Career Planning For the Empty Nest

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Image of mom working next to daughter to show career planning for the empty nestWhen moms make decisions about our careers, we are rarely (if ever) just thinking about ourselves. We are often the primary caretakers of our kids, so if we’re pursuing a career, we have to think about how we will be able to meet the needs of our families at the same time. Some moms decide to stay home full time and opt out of work. Others may “opt in between” by choosing a career that fits with their children’s schedules, even if it is not their first career choice. Some may work part time instead of full time. And, of course, plenty of moms work full time outside the home. Regardless, moms often modify their careers in some way. There is no one right path for all of us. 

So if you want to pursue a career, what will happen when the hours of your mom job decrease–specifically when your kids “leave the nest”? Thinking ahead to the time when you will find yourself with more time and renewed energy, you might ask, “Can I resume, change, or even start a new career?” Mom and daughter working next to each other to show career planning for the empty nest

The bottom line: you can! Of course, there will be challenges along the way. For example, you may be worried about making up for lost time in the workforce. For some careers, it might be more difficult to start anew. However, it is also possible to plan ahead for your own future career steps, aside from being a mom, and part of that process is strategizing about overcoming obstacles. 

As you anticipate the time when your big kids leave home to pursue their dreams, you can define your own career goals and create an action plan for pursuing them. You can start journaling or keep a notebook about your career plans and add things a little bit at a time. The first step can be to dream your dream without thinking about the needs of anyone else. Focus on you! Here is something to try:

  1. Mom working across the desk from a daughter to show career planning for the empty nestImagine yourself waking up one workday after the kids are gone. You feel like you have your life together, and you are excited to start the day! What do you do exactly? What is your job like? What do you enjoy? How is your job congruent with your values and sense of purpose? Remember it is your dream, so you can make it all perfect!
  2. Start thinking about a few simple steps you can take in the coming months to prepare for that day. Set some goals, action steps, and deadlines. You do not need to have a very specific plan. Try to take some of the pressure off by thinking flexibly about steps that you know will move you along in the right direction. Here are some examples you might try in the upcoming year:
    1. Taking a few workshops,
    2. Reading some books related to your goals,
    3. Networking and/or reconnecting with a former boss, or
    4. Taking online classes with flexible scheduling.
  3. Think about who can help and challenge you along the way. Reach out to that person and share your thoughts. Establish an accountability partner. Be careful to choose someone who is really invested in you and your future. Coaching can help here! 

It is critical that you plan for your own future rather than lose yourself as you help your kids plan for their futures. That way, when your kids do leave the nest, the exploration and preparation for your career transition–whether it’s returning to full-time work, shifting to a new industry, or something else entirely– has already been started! I know it works. It is how I slowly built IGNITE Peak Performance over the years before my kids were out on their own. I have helped countless women dream, plan, and reach their own goals. I would love to help you do the same. Sign up for my email list to learn about upcoming workshops and feel free to reach out to me for coaching or questions

Contributor Statement: Melissa Santos (melissasantos@alumni.stanford.edu) contributed to the research and writing of this blog. Melissa currently works as a psychology lab manager and is preparing to apply for graduate programs in child development.