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Finding Yourself, Again

For years your life has been defined, in large part, by your children. From the moment you gave birth, slowly but surely your interests and pursuits took a back seat to your kids' wants and needs. Now, after 18-plus years in the trenches, you're a free woman. No carpool, no playdates to organize, no Saturday afternoons spent on the soccer field. But the irony is, you may feel suddenly adrift, no longer sure what you're passionate about or how best to spend your time. It's almost like you've forgotten how to put yourself first, because for so long you couldn't. Here are some ways to start reconnecting with yourself.

Don't feel you have to recreate yourself in a day. "This is a new phase of your life, and it's normal to feel unsure about your next steps," says Diane Lang, a counseling educator who teaches a class for women about dealing with midlife. "You may be asking yourself: What do I do next? Where do I fit in? What is my identity?" Don't, however, put pressure on yourself to figure out "what you will do when you grow up" in a few weeks or even months, she says. It's a process.

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Try not to rush in. While figuring out your next move, "be careful with the choices you make," counsels Nancy Williams, a counselor and author of Secrets to Parenting Your Adult Child. Many women find it hard to no longer be needed after years of child-rearing, so they grab "whatever activities they can to fill the void." The trouble is, you may accept obligations you later wish you hadn't, such as agreeing to chair the school carnival (again!) even though you no longer have kids at the school. Instead, spend time surveying your options before diving into that new job, hobby or volunteer position, she recommends.

Avoid the "shoulds." Another potential trap: Filling your new-found free hours with activities you feel you should do rather than want to do, says Penny Donnenfeld, a psychologist based in New York City. One way to combat this is to question the logic of a "should do" activity. For example, if you're feeling pressure to spend all morning cleaning out the refrigerator, ask yourself, what would happen if you didn't clean it right then? Would all the food rot? Would bacteria spread rampant? Would a friend come over, take a look inside and faint with horror? No. This line of questioning can get you to second-guess any "should" and open up your life to more meaningful activities, explains Donnenfeld.

Talk it out. Sit down with a friend and "muse about what sort of things you'd like to do that you haven't been able to either at all or regularly," recommends Donnenfeld. It can also be instructive to talk to other empty nesters to hear what changes they've made to their lives or what they wished they'd done.

Start small. On the path to rediscovery, don't feel you have to make Earth-shattering alterations to your life, like taking up skydiving or going back to school to get an MBA. You can add the newness and freshness you're craving by making small but worthwhile changes to your routine, says Donnenfeld. Some she suggests: "lunch with a friend, coffee by the river, attending a concert or exploring a new part of town, going to a lecture, exploring class opportunities online or some kind of house project."

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Go back to your childhood. Another way to figure out where to put your energies is to ask yourself, "What did I like to do when I was 5 to 20 years old?" recommends Lang, because early childhood is a time we are free to dream without censoring ourselves. Then see if there is a way to adapt this early dream to a present-day reality. Lang tells of one empty nester client, who, as a child, had wanted to be an actress but spent her career working in the more realistic field of education. The client took her childhood desire, gave it a more practical twist that still satisfied her deeper yearnings, and at age 47, became a stage manager.

Reconnect with your husband or partner. Part of finding your way back to you is also refocusing on your identity as half of a couple, says Williams. After all, you've probably neglected that side of you, too. One way to reboot your relationship is to start something new together, she recommends, whether it's dancing, taking a photography class or trying a different restaurant every Sunday night. The newness will rub off on your partnership and reinvigorate your relationship—and you, too!

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