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Don't Just Survive...Thrive - Empty Nest Advice on Moving Forward With Your Life

Life Doesn't End When the Kids are Gone - It Opens Up to New Opportunities

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The moment I walked into my quiet house after dropping my youngest off at college, empty nest syndrome hit...hard. I burst into tears -- something I rarely do -- and for the next two weeks I barely got through the day without feeling overwhelmed by sadness at least once or twice.

But once the initial shock of being "alone" wore off, I realized something big: I could either mourn the past or jump feet first into the future. This next phase of my life could incredibly liberating...but only if I embraced change instead of resisting it.

Although I did't quite make a bucket list, I thought about all the things I'd wanted to do but hadn't because I'd used motherhood as an excuse and believed I was too "busy." With plenty of time to invest in myself and explore my interests, I did just that...and quickly found that I wasn't just surviving the empty nest, I was thriving.

If you're facing an empty nest, here's my advice on how to move forward with your own life once you reach this stage. These 11 tips -- gleaned from my own experiences -- will do more than help ease the transition. They'll make you question why you waited so long to focus on yourself and your passions.

1. Put yourself first

Each time a child comes into your life, you enter into an unwritten contract that you'll be putting their needs ahead of yours for the next 18 years until they leave home. This may chafe in the beginning but it becomes second nature very quickly. You sacrifice without thinking because that's what moms do. Now that you're child-free, learning to put yourself first is the most important step in your journey forward. Resist the urge to "do for" your child or manage her life long distance. You'll inhibit their growing independence and trap yourself in old routines that won't work in your new lifestyle. By letting your child go and putting yourself first, you're establishing a healthy foundation for an adult relationship with your offspring. Instead of seeing this "you first" attitude as selfish, realize that it's your reward to yourself for years of selfless service to others.

2. Don't touch that room

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Some kids pack up their bedrooms completely and leave behind an empty, echoing space. Others abandon piles of clothes, papers and unwanted possessions, expecting you to pick up after them. One of the most depressing aspects of the empty nest is dealing with your child's room. Don't. Let is sit -- it's not going anywhere. Kids hate it when you change their rooms around the minute they walk out the door. It also sends an unspoken message that you have moved on and there's no place for them back home. There's plenty of time to tackle that room, especially when they return home for Thanksgiving or Christmas vacation. You have better things to focus your energies on.

3. Reduce KP duty

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If you're the family's primary cook/chef/chief bottle washer, you've probably been doing it for years. Part of meal preparation is ensuring that your children pick up healthy eating habits. Now that they're gone, take a break from the full-scale dinner prep. Negotiate with your spouse or partner what meals will be home cooked (and who's responsible), what will be takeout, what will be eaten out, and what will be "fend for yourself." An added benefit: a lot of empty nesters find themselves losing weight because they no longer keep snacks or kid-friendly foods in the home.

4. Set goals for yourself

How many times have you said, "I'd love to do that but I have kids at home?" Now that they're gone, make that bucket list or write down goals you'd like to achieve, either personally, professionally, or both. With those reminders in front of you, you're more likely to take steps toward those goals instead of just saying, "I'll get to it someday."

5. Put 'date night' on your calendar

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You can have date night with your spouse, your partner, your girlfriends, or yourself. Just make sure that you regularly schedule an evening in which enjoying yourself is your main objective. Wednesday has become my date night and I spend it with my friend Sue; together we indulge our shared creative impulses and go explore thrift stores, antique shops, arts and crafts sales, art galleries, or sit and browse art magazines at a local bookstore. Sometimes we just have a drink or a cup of coffee, or split dinner at our favorite sushi restaurant on half-price sushi roll night. Because my whole family now knows I spend Wednesdays with Sue, they know it's Mom's night off and I don't have to work around anyone else's schedule to make time for myself.

6. Learn something new

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You can teach an old dog new tricks if she's a mom roosting in an empty nest. One of the first things I did when my kids left home was to pick up catalogs and workshop listings of classes in the area to see what was available. Though I consider myself artistic and crafty, I've never been good with clay. An introductory class to ceramics at my local YMCA taught me how to build with slabs and work with glazes. Six weeks and $86 later, I came home with a pitcher too big to pick up by the handle alone and a ceramic box with a lovely design lost under layers of too-thick glaze. My first attempts may not be gallery-worthy, but I learned something new and now have much more respect for the ceramic artists who display their wares at craft festivals.

7. Invest in yourself - work out

I've always admired women who have a regular workout routine that's built into their lifestyle. Me, I take something up for 2-3 months and then drop it when seasons or schedules change. I pay my gym membership, but how often do I go? Now that you have extra time, make taking care of yourself a priority, even if it's just a 20 minute walk each day. For my birthday, my older daughter bought me 3 sessions with a personal trainer at my gym and that was just enough of a kickstart to get me going on a regular basis. The older we get, the less we can afford to just assume good health will be with us always. Working out is insurance that we'll stay as fit as we are now even as we age -- or improve our fitness level over time.

8. Make time to play

Remember the goofy, silly things you used to do as a child that brought you pleasure? Spinning around until you made yourself dizzy? Skipping? Jumping up and down when you were excited? When did that stop? One benefit of the empty nest is that you can do those goofy things with nobody else around to laugh, stare, or comment on how idiotic you look. When a sudden fierce rainstorm swept through my neighborhood one afternoon last fall, I went out barefoot afterwards and waded through every big puddle I could find, heedless of the mud squelching through my toes or the fact that I was getting wet in the rain. I had so much fun playing and reconnecting with my inner child that I did this every opportunity I could get for the rest of the fall. Try it -- you'll be surprised at how much joy you derive from "playtime."

9. Talk it out

All the years that my kids were at home, I felt compelled to be the one who was always steady, dependable, who never cried or showed fear. This meant pushing down a lot of emotions, especially after both my parents died within weeks of each other. Once they left, I found I was more able to open up -- and that was because I spent a lot more time talking out how I felt with my husband and my close friends. Being stoic has its place, but it's not a healthy place to stay in. Talking about my fears has helped me to face them, and my friends have been supportive along with my husband. In fact, dinnertime is now very special to me and my husband as we can really catch up on what's important to us and there are no kids to interrupt us with their own troubles. The basis of a good solid relationship is the ability to talk to each other.

10. Engage in the unexpected

I've occasionally felt that as I grew older, I became too predictable. Both my daughters often break into routines in which they mimic me because they know exactly what I'm going to say or how I'll behave in a given situation. In your empty nest life, why not take risks and do crazy, unpredictable, even stupid things? I've found myself going on impromptu road trips with friends, putting myself in situations I wouldn't normally consider, and behaving in ways I know would embarrass my daughters if they were around. Nobody gets hurt, nobody suffers, and nothing is ruined except for my own reputation (and usually that's only temporary.) When you push the envelope of your personality, it's sometimes quite startling what will come out -- and it's worth the occasional risk.

11. Give back and volunteer

The world used to revolve around the volunteer efforts of women, but as our lives have grown more complex and busy, fewer of us have the time. I wanted to volunteer and give back to the community, but I also wanted to do something that utilized my specific skills. When I saw in the newspaper that a local library wanted someone with writing and social media skills to help promote their events and programs, I volunteered. Now one evening a week I spend 4-5 hours at the library where I help their PR effort, get to meet other interesting people (many of them wannabe novelists like me), talk about good books, and know my work benefits an organization essential to the community. After years of giving to my family, it's good to give on a larger scale, and volunteering fits the bill.

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