This parenting gig isn’t just about our kids – the parenting years are a big and crucial chunk of our lives as moms, too. Even though our role as mom takes a lot of time and energy, there are a few things we need to hold on to for ourselves. And I mean hang on with the selfishness and tenacity of a 5-year-old in the toy aisle at Target. If we don't, our lives as empty nesters in five, 10 or 15 years really will be empty.
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I traveled for work this week. When I travel, I talk to people. My students claim I have a calling as a professional networker, but I just think it’s interesting to hear people’s stories and compare notes on life.
On this trip, two conversations stuck out to me. Both were with working moms who are a few steps ahead of me in their parenting journeys. Their kids are in college or young adulthood, or even married with their own kids. Both women boasted successful careers and spoke warmly about their grown children, but only one seemed to look back and feel good about the choices she made during her busiest years of parenting younger kids. Only one feels good about where she is now during the empty nest stage. Only one epitomized the mom I hope I will be in 15 or so years.
Mom #1 – A Success Story
I sat next to Mom #1 in a large lecture hall waiting for a speaker panel. As I fielded text message updates about my kids’ soccer games, she leaned over and told me to enjoy these years because she misses them now that her kids are in their 20s.
She’d brought her husband to the conference and he was on a fishing trip while we attended the conference. (I was a little jealous that she could use the work conference as a fun getaway with her husband.) She asked about my kids and reminisced about her earlier parenting days – the many friendships formed with the other parents over competitive cheer events and Friday football games.
She also shared a party idea I’m totally planning to steal. When her youngest daughter graduated high school, she threw an empty nest party. She made little bird nests and tucked in an invitation to the party and drove around to stick them in friends’ mailboxes. She said wanted to embrace what she knew would be a somewhat hard transition, so they drank wine, played games and talked about what came next.
She looked around at the couples and saw some who were looking at a spouse they hadn’t really “seen” in years. She looked at others who were more than ready to embrace their newfound freedom. She looked at some who didn’t have much of a life left now that schedules didn’t revolve around kid activities. They were ready, or maybe scared, to rediscover themselves and their spouses.
She introduced me to her husband later that day, showed me a picture of her new puppy, told me about her upcoming knee replacement and plans to get back on the tennis court, and talked about the exciting things she had going on at work.
She’s the mom I want to be when my kids move out.
Mom #2 – A Sadder Story
I sat next to a different woman at a networking lunch. Now near the end of her career, she’s an educator and a grandmother. But she spent her busy parenting years creating and growing a global corporate agency. She shared that she had always worked a lot, she mentioned a divorce and then admitted she had worked so much over the years that she lost track of many other important things.
She brought up the quote about no one’s grave stone ever saying “Here lies a person who wished they had worked more.” It was clear she had regrets. She’d built a successful business, traveled the world, raised kids. But it was clear that as she nears retirement, she has serious regrets. I felt sad for her, and motivated to not find myself in a similar situation in 25 years.
Making My Future Self into Mom #1
Bottom line: parenting tops my list right now of the things I care to get right. I feel the weight and gift of responsibility I have for helping to raise the next generation. For parenting boys in ways that encourage them to be honorable men who impact other people in positive ways – maybe also faithful husbands and loving fathers. For being intentional about teaching my daughter to know her own value and ability to make changes for good in this world – whether it’s through a job, service, relationships or being a mother herself.
But none of us wear a single title. I’m mom, but I’m not just mom. There’s a danger in losing ourselves to that role. A danger to us and to our kids.
I read articles about helicopters moms and lawnmower parents and the damage it does to our kids (things like higher anxiety and less satisfaction with life), but what about the repercussion for us as parents? The gaping void when our fledglings leave the nest and suddenly we don’t have other lives to patrol. Potentially a very scary place of reflection and regret about goals not accomplished, dreams not pursued or relationships left stale or broken.
This parenting gig isn’t just about our kids – the parenting years are a big and crucial chunk of our lives, too. If we’re really smart, they can be a time to create strong friendships, build a strong foundation for our marriages, hold tight to who we are and what we like to do, and advance our careers in ways that dovetail with our parenting, not damage it.
