Imagine for a moment.
I am in one room practicing basic preguntas in Spanish aloud to myself. Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” plays, and I throw my weighted juggling sacks to the beat. Every few throws, one lands with a soft thumph on the wooden floor. My husband is in another room hunched over a massive textbook, highlighting key terms and making notes in the margins. Fast food wrappers and half-empty drink cups litter the counter around him.
Is this a scene from 1993? Are we both in college and trying to pass the time on a random Wednesday night, well before there were streaming services and social media? Is this what life was like then?
It is not a scene from 1993. It is a scene from early 2022. And this is what two empty nesters are doing to pass the time instead of spending hours aimless wandering through our social media accounts or calling up the limitless eye-ball entertainment on the dozen services we subscribe to.
I am working on my elementary Spanish skills so I can travel with some confidence later this year to complete a 500-mile hike across northern Spain. My decision to learn to juggle is an attempt to challenge my clumsy self to learn how to learn. Plus, I want to surprise my college students by demonstrating that anyone can learn how to do something with effort and lots of practice. Tracy Chapman as well as the Indigo Girls and REM play regularly through my iHome along with my other favorite music from college.
Not to be outdone by my skill building, my husband has taken an even bolder step of quitting his job, hiking the Appalachian Trail, and signing up for a diesel engine class at the local community college. He is enjoying a freer schedule of working part time, studying part time, and renovating our house part time.
So how did two people who have one college graduate (who just started her “grown up” job this week) and one college student (two more years!) make the transition from full-time work and parenting and soccer trips and school projects to doing more of what we wanted to do?
First, it wasn’t easy or overnight. It took planning and the good fortune of financial stability to make some of these bigger choices. However, with some imagination, you can also make the most of an empty nest. Trust me, if you let it sneak up on you, you may find yourself staring into the abyss every evening at 6:30 p.m. wondering what, pray tell, am I to do with myself? Instead, try a few of these suggestions:
- Get moving. All the excuses that I had when I was a tired mom going from endless soccer games and school events are gone. I started hiking on the weekends with a group of friends (some of whom are near-empty-nesters) and discovered that I not only liked it, but I also liked all the equipment that went along with it. Now, I am the proud owner of wool socks, hiking boots, a 30L Osprey backpack, and Leki hiking poles. Adding a little (more) movement to your life is an excellent way to get yourself out of the house. Take up a new activity (Pickle ball is cool now!) or spend more time with an old one (Tennis, anyone?). Better yet, find a friend who is in the same boat as you and do it together.
- Learn a new trick. I am an insatiably curious person, so I love to learn. It is even better if I can show others that new trick. I have some friends who have learned how to knit or how to build a fence, albeit begrudgingly on that last one. No project is too small to try. If there is a community class (my Spanish class is an evening community outreach program) or a college class that interests you, go for it. You never know where it may lead you–to a new hobby or even a new career. My husband’s current fascination with diesel engines may provide him with some newfound knowledge for working on his own vehicle or it may lead to future employment. Who knows?
- Challenge yourself. I love the comfort of home and predictability, but it doesn’t breed excitement. That is one reason I chose a hike half around the world to aim for. Find something that is a little outside of your comfort zone and work toward it. If you are a regular 5K-er, work toward a half-marathon. If you have run several half-marathons, sign up for the whole thing. Learn a new language or brush up on a forgotten one, but add the challenge of using it with native speakers. Instead of slowing down; this is a good time to pick up the pace.
- Get involved. If you have more time now, consider working in your community, mentoring others, or volunteering your time, talents, and treasures with others. There are so many people who could use your wisdom or physical strength. Find out what your community needs and reach out and show up. What have you always thought about doing if only you had more time?
- Find what excites you. It is both scary and exciting to realize that you have more time for yourself. Do you know what you like to do? Do you know what would make you excited to wake up on the weekends or to plan a trip? For me it was the idea of something adventurous and a little challenging–but not too challenging. Hiking in Spain–with small towns every few miles and flowing red wine–seemed like the perfect endeavor.
- Make a plan. This is perhaps the most important point. One day you are juggling countless tasks and events and such, barely stopping to tend to your own grooming. The next day you are staring at the ceiling trying to figure out how to fill 48 hours of your weekend now that you don’t have laundry to do, school supplies to buy, and meals to make for picky eaters. Making a plan can help you manage all this time. For example, choose one thing to add to try, explore, research, or do as you move closer to having more freedom and free time. If you have the luxury of planning long-term, give yourself a goal to work toward: more financial freedom, better fitness, or a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Set small goals and work towards them.
And it is perfectly okay to slow down, reflect, and reenergize yourself. I am fully aware that my husband’s and my new hobbies are ridiculously over the top. You need to know that I have also spent time reading that stack of books on the nightstand, finished most of the crossword puzzles in my new book, and watched most of the offerings on Netflix. All of these activities are “new” in the sense I never felt I had the time to lounge around and do very little. Whether you plan to rev it up or slow it down during this time, take a moment to figure out what you want to do or what you want to be during this new phase.