An empty-nester looks at the rest of her life

September 26, 2012

Q. I am in a state of despair.

I stayed home to raise my children, and I’m still there for them, but they’re in college now and I want to get on with my life. And that’s the problem. People in my field of interest encourage me to follow my dreams, but my family is not very supportive. Although I’ve always encouraged them to do whatever they wanted to do, they tell me to take any job I can get and to forget about the things I want to do. And I just can’t do that.

It has taken me a while to figure it out, but if I work full-time at the university, I can take one free grad school class each semester. Am I wrong to insist on pursuing a future that would make me feel alive? And should I do it, even though I’ll be going against the people I love the most?

A. Life, it’s been said, is a journey, full of hills and dales and potholes, too, but you won’t be a happy hiker if you keep marching in place.


(Hadley Hooper/for The Washington Post)

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, everyone goes through eight stages in life, and the seventh one, which you’re facing now, calls for you to regenerate or stagnate — one or the other. If you stay where you are, you might soon feel stultified or stumble or even lose your way. But if you go in a new and positive direction, you should be happier and more fulfilled than you’ve been for a long time, partly because you are in your glory years. This precious time begins when your last child leaves home, ends when your first grandchild is born and might only last a few years, but that’s enough time to combine your knowledge, experience and interests to accomplish more than you ever have.

Your need to walk down a new path might baffle your husband and your children, so you must understand and respect their point of view, which is probably as strong as yours but essentially quite different. If your husband is looking forward to a quieter time now, he might be annoyed to find that dinners are sketchier than they used to be and that you’re studying when he wants to talk.

Your children will have other concerns. Your son might not want you to take down the Ping-Pong table in the basement, even though he hasn’t played table tennis in years, and your daughter might let you turn her bedroom into a home office but only if you leave her high school pennants and her posters hanging on the wall. Teenagers love all the independence they get in college, but they want their bedrooms and their playroom to look the way they’ve always looked. You and their dad make them feel safe, and so does your house.

Your children also need you to ask them about their dreams and their goals, rather than talk so much about yours. Tell them what kind of a job you want rather than asking them what kind of job you should get. You don’t need your children’s permission to work at the university or to work at McDonald’s, either. If they have the right to choose their own career — and they do — surely you have the right to choose yours.

They will tell you where to work, anyway, of course, but just smile sweetly and say, “I’ll think about that,” or “You may be right, but I think I’ll see how this semester goes.” And then smile again, stir the chili and ask your children whether they’ve had a good day.

Life won’t be perfect, of course, because life never is perfect, but you don’t always have to depend on your family for the encouragement you need. That’s what friends are for.

If friends can’t give you enough courage to stand up to your family, you might look for some essays on that subject in “The Thing You Think You Cannot Do” by psychiatrist Gordon Livingston (DaCapo; $20) or read “How to Raise Your Adult Children” by Gail Parent and Susan Ende (Plume; $16). Their solid but witty information should help you let your children go so you can make the most of your life.

Send questions about parenting to advice@margueritekelly.com.

Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly and find past Family Almanac columns. Her next chat is scheduled for Oct. 25.

SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=advice}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Comments
SECTION: {section=lifestyle, subsection=advice}!!!
INITIAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!!

UGC FROM ARTICLE: {allow_comments=true, allow_photos=false, allow_videos=false, comments_period=14, comments_source=washpost.com, default_sort=, default_tab=, display_comments=true, is_ugc_gallery=false, max_items_to_display=15, max_items_to_display_top=3, moderation_required=false, stream_id=}!!!

FINAL commentConfig: {includereply=true, canvas_permalink_id=washpost.com/8bvh5zpd9k, allow_comments=true, commentmaxlength=2000, includeshare=true, display_comments=true, canvas_permalink_app_instance=m6yzjj840m, display_more=true, moderationrequired=false, includefeaturenotification=true, defaultsort=reverseChronological, canvas_allcomments_id=washpost.com/km4ey0dajm, comments_period=14, includevoteofftopic=false, allow_videos=false, childrenitemsperpage=3, markerdisplay=post_commenter:Post Commenter|staff:Post Writer|top_commenter:Post Forum|top_local:Washingtologist|top_sports:SuperFan|fact_checker:Fact Checker|post_recommended:Post Recommended|world_watcher:World Watcher|cultuer_connoisseur:Culture Connoisseur|weather_watcher:Capital Weather Watcher|post_contributor:Post Contributor, includesorts=true, includeheader=true, defaulttab=all, includeverifiedcommenters=true, includerecommend=true, maxitemstop=3, includereport=true, source=washpost.com, allow_photos=false, maxitems=15, display_ugc_photos=false, includepause=true, canvas_allcomments_app_instance=6634zxcgfd, includepermalink=false}!!
Show Comments
Most Read Lifestyle