Sitting at his youngest daughter's high school graduation, Bruce Katzen fought back the sting in his eyes. His thoughts raced from "Oh, my God, my baby is graduating," to "This is going to be an exciting time for my wife and me."
"It's a milestone," Katzen said.
This month, parents of more than 3 million high school graduates are celebrating the transition to the next phase of their children's lives. But where generations past fretted over the empty nest and the prospect of loneliness, today's empty-nesters are active in the workforce and see the transition as opportunity for better work-life balance and new routines.
As a dad and lawyer at Kluger Kaplan in Miami, Katzen, 52, feels he can't kick back yet at work. He has college tuition to pay. But he says he can stay late at the office without feeling guilty, exercise after work, eat dinner whenever he and his wife want. "We can have our own schedule, and it can be much more relaxed."
The new generation of empty-nesters are moms and dads who typically started their careers before marriage and parenthood. Now that their grown children are ready to move out, they confront the new household dynamic with the expected sadness but also with endless options for enriching their lives.
Some are asking for more hours at work or attending more networking events. Others are indulging in a new passion or hobby, traveling, dating, exercising, volunteering and mentoring.
Working mothers who spent years juggling job demands and kids needs, see a future without tough choices and parental guilt. "In some respects it's liberating," said Diane Katzen, a lawyer with Miami firm Richman Greer. "You don't have the stress of dealing with the everyday type of responsibilities. If I want to stay late at the office and have dinner at 9:30 p.m., I don't have to worry."
Katzen, 52, plans to enter the new chapter of her life by exercising and volunteering more. She looks forward to spending more quality time with her husband, Bruce. "I definitely no longer have the day-to-day issues that might be stressful on marriage."
Indeed, new research shows marriages improve once the kids leave home for college, jobs, marriage or independent living. The study by the University of California-Berkeley's Institute of Personality & Social Research tracked women for several decades and found empty-nesters reported higher marital satisfaction than women with children still at home. "It wasn't that they spent more time with each other after the children moved out. It's the quality of time they spent with each other that improved," explained Dr. Sara Melissa Gorchoff, a former Berkeley psychology Ph.D. candidate and now at a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Carleton College.
Because 40 percent of empty nesters are single, the transition also represents opportunity for guilt-free dating. Deborah Spiegelman, whose youngest of two daughters graduated from high school earlier this month, plans to do just that. "Instead of making the tough choice between work and kids, I can make the choice between work and me." Spiegelman, 53 and CEO of the Miami Children's Museum, will miss her kids like most parents do but said: "I'm looking forward to the next phase of my life."
And then there are the high-achieving empty nesters like Hillary Clinton who embrace the end of full-time parenting duties as a chance to accelerate their careers or begin new ones. After 20 years as a stay-at-home mother, Amy Schaecter, 50, of Weston, Fla., marked her youngest child's graduation by re-entering the workforce as a public relations account director at an agency, her prior career. "I adore my kids but I'm feeling invigorated by the new opportunities. It's like a new beginning."
Schaecter's husband, Neal, 52, a South Florida business owner, travels often to Asia for work and is thrilled his wife will be occupied with new challenges while he's away. He said taking his first child, his son, to college was emotional. "I got all choked up. I didn't want to leave." But by the third and last college launch, he's ready to embrace new leisure activities and alone time with his wife. "I still have tuition payments, so I will not be kicking back for a long time. But I do think I will take up golf or tennis or maybe take a cooking class."
Of course, there's another reason parents on the verge of an empty nest are coping well with the anxiety over their sudden kid-free homes. Technology has made it easier to stay tethered to their kids. Said Schaecter: "My daughter reassured me she will text at least once a day." Parents whose children go abroad can Skype without the expensive long-distance call. Schaecter says now that she's career minded, she's broken free of the need for an actual conversation every day. "I used to sleep with the cell phone next to my bed. I've gotten away from that."
Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegalgmail.com. Read her columns and blog at http://worklifebalancingact.com/.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.