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The One Question This Empty Nester Hates Being Asked

Maybe this drives you a bit nuts as well.

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Andrew B. Myers/Gallery Stock
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Recently, I ran into an old friend I hadn't seen in a few months. We spent a lot of time together when our kids were younger and played sports together.

Back then, our days were hectic. I remember us on the bleachers lamenting how little free time we had between carpools, meal-prep, endless laundry and homework help. "One day, things will calm down," we would say as we piled our kids in the car and headed to the next event.

That “one day” has come. Her two kids are independent adults, the same as my two older children, and my youngest is now in his second year of college.

“I can’t believe your baby is in college,” she lamented. Then she asked, “So now that your youngest is away at school, what do you do all day?”

Since becoming an empty nester, I have been asked this question a lot. People think asking a middle-aged woman her age or weight is rude (for the record, 57, and no comment), but those questions don’t bother me. Yet, when I am asked, “What do you do all day?” I tense up. Why does this question bother me — and why do they ask?

It Could be Genuine Curiosity

Dr. Gail Saltz, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast, explains, “When a question comes from someone who is in the same position as you, they may really want to know how you fill your time. They may wonder what other people do with their free time. They might be looking for inspiration or ideas from someone in a similar situation.”

Maybe you found a new hobby, joined a book club, or are training for a marathon. Or perhaps you volunteer for an organization or found a part-time job. A friend may be looking to you for inspiration or guidance as they navigate what they are doing all day.

Or is it Insecurity?

Another reason a person might ask this type of question stems from insecurity. “It may be that the person inquiring isn’t feeling totally happy or fulfilled themselves,” says Dr. Saltz. "It may not be their intent to hurt or insult but to make themselves feel better by comparison.”

“For example, a person who works full-time may ask a person who doesn't work what they do all day, she adds. “The hope is that hearing about how the unemployed person fills their day will sound boring or unproductive. It may make the working person feel better, especially if they were having doubts about their job or wishing they didn't have to keep working for financial reasons.”

Or Are They Judgmental?

“It is like Part 2 of the Mommy Wars from years ago,” theorizes Dr. Saltz. "Working and stay-at-home mothers were at odds about who does it 'best.' Now, that same conflict can gear up again after kids leave the nest. ‘So, what do you do all day?’ can have the undertone of, ‘So what are you doing now that you don’t have an excuse to be home and not work?’”

“If a person had a paying job for 20 years without many vacation days and finally had the opportunity to retire, people would say, 'Good for you' or 'You deserve a break after 20 years,'” she adds. “But when it's a stay-at-home mom, there isn't the same response. Instead, it’s more, ‘So what are you doing now that you don’t have an excuse to be home?’”

"Unfortunately, many women have been putting down other women for years, and at every stage of life, those women find a new way to do it.”

Defining a Worthy Use of Time

Society is very into productivity as a measure of self-worth and success, explains Dr. Saltz. “Whether it is earning money, creating tangible or doing good works for others, we want to think we are productive with our time and when we aren’t, we can feel ashamed.”

A person who spends an hour writing in their journal may seem less productive than someone who spends an hour writing a proposal for a grant for work or a charity organization. But if the journaling pleases them or is therapeutic, why is it any less valuable?

The same is true for any activity that brings you joy. Spending time with your grandkids isn’t less valuable because you don’t earn money. You don’t have to be a professional farmer to enjoy spending hours in a garden.

Is It Me — Am I the Problem?

As a freelancer, some days I am super productive — I'll work out, get some writing done, check tons of errands off my to-do list and maybe see a friend for lunch.

Then there are other days when it's 5 p.m., and I have no clue where the day went. I've mostly been browsing Amazon and doom-scrolling on the internet. I used to say, "If only I had time, I would work out consistently or cook healthy, gourmet meals for dinner every night instead of ordering takeout.” But I have the time, and I still don't.

Whether or not the woman in the grocery store was judging me is debatable. What is clear from my reaction is that sometimes I judge myself. I feel guilty for not always being productive.

Redefining Worthwhile

Being an empty nester, especially for stay-at-home mothers, can trigger feelings of insecurity. Dr. Saltz says, "It's perfectly normal to go from active parenting to empty nesting and feel like you have lost purpose or wonder, 'Who am I now?'”

It's also a chance to re-evaluate what gives your life value. "It can be hard to quiet that inner critic that believes we need to be making money or busy all day to derive self-worth," she explains.

Dr. Saltz suggests taking time to adjust to the loss. The next step is self-reflection. "Ask yourself, 'What would I like to do now?' If the way you spend your time gives you pleasure, it's worthwhile."

This time of life can be an opportunity. It’s a chance to slow down if that is what you want — try new activities or explore a dream you put on hold because you didn't have time. Or to spend time with old friends, make new friends, or find more enjoyment in solitude.

I may not know what I do all day, but I've realized that’s perfectly okay. I have free time, a luxury many people don't have and wish they did. I am grateful for the chance to figure out “What’s next?” at this stage in my life.

The first step is silencing the judgment from others and, most importantly, from myself about how I spend this time.

Do YOU hate getting this question? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships