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Part of the sadness that can accompany watching one’s children grow up, become more independent and leave home comes from the acute awareness that a familiar way of life is changing.
For many parents, the realization that the job they have embraced with complete dedication for two decades is being cut to a part-time gig can be both painful and unsettling. Along with missing the daily interaction with their children and the accompanying tasks and tumult, parents on the cusp of becoming empty nesters may feel a loss of identity, leading many to ask the question, “What comes next?” (Although I address mothers in this piece, I fully understand there are dads in this position, too.)
Paula Sacco, a certified professional life coach in Lexington, Massachusetts works with women going through this transitional period in their lives. She helps them “reinvent themselves and design their life post-mothering.” She refers to this stage of life as the third act; the first act is the original career you might have had and the second act is motherhood. Paula feels it is important for women to recognize that they are not the same person they were before they had children. For moms who gave up careers to stay home with their children, she suggests a four step program (finding clarity, gaining confidence, taking action and having accountability) to help them rediscover their passions and find a purposeful life.
The first step in Paula’s program entails identifying goals for yourself. Whether you are interested in filling a few hours a week in a creative manner or reentering the workforce with a full-time job, before you begin your journey it’s important to determine what you hope to achieve. Your goals may change over time; however you need to start somewhere. A friend of mine began taking jewelry-making classes classes several years ago and has since turned her hobby into a business; she currently sells her designs online, in stores and at craft shows.
In the process of finding that third act, you are sure to meet interesting and engaging people who will enhance your life.
The second step, building confidence, may be the hardest hurdle for women who have been out of the workforce for a long period. I struggled with lack of confidence when I began writing again after decades of being a full-time mother to my three sons. Before I could muster up the courage to compose a single sentence, I was overwhelmed with negative thoughts such as, “What if I have forgotten how to write, what if I have nothing to say, what if I look foolish and fail…?” Battling teenagers left me unsure about my skills beyond food shopping, stain removal and the ability to endlessly repeat the phrase “Did you do your homework?”
I know that I am not the only one who has felt self-doubt; I often hear women disparage themselves and say things such as, “What gives me the qualifications to [fill in the blank]?” I appreciated the people in my life who encouraged me to try and to keep writing when I faltered. In addition to one-on-one coaching, Paula runs support groups for women so that they can discuss their feelings and learn how to believe in themselves again. She explained that, “there is magic in hearing someone else feels the same way you do.” I was delighted to find that writing was kind of like riding a bike, and although I felt wobbly at first, with a little practice I was able to get up to speed. I recommend seeking out those who believe in you and surrounding yourself with positivity.
The third step, taking action, requires finding resources and reaching out to people who can help you. Flex Professional, a business started by women, helps women in DC, Northern Virginia and Boston find part-time jobs and transition back into the workforce. Find out if there is a similar program in your city, take classes to brush up on specific skills, and familiarize yourself with technology to ready yourself for an opportunity in a field in which you may be interested.
When I began writing again, I didn't even know how to copy and paste or attach documents to e-mails. It took time, patience and effort to become computer literate. By having her clients check in with her weekly, Paula ensures that they are progressing and are being accountable, which is the last part of her program. Even small steps, such as researching professions or taking a computer skills class can help you reach your goals.
Many women I know have embarked on new opportunities that provide them with satisfaction, joy and income. I am amazed at the wide range of things I see women doing as their children get older. One friend, who had worked in the financial industry for decades, left her job to be a stay-at-home mother for her girls’ final years of high school. When her last daughter left for college, she decided to become an SAT/ACT tutor because it would allow her to work with teenagers. After she interviewed and was offered the tutoring job, she trained for months before she was ready to work with students. My friend has enthusiastically embraced her new career, touting its flexible hours and the sense of reward her job gives her.
Another friend, who left her job as a nursery school instructor when she moved into the city, found herself with extra time on her hands and decided to volunteer at a hospital on a children’s cancer ward. When asked if it was hard to be with sick children, she explained that she really enjoys her job because she feels that she is making a difference. In addition, she loves hearing stories of restored health and the plans the children with whom she works have for their futures.
Paula told me about a woman she coached who began an after school program called Brix and Blox, which provides children a chance to unplug from electronic devices and connect with peers though Lego building. Women I know have become real estate agents, party planners, teachers, college counselors, artists, fitness instructors and entrepreneurs, to name just a few third act careers. In the process of finding that third act, you are sure to meet interesting and engaging people who will enhance your life. Not only is it a thrill to see something I write published, I also really like the editors and fellow writers I have gotten to know.
Sometimes opportunities just appear but more often than not, we need to go find them. At our age it may be hard to remember the things we once loved to do, but if we try, old dreams can be resurrected and new dreams created. The answer to the question “what comes next?” is as individual as you are.