Turtles and trails: a 3-stage approach to the empty-nest years


So you say your youngest (or only) child is about to leave for college? Your nest will be empty? How are you feeling about it?

Two years ago, my husband and I were about to embark on this adventure. I recall looking forward to all the free time I would finally have. I was also terrified of all the free time I would finally have.

Would I be able to fill that time with anything worthwhile? Would my life still have meaning without the flurry of activities that surrounded the kids? I fretted that my life, like our nest, would feel empty.

Looking back, it’s clear to me I managed this transition in three stages, with each one being a necessary part of the process. The first two stages were a matter of survival, while the third one helped me thrive.

Through this process, I found promise and possibility in this new phase of life.

To illustrate these stages, let me digress.

My husband and I fill much of our newfound free time with biking. It eats up the hours and is good for our health and our spirits. (Note: When we take part in organized rides, the majority of bikers are empty nesters and retirees. If you haven’t thought about biking in your “later years,” you should try it!)

We vacation every year in Minnesota, and there are several lakeside and wooded bike trails we’ve grown to love. Different types of trails result in different experiences. For example, as we ride around Lake Bemidji, the four-mile stretch through the state park is as straight as an arrow. It follows an old rail bed and provides occasional lovely views of the lake. I enjoy the peacefulness and predictability of this long, straight path.

But to be honest, the long, straight paths can get boring. There aren’t many surprises since you can see what’s ahead for miles. The monotony makes the trail seem longer than it is in reality. 


By contrast, my favorite trails are the curvy ones that wind their way through the woods. My favorite, the Migizi Trail, bends and twists through pine and birch forests. Not knowing what’s around the next curve adds to the thrill. Will I find something wild and wonderful that will take my breath away? Like a deer. A fox. A patch of wildflowers. Or a stunning sunset over the lake. 


Or might danger be lurking around the bend? Like another rider on the wrong side of the path. Water across the trail. A skunk. Or a fallen tree.

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One frequent surprise on our Minnesota trail rides is the turtle. When I stop to takes its picture, it scurries away.

This year, I came across an overly fearful one. She pulled her head, legs, and tail into her shell and didn’t move. Frozen with fear and unwilling to face the scary person with the iPhone camera, she just sat there.

These trails and turtles trigger memories of fear and excitement I experienced as I transitioned to an empty nest. Your experience might be different. Which stage we enter, and how long we linger there, depends on our own needs, situation, hopes, and dreams. We each choose our own path.

Based on my journey (and that of others I’ve talked to), three stages emerge.

First, we can hide in our shells.

I admit, when my last baby left home, I crawled into my shell for a few weeks. I found myself crying for no apparent reason. I lacked the motivation to do anything more than necessary. I didn’t want to go anywhere. Like that overwhelmed turtle, I couldn’t move. 

Each of us handles emotions on our own terms. There’s no right or wrong amount of time to grieve losses in our lives. If hiding in your shell is right for you for a time, then that is what you need to do. But if you feel yourself becoming smaller and the shell becoming bigger, it might be time to seek help or call a friend. There are many books and online resources that specifically address the challenges of transitioning to an empty nest. Seeking help can be the first step in bringing yourself to the next level of empty-nesting.

Next, we can get out and ride the straight path.

This is an improvement over “turtle-in-the-shell” mode; at least we’re moving forward. We’re finding our ruts and staying the course. There is comfort in routine, and there is nothing wrong with that. Routines create a sense of order. When our lives are turned upside down overnight by the departure of our last child, keeping a sense of order is a necessary part of surviving.

My “straight path” is working at my job, tending my gardens, and cleaning my house. It’s watching Netflix, reading books and listening to music. Whatever feels comfortable and routine to you, whether it be work or play, keep doing it! Stay the course and keep moving on. The straight path is peaceful and predictable.

But this path can also be monotonous, offering little in the way of potential and possibility. Which brings us to the third stage.

Finally, when we’re ready, we can take the curvy trail.

If you truly want meaning and purpose during the empty nest years, then it’s time to branch out and chase your dreams. What new hobby, side hustle, career, or adventure did you put on hold while you were busy raising the kids? Now is your time!

After spending a year in our predictable patterns of life, I put on my “Brave” hat and took a chance on myself. I had dabbled in writing before, but seeing an ad for an online writing class encouraged me to take it to the next level. I was (and still am) filled with doubts and fears about writing, and what lies ahead. But this new challenge has already provided more rewards than I imagined, and the possibilities get my adrenaline pumping so that sometimes I can’t sleep at night. 

As a couple, we’ve also spread our wings. We’ve explored new cities, landscapes, and other attractions by car, bike, boat, and on foot. There’ve been a few mishaps along the way, but we are making memories and enjoying the ride!

As we get ready to enter our third year of empty-nesting, we continue to dream of new possibilities. We pray for guidance and protection as we round each bend in the road. We’re prepared to stop and re-route if we hit a roadblock. We’re ready to reach out to friends who can help us over life’s hurdles.

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But mostly, we’re looking forward to the thrill of the ride and the joy in the journey.


How will you face your empty nest? Will you crawl into your shell? Or will you venture out?

Which paths bring you peace, comfort, and predictability? Which paths inspire and excite you? Are you willing to step out in faith when you’re not sure where a new path will lead?

Feel free to share your fears, your routines, and your dreams by leaving a comment!