I’m a 44 Year Old Empty Nester, I Don’t Know What’s Next for Me

I can now do anything I want but haven’t a clue what that is.

March 1, 2024: It’s my birthday, the one day I’m allowed shameless navel-gazing. I don’t make the rules. All the self-help articles, memes, posts, and podcasts encourage you to go for what you really want, to live with intention, to align your thoughts with the end goal.

Countless books and workshops on manifestation teach you to alter your life to achieve your wildest dreams. But what if you don’t know what you want?

When my kids were growing up I just wanted what was best for them. (Photo credit: Tonya Rodriguez)

What if you don’t have a passion or a dream?

What if step one is where you get stuck? No one seems to address step zero, the one where you figure out what the hell you actually want. The premise all these motivational gurus come to the table with is that everyone already has a dream—they just need a kick in the pants and the discipline to go for it.

That’s not my problem. Discipline I have. Grit? Drowning in it. I just don’t know where to channel it. I don’t know what I want, or who I want to help, or what I want to change, or the impact I want to make.

At least not anymore. When raising my kids, I knew, based on their stage of life, exactly what I wanted. Babies: I wanted to keep them alive (and maybe get a little sleep). Toddlers: I wanted them to poop in the potty, eat a vegetable, and be cool in the grocery store.

When I was raising my kids I knew what I wanted

Young kids: I wanted to really be present in their lives. I wanted to be the one to mold and shape my children, not rely on paid help to raise them. I just wanted enough money to get by—food, mortgage, clothes, basics—so I could be a stay-at-home mom.

Adolescent and teen years: I wanted a cozy home in a safe neighborhood, decent schools, and a roomy vehicle to shuttle my kids and their friends around. I wanted connection with my children and opportunities for them.

I wanted enough money for karate lessons, flag football, snow cones, basketball training, team travel fees, new cleats every season, a family vacation every other summer, and modest college funds (state school, nothing private or Ivy). I wanted to make sure my kids understood how to make decisions based on reason and principle. I wanted to raise strong, good men who could go out into the world and use their talents to make it a better place.

I knew I only wanted what was best for my kids

Through every stage, I wanted what was best for them. And it was good.

For about 23 years, my primary goal was being the best mother I could be for my children. Yeah, I did other stuff—had a career, freelanced from home, volunteered, and had hobbies to fill free time, but there was no question that my number one job was being their mom. And I was 100 percent certain that was the right choice. I still believe that. It was noble and meaningful and mattered more than anything.

I believed what I did was meaningful but now it’s over

And now it’s over.

My youngest went away to college last fall. People say, “Parenting never ends; it just changes.” I get that. Of course that’s true, but the change when they grow up and leave your home is drastic. Life altering. Core shaking.

When your kids are adults, they are responsible for their own lives, and that’s how it should be. My day-to-day life literally does not involve them anymore, nor should it. Big picture stuff, sure, they loop me in sometimes, but they live in different cities, solve their own daily problems, feed themselves, and navigate their own schedules, relationships, jobs, and priorities. And that’s wonderful.

I am still young and energetic, what do I do now?

But here I am—a capable, energetic 44-year-old woman with approximately 16 waking hours of time to fill every single day for the next, what, 40 years? 50? And I don’t know what to do with it. “Get a fresh new job,” they say. “Focus on your career.” “Why don’t you volunteer? Travel. Find a new hobby. Learn a new skill.” Yadda. Freaking. Yadda.

I know, intellectually, that I can do any of those things, and I have been making changes. My job was eating my soul, so I quit. I’ve been halfheartedly looking for a new one, but everything just looks so meh.

I volunteer every week…meh. I run, work out, cook things, clean things, grow things, learn things, read things, watch things. Meh. Meh. Meh. Meh. I’ve been going through the motions looking for inspiration, but so far, it all feels empty and pales in comparison to raising my babies.

I know what you’re thinking. Then why don’t you foster or adopt?

Not gonna happen. My husband has no interest whatsoever. Both people need to be on board to take on a commitment like that. And if I’m being honest, I really don’t want to either. I like the idea of fostering or adopting, but in reality, no. Too hard, too much drama, and I do not wish to start all over again. I raised kids for over two decades, and I’m done. You can be incredibly fulfilled doing something but also recognize that once it’s over, you never want to do it again.

How do I find what I want to do with my life?

I know that I am privileged to have choices at this stage in life. Many don’t. So enough whining about what I don’t want to do. Moving forward. How do I find out what I really want now?

I have time, freedom, health, and energy, so what do I want to do with it? Where do I start? How do I figure that out? What is the magic Google phrase or ChatGPT prompt to figure out what one really wants?

My gut and spiritual beliefs tell me that the key has to be getting in touch with core values, core principles, divinely inspired purpose. And that notion always takes me back to … raising kids. I felt so strongly convicted, unshakably sure that my purpose for the past 23 years was to be a present mom.

No matter what challenges or difficulties arose, I KNEW that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. And there was such peace in that.

I want to feel the peace again of being exactly where I was supposed to be

I’m chasing that peace again. How do I find it? Try something new? If so, then WHAT is that new thing? Because so far, nothing feels right. Maybe I’m supposed to be still? Be still and wait for something to grab me? But be still DOING what? (To quote Uncle Rico,

Might as well do somethin’ while you’re doin’ nothin’.

Uncle rico, napolean dynamite

Today is my birthday, and I’m fine. Not sad. Not unhappy. But restless. Definitely restless. What oh what to do with my life now, when it feels as if the most rewarding, meaningful thing I’ve ever done or will ever do is behind me.

This is 44, so far.

If you actually made it to the end of this rambling, indulgent, pitiful post, then your ideas and advice are most welcome. Seriously. I’m not even kidding.

What do you know? Where do I start? What worked for you? Whatcha got? I’m ready to learn.

More Great Reading:

Four Steps to Surviving and Thriving In the Empty Nest

About Tonya Rodriguez

Tonya Rodriguez is an insatiably curious old soul trapped in the body of a neurotic suburban mom. She loves irreverent comedy, red wine, her husband, and two grown kids. Longhorn football makes her happy, and then sad. She works hard, runs for fun, reads a lot, listens to podcasts about politics and murder, and is currently transitioning from a career in marketing to...You can find her on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

Read more posts by Tonya

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