ChangeAbility: The Open Space of the Empty Nest

My little bird is flying off.  She’ll begin college in the fall, a long plane ride away from home. “What will you do when she leaves?” is the question I get from all directions with varying degrees of grave concern, so I’ve had ample time to consider. My reply is, “More than one bird can fly from an empty nest,” and I mean it. There are great opportunities for everyone involved when such a large change occurs.

“The Empty Nest” refers specifically to the parental home and its parental inhabitants once the children have left for college or for other life adventures. The connotation is of two parents—or in my case, one parent—rattling around aimlessly in a home, now way too big. The nesters that had been so focused on the care and nurturing of the little ones must now find another purpose, or perhaps some new inhabitants.

There are other reasons for an empty nest. The idea of “nest” doesn’t only have to refer to your home; it can also refer to your heart. My mother just lost her adorable canine companion of sixteen years. A friend retired from an important job they held for a long time and now, while deciding what to do next, they’re puttering around the house with nowhere to go. My best friend of thirty years suddenly and mysteriously cut off our friendship. Another friend separated from her spouse. Empty space, open time. How can we possibly fill these losses?

Coping with the loss and emptiness

When the nest empties, and our relationship to those who’d shared the nest with us changes—children, partners, or pets—our roles and our identities also change. My role as mother, as well as my duties as mother, will change when I’m not charged with the day-to-day feeding, clothing, scheduling, or driving my child around. If the majority of my identity is wrapped around my role as that kind of mother, then, when that type of mothering in no longer needed, I’ll be left confused and bereft.

With that shift in identity, I’m not just losing my child; in effect, I’m losing myself. I’m also losing the school community that supported my child’s milestones and my being a successful parent. So, the question of “What will you do next?” really is asking, “Who will you be next?” That question only adds stress to the situation. Who’s had time to reinvent themselves in the midst of full-on parenting or a demanding job? All of your attention is where it needs to be: on your child and family. Even if you already have a good plan in place for what’s next, there’re still many new challenges and course corrections as you find a new way. All of that takes time. You may very well have to wait for the next version of you to arrive. And oh boy, waiting is not something most people do easily or well. Having patience while waiting—well that might just be asking too much!

Waiting in Empty Space

When the habits and patterns of how you spend your time, or with whom, change, your life can feel empty, just as your home can feel empty. The empty space becomes devoid of the familiar and full of the unknown. There’s a saying, “Nature abhors a vacuum,” meaning that wherever there’s an empty space, something will come in to fill it, often at our own hand. Most people don’t like to hang out in the unknown; the human need to know is so great. So, they fill the empty space with imagined outcomes. These can be great fantasy scenarios, but more often, these are fears of what might happen, or worse, what might not happen, ever. In the midst of the great empty nest change, the voice comes in, “What if nothing ever changes to replace this emptiness? What if I’ll be alone and sad forever?” I’ve been there. Have you?

When we wait and are left to our own imagination of what might or might not happen, excitement can give way to feelings of frustration, uncertainty, and anxiety. Waiting in the empty space can be so uncomfortable that we find substitutes to fill the hole of what’s missing with: food, alcohol, drugs, sex, overworking, or binge watching, to name a few. We can fill our time with idle activities, or with people that aren’t truly satisfying just to not have to be alone, or to face the fear that we might be.

What does it take to be able to sit in the empty space of the empty nest without knowing what’s next? Can you develop the stamina to tolerate the uncomfortable sensations of what that empty space evokes in you—be it loneliness, anxiety, fear for our safety, discouragement, or simply not knowing who you will become?  If Nature always fills a vacuum, how can you welcome what Nature will bring, in her own timing?

Open space rather than empty space

A large part of what I call ChangeAbility (the ability to navigate change with more flexibility, creativity, effectiveness, and ease) is the ability to reframe how you look at change in general and apply that shift to the specific changes that occur in your life.

When you reframe this new period in your life as open rather than empty, new possibilities occur. In the openness there is room to move, to unwind, to clear the clutter, to reconsider, to reorganize, and to make new choices. In open space there is freedom and room to breathe.

A helpful practice is Keep/Drop/Add. It’s a very clarifying exercise. As you contemplate your next incarnation, ask yourself what of your former situation would you like to keep, what would you like to drop, and what would you like to add? You can make a list, or let it be a question you carry with you through your day.  Within this idea of finding more space and freedom in the openness, it might be helpful to clarify what you would like to drop (or what has been dropped for you) before you decide what new activities, adventures, or focuses you might want to add—making sure you have plenty of room for their arrival.

