Taking Flight

Pain of Empty Nest Came Early.
So Did Freedom.
by JAK guest blogger, Julie O’Keeffe, of Wauwatosa

Many moms face empty nests with high school graduation and the college send off. My experience came when my kids were 5 and 8.

When my kids were almost 5 and 8, we sat them down on the couch in the living room. Then we gave them the news: We’re getting divorced.
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Ten years have passed. During high school graduation season, as moms sense the new limitations of their parenting role, I can only reflect back on my own experience. I went through the letting go process when my kids were just kids.

Sons and daughters are going off to college in the fall. My kids went to their dad’s. These college kids will have all sorts of adventures in which we’re not involved. Yep, started doing that ten years ago. It hurt. Really hurt.

I’ll never forget the time that my daughter came home after an exciting adventure with her new family. The outing had been on my list of special activities to experience with her. She relived all the exciting moments in my living room, as children do, and I could barely keep the fake smile on my face and the tears inside.

I did eventually establish a new life and rebuild. I also learned new boundaries, understanding when I could expect to be part of my kids’ lives and when I shouldn’t. I learned the hard way not to set myself up for disappointment. It’s taken ten years to learn these new boundaries and I still get the urge to cross them occasionally. It’s easy to build a case in my mind of justified involvement where it’s not necessary. I can almost always quiet the urge, often by calling a friend, finding the words for my deep sense of vulnerability and loss, and then admitting that it’s really a fear-based response (a blog topic for another day).

The Hard Work of Freedom

The up side to all this is the freedom I’ve gained. Motherhood was hard 24/7. When I see moms struggling in the store with their kids, I think, “Wow, you’re with them every day for the next 18 years.” I spend about half of my week on my own. That’s how I’ve been able to pursue many things in my life that have challenged and fulfilled me. I felt trapped as a full-time mom. Why the hell did moms get the short end of the stick, I’d ask myself back then. I often tell people I felt like I was Amelia Earhart marrying Charles Lindbergh. Two adventurous souls who hooked up. And them Amelia had to mothball her plane for an extended time, while Charles still got to fly far and wide. It was killing me on the inside, a slow, hidden death of the soul. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of upsides to parenthood, and I expected to have my freedom curtailed. I just thought both parents would share the sacrifices more evenly.

When my world was ripped apart, I would sit in my living room, with no friends to speak of, and wonder what to do with my time. I had completed my first five triathlons in the year prior to the divorce, so I focused on training for the season ahead. Lonely runs, lonely swims, and lonely bikes. Lonely weekends. All this freedom and so lonely. I joined a triathlon club and went to weekly club track workouts, walking onto the track by myself, feeling stupid, exposed, vulnerable. Others walked onto the track with friends, immersed in conversation. I kept attending the workouts, week after week and made it a point to talk to people. Really pushed myself. Eventually, I became the membership chair on the club board.


Fast forward. I love my freedom. More specifically, what I love is the adventure that I can pursue with the freedom. A friend recently created a thumbnail sketch of me. In it, I was a 14-year-old, racing across our farm field in Iowa on my mini-motorcycle, hair flying back in the wind, embracing freedom and adventure. I had no idea what a prelude those bike rides would be. I’ve traveled to Africa alone to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, ridden horses in Mongolia owned by nomadic herders, sat in natural hot springs in Chile (a trip that cost a frugal $600), ridden my bike across Iowa, hiked the Grand Canyon 40 miles with my kids, a tent, and a backpack, and started my own business. I also dreamed up the goal to complete 100 triathlons in 20 years–which I’m doing (current count is 55). All this possibility came with my freedom.

After a half Ironman in 2004

After a half Ironman in 2004

I thought my need for some semblance of freedom might make my kids think I valued it more than them. But what I observe is that my kids have inherited my sense of adventure and self-reliance. (To give much credit to their father, it also comes from him.) They are forging their own healthy paths at ages 15 and 18. Indeed, my daughter graduated from high school mid-year and is in Australia for a semester. I didn’t have to wait until May to watch her venture out of the house. It happened many years ago.

Moms, Start a List

To every mom sending a child off to college this year, I know you’re already planning to bring along a Kleenex box for the long drive home from campus. Indeed, we should all own stock in Kimberly-Clark. But before you pack up your son’s or daughter’s things and take that road trip, start a list of audacious goals and intentions. You will soon have immense freedom. What will be first on your list?

Comment: Seriously, what will be first on your list? Make it something that excites you, something that makes you come alive just thinking about it. Please, no “Paint the living room” unless you flippin’ love it. Feel free to share below by adding a comment.


In addition to being the mother of 2 teens, Julie is the owner of Next Step Goals and author of the new book “10 Critical Strategies for Finding Fulfillment in a Hectic World”.


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