Independent feature, May 31 2023 - Embracing empty nests
May 31, 2023
“After 25 years of juggling work and family, I’ve reached a perfect stage where nobody cares if I’m home or not. At 55, I feel young, vibrant, with loads to do. I didn’t want to be defined by my mother role alone. I’m much more than that,” explains Fiona O’Sullivan, who has given up her three-decade career in the civil service to run her own business.
The image of the forlorn empty nester is diminishing. That woman who gave her all to raising a family, to be then left wondering what to do with herself, is being redefined. Perhaps, some nostalgic mourning aside, that woman is now more likely to be getting on with her vibrant, full life, shouting: “This is my time!”
“As my girls got older, I started to think about what I would like to do, rather than what I had to do,” says Fiona. “As I turned 50, I realised I wasn’t old and still had a massive life ahead of me without the pressure of raising a family.”
Fiona took early retirement to develop her previous side hustle running weight-loss and wellness classes with Unislim. “Neither of our dads got enough time after retiring before their health failed, so once we did the sums, my husband Eoghan got on board and retired, as he also had the Army Reserves to keep him fulfilled. We prioritised quality of life over lots of money, so with mortgage paid and pensions paying the bills, my Unislim income pays for extras.”
Today’s women are experiencing a unique midlife. Women’s value has traditionally been linked to their role of nurturers and mothers, and once this role was over, they were often desexualised and devalued. Now with extended life expectancy, we’re living a third to half our lives post-menopausal, and that role no longer has to be the only one that defines us.
As a midlife coach, I see many women starting over in their 50s and 60s, creating businesses, retraining, beginning new relationships or finding better balance.
“I’m doing something I love and combine work with my caring responsibilities for my parents in Galway and my life in Dublin by running classes in both cities. I cut my cloth to measure, spending less on clothes I don’t need, prioritising what’s most important. It’s brought new life to my marriage, as we’re both more relaxed. The alarm only goes off two days a week for both of us. Although my daughters live at home, I don’t cook or clean for them because they’re adults. So our relationship isn’t based on the parenting dynamic, but as women in our own right. I’m able to be Fiona and not just all the roles I played. I don’t have a concept of ageing. I’m too busy thriving rather than just surviving my life.”
Yvonne Reddin (52), is a single parent who is doing the opposite of retiring. “I’m fighting for my career now because I never had the chance to when I had small kids. I needed to find a way to balance raising my kids with a career I want.”
When Yvonne’s marriage ended and she returned to Ireland from Australia, she ended up back in the family home at the age of 34 with a four-year-old.
“Then my parents got ill and I helped my siblings care for them. I’ve always been a hairdresser, but loved writing, so I started a journalism course. It was really hard financially but the flexibility of study and freelancing worked. Just after I qualified, I found out I was pregnant with twins and had to give up my dream again. The relationship ended so I was left with twins and a teenager. Throughout those tough years, I always had a desire to do something more, and now the kids are older, I’m not prepared to wait any longer.”
Yvonne has slowly built a content creation business, recently publishing her first book,Talk Learn Connect— a collection of pandemic interviews.
"My 30s and 40s were really tough, but my 50s and 60s will be exciting, full of adventure, living to my full potential.”
“By the time my kids leave home, I’ll have the career I’ve always wanted. Now is my time and as they become more independent, I’m also getting my independence. My 30s and 40s were really tough, but my 50s and 60s will be exciting, full of adventure, living to my full potential.”
Madeleine Mulrennan (61), spent her career in education, moving from teaching to curriculum development to management. Now, balance is her goal. “Life is always transitional. A parent’s job is to help kids fly the nest, and when that time came for me, it felt natural to invest in my own life again. I now work as a consultant at a pace that works for me, and I’m always striving to learn and evolve with goals that aren’t related to work or family. Last year, one of my goals was to achieve a golf handicap of below 20, which I did. I also want time to assist my parents to live well and independently, and enjoy time with them.
“My mum is 84 and my dad is 89 and both are still healthy and active. My expectation of old age has shifted and I’m looking at 25 years ahead feeling young and active. Thriving, for me, means finding the right balance between work, leisure, family, friends, health and sport. We don’t know what the future holds, so I want to travel and reach for personal goals now, not putting them off for some distant time that may not arrive.”
At 53, I myself am currently single, parenting three teenagers and building a business. I’m striving to get to a place when they’re independent and I can go fullEat Pray Lovein my 60s, working off my laptop, catching up with my girls wherever they are and travelling with a freedom and sense of agency I won’t have felt in nearly 20 years. I encourage my clients to stop asking “what do I want my life to look like?” and ask “what do I want my life to feel like?”
How to take advantage of any empty nest?
1.Go on an adventure of self-discovery and take stock: What sort of life do you want? Who are you now, at this stage, with all of your life experiences? What worked, what didn’t, what do you want more of or less of, and what do you want to have happened in your life when I look back later?
2.It’s also important to shift from parenting children to parenting adults and develop clear boundaries — what kind of parent do you want them to have in their 20s and 30s, and what kind of parent do you want to be in terms of your output?
3.Articulate clearly that this is your time. There are people in your life who have possibly only ever lived in the paradigm where you run the family. They’re not going to realise you have a different focus unless you explain it.
4.Finally, ditch the guilt. Everyone in your life will benefit from you living more vibrantly from within, especially your children. You want to role-model to them that a woman has every right to thrive in her own life.