We Baby Boomers, the intensity generation, have hurled our hearts and souls into every life chapter. As the first generation to choose when to become parents, we became passionate parents, elevating parenting to the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy, playing Mozart to make our children “smarter” in utero. Then we became soccer moms, then helicopter parents, sometimes taking our passion to an unhealthy extreme that deterred, rather than advanced, our kids’ autonomy and self-esteem. When one’s child–especially the last one–leaves for college, what does a parent do with all that passion?
It’s hard to find a more worthy goal than one’s child. After my only son was born in the early nineties, I left my marketing executive position at Nabisco. I was fortunate to have the financial flexibility to stay home, and full participation in my child’s life seemed more meaningful than selling Teddy Grahams®.
When my son graduated high school and left for Emory University, my husband said, “It must be difficult getting ‘fired’ from your ‘job’ after 18 years.” He was right. If you do your job as a parent really well, your kid will be independent and successful, so the reward is being fired more quickly! You’re always connected, but now they’re grown ups who can fend for themselves. That was the goal, wasn’t it?
When I was first struggling with this paradox, a cynical parent I knew quipped sarcastically, “Get a life!” "I’ve had a life, thank you," I responded inwardly. "An absorbing, rewarding one. That’s why I can’t just turn off a switch and disengage."
This woman’s trite cliché trivialized the complex process of switching gears when one’s kids leave home, glossing over the grief-loss component and midlife transition issues. A wiser, wittier friend offered this advice: “Find a new source of meaning, and try not to get too fat.”
Wearing my psychologist hat, I suggest that empty nesters focus on “inner work” to fully embrace this new chapter. My favorite books: Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After…After the Kids Leave Home (affiliate link) by Carin Rubenstein, Necessary Losses (affiliate link) by Judith Viorst and Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (affiliate link) by James Holis.
But while doing all this “inner work,” we also need to be doing something external. For most empty nesters, especially with the exorbitant price of college, returning to the paid workforce is a necessity. For others, it may not be financially necessary but desirable, because a new vocational focus is so needed.
If possible, it is wise to consider a more socially meaningful variation on one’s occupation than before children, because the parental purpose is a “hard act to follow." After being a parent, one may need more “generativity” in one’s work role than before. For example, a corporate executive who opts out for parenthood may choose to return to professional life working for a nonprofit foundation during the empty nest years.
For getting a gig, I recommend the classic: Back on the Career Track (affiliate link)by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin. These authors have a resource-rich website, iRelaunch.com, and sponsor Return to Work Conferences to bring “career relaunchers” together with employers for education and networking. I will have the privilege of being a panel speaker at the upcoming conference at NYU-Stern on Oct 4, 2010. Panel will be moderated by Lisa Belkin, author of NY Times’ Motherlode Blog.
Another valuable conference for “career relaunchers” is Charting Your Course at Harvard Business School. I attended this program in 2009, when Position U 4 College was in its infancy. Despite the intimidating resumes of the mostly HBS alums, I discovered that most had paid dues as soccer moms and chairs of fundraising auctions, just like me. And all of us needed new confidence to re-enter the professional world.
In “getting a gig,” I also “got a life” that mirrored, and actually expanded on, the lifelong gifts I gave to my son during his formative years. My college consulting office is in my home, and it’s great to have teenagers here again. Somebody’s got to eat the junk food! And it is so gratifying to guide young people as they discover their strengths, find colleges where they will thrive, and initiate a trajectory that will ultimately help them find a rewarding career.