In the face of the empty nest, instead of filling the void, keep emptying and make room for what else is to come. I’m not saying throw your kid’s furniture out or discard what you’re not ready to part with—but consider moving in the direction of increasing the openness rather than trying to fill it.

By doing this exercise, it also helps you to feel that you have choice, rather than that life is simply messing with you. Maybe it wasn’t your choice for your dog to die, or for your spouse to leave, but given that you must accept the situation, how do you want to shape and engage the newly opened space of your life?  What wonderful things would you like to invite in?

Potent Space

For those of you who still can’t think of open as anything but empty and void, another way to consider open space is to perceive it as potent space. Rather than empty or open, think of the space as full: alive with electrical charge, potential, and unseen possibilities. We tend to walk around with the photographic image of ourselves as the foreground—positive space—and the space around us as the background—negative space. The negative space recedes to place focus on the positive space. What if you flipped that image to experience the space that surrounds you as the positive space and you as the negative space? That would allow you to experience everything around you as a medium that was full, potent, and prominent. In that fullness, new ideas are already floating in the substance, ready to take form when the time and the conditions are right. It’s the opposite of “pulling things out of thin air.” In potent space, the space is a rich medium that surrounds, supports, and feeds us. This is a much friendlier view. Whatever is next for you is already hovering around you, unseen, in the potent space. Your job is listen quietly and to keep making more room for it to emerge.

Couples in the Empty Nest

I’m a single mom, so my personal empty nest reinvention primarily affects just me. Most empty nests are left to a couple, which complicates the situation because instead of one, there are two. Though they have each others’ company after the bird has flown, they may well find that their marriage and relationship will undergo some large shifts as their focus comes away from the elaborate orchestration of co-parenting to rediscovering who they are with each other, now.  They’ll have the time and the space to do this, if they choose. Understand that each parent may be experiencing this reorientation process differently: at a different pace, with different concerns, and perhaps even with different purposes. If approached with attentive awareness, this can be an exciting period of rediscovery as a couple.  If not, it can shine a light on what has become devoid of life, and can pull them apart. It’ll require adjusting old habits and creating new ways of being with one another. Again, ask what do we want to Keep/Drop/Add about how we function as a couple? The answers require courage, but don’t be afraid; it’s an exciting time.

Some things to try

As you begin to explore the open, potent space of your empty nest you can try a few things:

Find pleasure. Do something that you really enjoy.

Enjoy your freedom. Do something you couldn’t do when your kids were at home.

Follow your curiosity. Try one or two new things you’ve always wanted to do.

Be bold. Try something, spontaneously, that has never even occurred to you until now.

Reorganize. Changes to your physical space can trigger changes on a personal level.

Be patient. Allow new ideas, endeavors, and things to pass through until you settle and reorganize.

Reach out. Return to some of your old friendships you didn’t have much time for.

Grieve the loss. Allow yourself to feel the sadness of this change.

Rest. Change happens in its own timing.

Of course I’ll miss my daughter deeply, and I’ll miss some of the essential ways I functioned as a full-time care-taking mother. At times, I’ll miss the role of mother as my ground of being, my primary reference, and my most important purpose in life, but my job as a parent is to launch my child into her own full and independent life. I’ve known this since the day she was born. The connection to my daughter will endure; its expression will be what changes, for the both of us.

There’s a blessing in keeping life simple during times of great change. Instead of trying to fill empty space, welcome it. Spread out in it, and discover what might be whispering to you in its quiet. Allow mourning to occur for the things or people that will never return—or at least will never return in the same way. Accept your confusion, or lack of new ideas, or even the lack of strength or impulse to carry a new idea out, right now. Rather than creating room in the space, this can create a space within you for new breath to arrive in all its possible forms.

And remember, more than one bird can fly from an empty nest. When you’re ready, that other bird could be you.

Sharon Weil headshotSharon Weil is the author of ChangeAbility, How Artists, Activists and Awakeners Navigate Change (Archer/Rare Bird Books 2016) a book designed to help readers navigate all the changes of their lives, drawing upon the collective wisdom of twenty-five change-innovators across many fields. ChangeAbility Playbook, How to Navigate Your Own Change (Archer/Rare Bird Books May 2017) is a journal workbook for navigating your own personal change. Bundled with The ChangeAbility Deck: 48 Reflection Cards to Change Your Life, they make a perfect change-support gift.  Sharon’s novel, Donny and Ursula Save the World, is called “the funniest book about love, sex, and GMO seeds you’ll ever read.” (Passing 4 Normal Press 2013)  She is also the host of Passing 4 Normal Podcast, conversations about change.




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