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Empty Nester? Get a Gig–with a New Attitude

An update of last year’s popular post.

We Baby Boomers, the intensity generation, have hurled our hearts and souls into every life chapter. As the first generation to choose when to become parents, we became passionate parents, elevating parenting to the apex of Maslow’s Hierarchy, playing Mozart to make our children “smarter” in utero. We became soccer moms, then some of us became helicopter parents, occasionally taking our passion to an unhealthy extreme that deterred, rather than advanced, our kids’ autonomy and self-esteem.

When one’s child–especially the last one–leaves for college, what does a parent do with all that passion?

It’s hard to find a more worthy goal than one’s child. When my son first left for college years ago, my husband said, “It must be difficult getting ‘fired’ from your ‘job’ after 18 years.” He was right. You’re always connected, but now they’re grown ups who can generally fend for themselves. That was the goal after all, wasn’t it?

When I was first struggling with this paradox years ago, a cynical parent I knew quipped sarcastically, “Get a life!” I’ve had a life, thank you, I responded inwardly. An all-absorbing, rewarding one. That’s why I can’t just turn off a switch and disengage. This woman’s trite cliché trivialized the complex process of switching gears when one’s kids leave home, glossing over the grief-loss component and midlife transition issues. A wiser, wittier friend offered this advice: “Find a new source of meaning, and try not to get too fat.”

My own recommendation is that empty nesters focus on “inner work” to fully embrace this new chapter. A few books that can help: Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After… After the Kids Leave Home by Carin Rubenstein, Inventing the Rest of Our Lives: Women in Second Adulthood by More  Suzanne Braun Levine, Encore:  Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life by Civic Ventures CEO Marc Freedman, and  Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by Jungian analyst Dr. James Hollis. For most parents, the exorbitant price of college and our shaky economy requires return to the paid workforce;  expansion from part time to full time work; or a prolonged time horizon of full time employment before retirement. For some, resuming a role in the workforce may not be financially necessary but desirable, since a new, active vocational focus is so needed.

Many parents try to identify a more socially meaningful variation on one’s occupation before children, since parental purpose is such a “hard act to follow”.  After being a parent, one may need more “generativity” in one’s work than before. For example, a corporate executive who opted out for parenthood may choose to return to professional life serving in a nonprofit organization. Our current economy may not give many midlifers the option to switch to a job with greater obvious societal purpose, but an attitudinal shift about the meaning of one’s work will certainly lead to greater satisfaction during this new chapter.

The great psychologist Carl Jung offered wise insights about the attitudinal shift that he believed was imperative to soul satisfaction in one’s work and life at middle age. To sum up his perspective: “The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning. The significance of the morning undoubtedly lies in the development of the individual, our entrenchment in the outer world, the propagation of our kind, and the care of our children… But when this purpose has been attained… shall the earning of money, the extension of conquests, and the expansion of life go steadily on beyond the bounds of all reason and sense? Whoever carries over into the afternoon the law of the morning, or the natural aim, must pay for it with damage to his soul…” (C.G. Jung, “The Stages of Life” 1930).

So whatever your new gig is, it needs to be approached with the purposeful perspective of an evolved, inner-directed, generative mid-life adult. For practical navigation of your encore career, I recommend the classic: Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-At-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work by Carol Fishman Cohen and Vivian Steir Rabin. These authors have a resource-rich website, iRelaunch.com. They sponsor annual Return to Work Conferences to bring “career relaunchers” together with employers for education, inspiration, mentoring and networking.

Another valuable conference for female “career relaunchers” is Charting Your Course at Harvard Business School. I attended this program four years ago, when Position U 4 College was in its infancy. Despite the intimidating resumes of the mostly HBS alums, I discovered that most had paid their dues as soccer moms and chairs of fundraising auctions, just like me. All of us needed confidence and a new vision to re-enter the professional world.

In “getting a gig,” I also “got a life” that mirrored, and actually expanded on, the lifelong gifts I gave to my son during his formative years. My college consulting office is in my home, and it is so great to have teenagers here again. It is gratifying to guide young people as they discover their strengths, find colleges where they will thrive, and initiate a trajectory that will ultimately help them find a rewarding career.

Related posts:  The Hero’s Journey,  Helicopter Parents: College and Beyond, College Freshmen Home for Thanksgiving, and College Family Weekends: Forever Jung.