The empty backpack

There is a very well-known term for parents whose children are grown up and leave home- “empty nesters.” It’s a challenging time for most parents- they have to reconnect with each other (there’s a high divorce rate for this time) and they have to deal with all this new time they have that used to be dedicated to parenting. It’s accepted and well researched- this transition is tough.

Well there’s another transition that, given my place in life, I’m a little more interested in. And that is the transition from being a lifelong student to being  a professional. I spent the better part of 28 years as a student. The years before that I hardly remember so for me, I really only ever remember being one. And in some ways, I only know how to be one. For all of those out there who made this transition after graduate school, or an extended undergrad, you may relate. I’m going to call this “the empty backpack syndrome.”

I still have my licensure exam to go, so I’m not all the way there yet. However, I no longer have papers, classes, or syllabi. It was such an odd feeling the first time I came home from my first full time job in my profession and realized… I have nothing I have to do. At first, this was incredibly relieving. I felt free. I now had all this time to do the things I wanted to do. Unfortunately, I ended up taking a lot of naps and watching mindless tv. I couldn’t figure out the problem… I had been dreaming of this free time, this relief from the stress of school. But here’s the thing- school was what I wanted to do. I had dedicated that much time to it because it was my choice.

There’s a theory by Viktor Frankl that holds that we find meaning in our lives based on the purpose we set for ourselves; he attributes part of the reason he survived the Holocaust to wanting to see his wife again (Read Man’s Search for Meaning).  And our happiness and well-being is in part derived from the work toward those long term goals. My nightly goal to exercise wasn’t long term enough for me to feel fulfilled. The major goal I had set in life was to graduate with a doctorate in clinical psychology. And I had done it. I felt proud, but more than that, I felt this very strong sense of “Well, what now?”

I’ve had a lot of conversations on this topic and the phrase “high achiever” has been thrown out a lot. But I don’t think that’s it. There’s a reason that empty nesters do things like volunteer or take up a new hobby, or why a retiree starts a new business. It’s not just that we don’t know how to relax (maybe that’s partly true), but also because part of our meaning in life comes from working towards something. We need something to strive for, to use our talents, our brains, to look forward to something. I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting these things have to be “achievement oriented,” or even saying relaxation isn’t important. My point is that life tends to feel fuller when you have a goal to work towards every day. That goal can be anything from wanting to build a multimillion dollar company, to wanting to survive cancer to see your daughter get married, to achieving a sense of peace through self-reflection time on a beach. If you have something that gives your life meaning, and you continue to work towards it, the idea is that you will find more peace and happiness in your life, no matter how miserable it may make you at times.

I still feel a little like I’m floating with no direction; and realize that this next goal will have to much more internally motivated because professors won’t be there to hold me accountable. This blog has come out of that, and perhaps will morph into being part of a larger goal. For now, I simply wanted to recognize and put words to my experience. I’ve been carrying around this empty backpack for a while and it’s nice to be able to name it.


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