I know I’ll never stop worrying about my kids or coming to their aid – no matter how old they get – but these years as our kids march toward 18 present a unique minefield of losing ourselves in several important ways.
Below are five areas where we need to selfishly hang on to ourselves during the most demanding years of being moms. They’re important and I want you to remember them later, so I’m wrapping them up with some Hollywood examples that will hopefully keep them top of mind. (Yes, this is a Jedi mind trick I also use with my students because it really works!)
Hang on to the Things You Enjoy Doing
I started this blog on the plane ride home from my work conference. I’d already typed A League of Their Own into my laptop before I glanced over and realized that the man sitting next to me was watching it on his phone. I'm fairly sure it was a sign I’m on the right track (or that he’s reading my laptop over my shoulder.)
This classic movie follows the Rockford Peaches and the launch of a professional women’s baseball league. I saw the movie for the first time years and years ago. I remember Kit and rock star Gina Davis. I also remember Tom Hanks and his iconic line, “There’s no crying! There’s no crying in baseball!”
But this movie came to mind as I looked at the difference in how Mom #1 and Mom #2 hung on to their interests and hobbies even during the busiest times of life. I remembered the blond player on the team who was a mom and chose to play on the team even though it meant travel during a time in history where moms not staying home to raise their kids didn’t go over very well.
Sometimes we do need to put things on hold. Or scale back. But we shouldn’t altogether stop doing the things we enjoy just because life is busy and kids call.
Do you like to run? Ride a bike? Play tennis or softball or volleyball? Cook? Read? Grow things? Take pictures? Travel? Do some type of crafting? Volunteer?
Don’t let the things you enjoy doing get lost in the shuffle.
They might get less time, but they shouldn’t get no time. Woman #2 now sits at the end of a successful career with grown kids and the realization that she doesn’t have any hobbies – she lost them somewhere along the way. Now she has the time and doesn’t know what she likes, or liked, to do.
Make Time for Your Friends
I’m pulling out some old-school Sarah Jessica Parker on you with Girls Just Want to Have Fun (fun fact, she’s from my home state of Ohio). Kristie and I talk about friendship quite a bit, and there’s a reason. We’ve seen the value of friendship in our own lives, and the research on the loneliness that is so prevalent among women today tells such a sad story. Seventy-five percent of women say they wish they had stronger safety nets. They feel alone. We talk more about these stats in our post about why moms should make more time for friends.
Friendships require consistency – time spent talking or together.
The busy parenting years leave time in short supply. But the key is consistency, not quantity. We can choose to be consistent in touching base with long-time friends we value. We can intentionally lean in to friendships with those people we find ourselves coming into contact with on a regular basis. Other moms on the sidelines or dance halls. Coworkers. Neighbors. They might be our next long-term friends and the people we invite to our empty nest party.
Though it sure doesn’t feel like it now, wise people continue to tell me that the years of kids living in my house go by in a flash. When the kids head on to their next adventures, I want to turn toward friendships as one welcome answer to the unfamiliar question, “So, what do I do with my free time now?” Friendships are part of my long-term plan to embrace each phase of life as it comes along.
Prioritize Your Marriage
Unrelated sidenote: my roommate and I wore the Runaway Bride soundtrack out in college. If you graduated college anywhere in the early 2000s, take a look and see if you recognize a few.
This one’s tough, and I feel completely unqualified to talk about it. I’m no marriage expert, and much of the time I worry whether I’m doing the right things now to be in a strong marriage when my kids leave the house. But I want to try. My poor husband often gets the short straw where my attention is concerned. Our brief daytime conversations are usually logistics- or scheduling-related.
At 9:30 p.m. when the kids are finally in bed, I often have grading or lesson planning to do before the next day. I get a bit…well, intense…about my to-do list and “having an unrushed conversation about life or feelings of frustrations” typically doesn’t make my list.
