When They’ve Flown: Embracing The Solitary Empty Nest
Single parent Linda Zifer reflects on how her children "defined her role" in life, and how she came to embrace who she is now as "Mom"
Last week, I had the opportunity to share the story of a couple who had planned carefully for the day when their nest would be “empty.” I hope that Will and Kim Adamczyk’s story will inspire younger Patch families to plan for and anticipate new stages life has to offer. I also recognize that many of our readers have family situations that distract or preclude them from such planning.
To round out this series, I felt I needed several perspectives, and I wanted to interview a “Single-Parent Empty Nester” to share his/her story. When my initial lead fell through, I did what any objective journalist would do: I scrolled through my contacts and prayed for the Right Person to jump out at me.
Behold: Linda Zifer.
I couldn’t have been happier for the way things turned out. My day with Linda was so much fun I could hardly call it working. (OK, so most of the day, we weren’t working — brunch at the newly reopened historic Canal Tavern of Zoar, followed by a tour of her hometown and Sunday afternoon glasses of wine on the patio of her childhood home. Oh, and did I mention great conversation between long-lost friends?)
I met Linda several years ago through a class I was teaching, and I knew almost immediately that she would be a kindred spirit to me. Her raw passion for life, her unabashed willingness to tell the truth and let the pieces fall where they may, her spontaneity of saying what’s on her mind, sometimes to even her own shock, her articulate way of expressing herself, and the fact that she is a mom with a playful enough spirit to crawl around in the grass (yes, the two of us were doing just that, setting up the timer for our collective self-portrait, laughing all the while) — well, yes, those qualities rather remind me of ... me.
What an honor it is to share my friend’s story here.
When Linda was 40 years old, her marriage was unraveling.
“I felt single throughout my marriage,” Linda recalled, “but when my husband left, in 1999, I was truly alone. My children were 16, 12 and 9.”
Today her oldest, Mollie, is 30. Betsy is 26, and her son Frankie is 23. Though they went through a season where the idea of “family” was redefined for them, they made it into adulthood, and all three are college-educated and employed.
“I look back, and I realize that in the years of raising children as a single parent, I didn’t have a lot of time to plan for the ‘next stage.’ I just woke up and did the most immediate thing. I was single and working and educating myself and my children, and I was so preoccupied with keeping our sense of well-being and paying the bills,” Linda said.
“I tried to make everything feel as normal as possible for my kids. Even when I didn’t know how to make ends meet, I would tell my kids, ‘It’s OK’ And then I would hide out in the bathroom and pray for answers. I was too busy trying to make it through each day to think long-term.”
Linda feels that she missed out in some ways. She talked about the “levels” of the empty nest process — the first level being when Mollie went to college.
“I had an attitude of ‘OK, that’s one down and two to go.’ I didn’t love my children any less when they left the nest, nor was I any less concerned about them.”
She simply had a feeling of relief about the stress of getting them through school and all the issues that were a part of that, financially, emotionally and physically.
“I felt like ‘Oh, good, now I only have two to worry about.’ I could focus on two rather than three, and Mollie and I were both happy for her to move on to the next stage. But my attitude kept me from savoring all there was to savor. I wish I would’ve slowed down,” she said.
The thing she did savor, however, especially with her last child, was simply being “Mommy.”
When her son left, one of the hardest things to get used to was the loss of the sense of “purpose” that parenting children in the home gives.
“My kids defined my role in life. When you are no longer a taxi driver, a chef, a laundress, a storyteller … all of those roles, under the umbrella of ‘Mom’ are gone.”
It has been five years since her youngest moved out, and Linda has finally come to a place of comfort and acceptance with how her mothering role has changed.
Getting there was a process.
“Now, I’m used to it. I’ve been through the grief of my role of motherhood being changed forever. I had to mourn that.”
She’s ready to embrace who she is now.
Linda cautions women to pay attention to their bodies and to understand that their hormone levels can affect not only how they feel about their life but what they can and should do.
“We change physiologically. When you are in your 20s through 40s, you have the child-bearing hormones that make you feel invincible. You can carry four bags of groceries and two kids and open a door all at once. Now, I set my groceries down. I take care of myself. Women need to understand that not only are they left without children, their bodies have also changed. Realizing that and accepting it can allow you to not feel so ‘flawed.’ Acceptance is huge.”
When the children are gone, Linda says it is time to be your own child, to nurture yourself.
“My little playmates are gone, so now I have to devise my own play dates and make plans. I’m having fun again, and singing in the shower; I get to have fun in a different way. I never want to stop playing.”
What are the things she does for fun?
“Well, taking a chance on a friend who got a hold of me out of the blue,” she winks at me.
“Just embracing my friends on a different level. Having a glass of wine together on a Sunday afternoon in the sun…”
Linda is able to connect with friends in a “totally fresh” way, being completely honest and not worrying about what others think.
She is, hands down, one of the most contented women I know. She looks forward to the future with her adult children.
“I’m ready to return to my role as a mother, recreating that for them on the holidays, making visits special. My kids deserve that.”
For the newly “empty nested,” Linda advises: “Sit with it. Enjoy the emptiness. It might not feel comfortable at first, but just sit and listen to what you’re experiencing; really embrace it. Don’t be in a hurry to get to what’s next. Stay with yourself for a while, and really feel it. Then you’ll truly be ready for the next thing.”