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What I've learned about myself and my career after becoming an empty nester

Journalist Katty Kay describes her struggle to replace the automatic sense of purpose that comes with parenting every day.
Journalist and author Katty Kay with her daughter, Poppy.
Journalist and author Katty Kay with her daughter, Poppy.Courtesy of Katty Kay.

I knew it would be hard to send my 15-year-old daughter to boarding school. But I had no idea it would be this hard.

Poppy, the youngest of my four children, left for a lovely school in Yorkshire, England, three weeks ago. It was chance for her to get to know her English heritage and experience life away from home. She’s doing well. Me? Less so.

I’ve cried every day since Poppy left, and I’ve fallen into a funk of purposeless-ness.

Our other three adult children are already living on their own, so now my husband and I are officially empty nesters.

Our home in Washington D.C. feels quiet and lonely. I miss the routine of rustling up lunch boxes and hearing the door open after school, her friends dropping by, or the giggles coming from Poppy’s bedroom. In my new rose-tinted nostalgia, I am even missing the grumpy, monosyllabic drive to school at 7:30 a.m.

But the funk also feels more existential, more long term. I'm afraid I won’t find something meaningful to replace the automatic sense of purpose that comes with parenting every day.

Katty Kay and her daughter Poppy going for a walk during drop off at her new boarding school in England.Courtesy of Katty Kay.

I knew this day would come, but it also feels like a cruel bait and switch. You spend years putting all your physical and emotional energy into raising children, and then poof, they’re gone. What kind of a deal is that? What a terrible return on investment!

I know, I know. I am still a parent. I am lucky to still have four healthy children who, in their own, more adult ways, still need me. But I’m not parenting every day, and that’s what’s thrown me.

I’m 56. I had my first child, Felix, at 29. That means I've been a full-time parent for nearly three decades. Until now.

What’s odd about this experience is that it’s so universal and yet so uniquely hard. There are a couple of distinguishing factors in my case. I lost both my parents this year, so there’s been already a lot of grief and loss. I went to boarding school myself as a much younger child, and hated it, so there’s probably a bit of PTSD creeping in. But every parent eventually has to deal with their kids leaving home. We’re all in the same boat, and we know it’s coming, so why haven’t we found a way to make it easier?

And this comes from a woman with an extremely fulfilling, really busy career. I’m fortunate to do work I really enjoy. I love doing political analysis on “Morning Joe” and other MSNBC shows. I’m excited about my new job as a senior editor and executive producer with Ozy Media and learning about a whole new field in broadcasting. And I’m writing a new book.

"Morning Joe" co-host and Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski, left with Ozy Media's Katty Kay, right.Miller Hawkins

It’s funny. I know the exhaustion and strain of being a young, working mother. I spent years juggling small children with the demands of work and wishing I could have just a little more time to myself. How ironic to find myself suddenly on the other end and missing that juggling act.

I’m hoping that with a little more time, my work and my marriage will help fill that hole in my heart. But right now, I’m grieving not just one child being away, but a whole era of my life when my role was clearer.

My husband misses Poppy too. But he’s certainly not crying every day, and it hasn’t changed his sense of self. He doesn't seem to feel his identity has been stripped away in the way I do. Maybe that’s a problem.

Katty Kay and her husband getting off a Vespa. After their daughter left for boarding school, a friend told Kay to try something fun, so she signed up for a Vespa sharing app.Courtesy of Katty Kay.

If empty-nesting fathers felt the loss of children the way mothers do, maybe that would reflect a society where men get as much fulfillment from parenting and relationships as we do. A world, perhaps, where it’s socially acceptable for men to prioritize their relationships as much as their careers. And if men could do that, would it make it easier for women then to step more fully into their own careers? Perhaps we need men’s options to grow in order for our own to grow too.

In the meantime, until we fix society, which I realize may take a little while, I’m prodding myself to do new things, like paddle boarding and taking our dog for longer walks. A wise friend told me to try something fun, so I signed up for a Vespa sharing app. This does not replace Poppy and the helmet is really bad for your hair, but there is something about riding a Vespa on a late summer evening that makes me smile. For now, that’s good enough.