I make the same excuses most moms probably make:
“The kids really need me right now. They won’t be here forever.”
“This is just a really busy time at work right now.”
“I’ll sit down as soon as I load the dishwasher. I won’t be really listening if I have that sink full of dirty dishes in the back of my mind.”
Those things are probably true. But every time my husband and I make time to go for a run together or go out to dinner or steal a few days away for a trip (luxury of luxuries!), I’m reminded that I can’t take my husband for granted or always move him to the back burner without some consequences.
The same goes for him. The three pillars of strong friendships – consistency, vulnerability and positivity – hold true for the friend we married.
My husband and I see each other almost every day, but we need to find ways to actually connect on a consistent basis. We have to coordinate schedules, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we talk about. Discussions about other things SHOULD make it on my to-do list. And we can be a sounding board for venting, but no one wants to be married to a constant Debbie Downer.
We dug more into this topic on our post on keys to a happy and successful marriage.
I want to make my husband a priority because I don’t want to be living with a stranger in 15 years when my last kid packs her bags.
Lean In to Your Job
I’m listening to the audiobook Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg (she’s the COO at Facebook and a former Google VP). I acknowledge up front that this book can be somewhat polarizing. I know women who love it and women who bristle when it’s mentioned, because, to use Sandberg’s words, it’s about the “F word” (feminism). I agree with some of what she shares and disagree with other things, probably because we each have our own history that colors our opinions. But the book includes interesting and sometimes shocking facts about women in the workforce, and some pieces of advice I found particularly wise and helpful.
Sandberg encourages women to consider leaning in to things like career during the times of life when it seems easier to pull back – namely, when you have kids. She loves her work and she loves her family, so on that, she and I are in complete agreement.
The child-raising years ask a lot from moms. Our attention feels so divided and our time so precious and in demand. We need to make sure we’re being intentional about how we spend our time.
Julia Roberts delivered an Oscar-winning performance in Erin Brockovich as a single mother of three who needles her way into a job with a lawyer who unsuccessful represents her in traffic court. She finds evidence of groundwater contamination potentially caused by a gas and electric company that is making local residents sick. It becomes her mission to find justice for families made sick by illegal contamination.
Brockovich is a busy mom with more than enough on her plate. But she pulls a Sheryl Sandberg and leans in to her job.
I acknowledge that my Erin Brockovich example is on the extreme side, and I’m by no means making a statement that all moms should work or that all moms work because they want to.
But I am making the statement that if you like to work or want to work, that doesn’t have to stop during the busy parenting years.
Work might need to look different. I have friends who work from home or took a different job or negotiated a different schedule after having kids. Sandberg says she worked 12+ hour days before she had kids. After kids, she trimmed back to more normal person hours (with some extra time snuck in after kids were in bed – I’m right with you there, Sheryl!)
She worried she would look lazy or fall behind at fast-moving Facebook, but it really just made her more selective about what meetings really mattered and more productive about how she spent her hours in the office.
You might want to work because you’re passionate about the impact you make in your job or because professional achievements are a personal priority.🙋♀️🤷♀️ I write a whole post about reasons I want and need to be a working mom.
Isn't this a great shot of me and my students at our conference in San Diego? I give that city (and this work trip) an A+.
Sandberg says she understands the choice some moms make to stop working when their salaries barely cover the cost of childcare and it just doesn’t seem to make sense to stay. But she proposes a different perspective – considering childcare costs as an investment in the future salary you will have if you keep at least one foot in the working world.
Industries and jobs and technology change fast in today’s world, making it harder to jump in and out of the workforce. While a current salary might go mostly to childcare, staying in the workforce likely will mean that your salary or position or seniority several years down the road will look much better. That’s the payoff for the investment you make forking over nearly all of your salary for child care now.
Which Mom Will You Be
So I'm interested in what kind of empty nest mom you want to be - what you plan to do now to make it happen. Or do you have moms who inspire you with how they hung on to themselves during the crazy child-rearing years? I shared my stories, and I'd love to hear yours!