahead is obscure with only tiny cracks of light guiding us forward. How do you figure out what is next?
In his book “Curious? Discover the missing ingredient for a fulfilling life” Todd Kashdan talks about appreciating and seeking out the new and that by doing so you are more apt to live a creative fulfilling life.
Harvard University Professor Ellen Langer identifies “curiosity” as the practice of mindfulness. Adapting a curious framework by intentionally noticing things with a new set of eyes will reduce our anxiety and stress and put you into the present moment.
By being present you can begin to be more engaged in your life and uncover your interests and passions.
Here are some questions to cultivate a curiosity mindset:
• I wonder what would happen if…
• How am I physically standing, sitting, or moving right now?
• The thing I find interesting now is…
• Who looks interesting to talk to?
• Who is at ease in this situation and what can I learn from them?
• I imagine this experience will be helpful by…
• Right now, I’m noticing many new things, including…
• I’m looking forward to understanding…
Instead of that anxiety about chasing a passion you are not even feeling, do something that is a lot simpler, just follow our curiosity. ~ Elizabeth Gilbert
Transitions provide you with the opportunity to more deeply understand yourself and what is truly important to you.