The Nest Is Partly Empty, So Why Am I Less Productive Than Before?

by Meagan Francis
Originally Published: 

Back in September, when five—yes, all five!—of my kids finally went off to school all day, all together, all at the same time, I could hardly believe it. For the first time since becoming a mother 17 years earlier, I’d experience the mind-bending freedom of 35 hours each week to myself, all those days and hours stretched out ahead of me with seemingly limitless hope and possibility and promise.

After all, I’d been accomplishing a lot with little kids underfoot most of the day for over a decade. I’d built a freelance writing career from scratch while pregnant and caring for 4- and 6-year-old boys, and eventually added two more children, working through maternity leaves so short they would make women’s rights activists cringe (I always found it easier to work with a newborn in my arms than a toddler, for all that) and enjoying precious little formal child care throughout the years.

I became accustomed to working in short, unpredictable bursts of time, and pulling off juggling acts of superhuman creativity (ever conducted a phone interview from the hood of your running car while your babies nap inside or negotiated a contract from inside a closet while your preschooler watched Bubble Guppies in the adjoining room? I HAVE).

Now, all of that juggling and cramming and minute-hoarding would be a thing of the past, I figured. With so much time to myself, there would be nothing I couldn’t accomplish.

I envisioned long days spent writing, pitching, dreaming up new programs, networking, volunteering, setting up lunch dates with interesting people. I figured that the limits I’d felt thus far in my career would be magically solved by the introduction of more space and time and quiet.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

When September came and the kids went off to school, instead of hitting the ground running in a mad rush of energy, I just sort of…sputtered.

For the first time in over a decade, I lost my mojo for writing and blogging. I’d sit down at my computer with hours of quiet and focus stretching out in front of me, and…nothing happened. I began to wonder if I was on the right career path at all, and (briefly) considered getting a “Real Job,” the sort that would require a professional wardrobe and a daily trip to an office.

Well, I figured, maybe I just needed a little break from work to focus on some projects around the house and maybe have a little fun.

But I wouldn’t say I killed it in either the homemaking or leisure departments, either. Oh, sure, I took a lot of naps, which is always fun. But all those home projects I figured I’d have plenty of time for now? Nope. They sat there collecting dust, while I collected several pounds from actually exercising less than I had when I’d had way less time to exercise.

At first, I was confused by my malaise. I’d been handed so much time, something I’d coveted and dreamed about for almost two decades! And here I was, wasting it!

But when I really thought about it, my blahs started to make sense.

Yes, being needed every minute of every day—trying to juggle the kids and the deadlines, trying to cram what was often two full-time jobs into a single day—was often hair-pullingly stressful.

But the constant push-pull, bouncing from one small crisis to another, had also given my days structure and purpose, something I struggled to find in an empty, quiet house with no other person actively needing my attention.

In my excitement to make my days “my own” again, I’d underestimated how much I’d be affected by not having other people needing me all day. As it turns out, the very thing I had always seen as a rewarding but, let’s face it, exhausting drain on my productivity—caring for my family around my writing work—created an adrenaline rush and sense of purpose that gave my days shape and focus.

It’s been six months now since my kids started school, and I’m slowly returning to normal, or at least a new version of normal. I’m writing again and getting back into an exercise routine. I’m making an effort to get out of the house regularly and have a few home projects planned for this month.

Maybe I just needed some time to get used to my new reality. I’ve gotten better at accepting the ebb and flow of a workday that’s often longer than I really need to check everything off my list. I’m allowing myself to say “enough” and zone out or screw around once in a while, rather than trying to cram every moment of every day with activity and feeling anxious and at loose ends when I find myself with “extra” time left over at the end.

Maybe my kids going off to school—this part-time empty nest, if you will—has marked the end of an era. I no longer need to make the absolute most of every single moment. I’m learning to enjoy the quiet and slower pace, even though I don’t always know what to do with it.

And I’m reminding myself that after 17+ years of motherhood, I deserve the break.

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