I’m a professional ride-share driver. OK, not really—I just have the joy of whisking teenage daughters from one obligation or function to another like an unpaid cabbie. It’s the reality everyone warned me would happen.

Spoiler alert: They were right. Here’s the thing, though: It’s not all bad. It’s just very strange.

Again, I expected this experience of playing a taxi driver. But what I couldn’t prepare for was the unexpected upshot—time. With both of my girls involved in more activities at school and with friends, I’ve had more time to fill than ever before. And before you assume that I must be kicking my heels up for happiness, I must admit that undergoing this micro version of “empty nesting” has been unusually challenging.

I Found Myself with Too Much Time on My Hands

What’s so challenging about having broad chunks of time? They’re hard to fill, at least at first. For one thing, your parent friends with younger kids can’t get together on the weekends. They’re still knee-deep in full-time obligations. See, when you have little kids, you adjust to having no spare time. You barely have privacy, including in the bathroom. Then one day, your children graduate into adolescence, and you find yourself taking a backseat to Snapchat videos, a favorite song (that you can’t stand), and best friends.

As your kids retreat into their own lives, you’re confronted with returning to your own.

Suddenly, you don’t know yourself anymore, and you don’t know how you got to this new place. It occurs to you that your kids will likely leave in a few years for college. However, they need more than a modicum of independence right away. And when you allow them to have independence, you inevitably get time in exchange. It’s a peculiar trade-off.

Little by little, I’ve come to a realization faced by all parents: To my kids, I’m not that important anymore. Obviously, they haven’t read the Harvard University research indicating that adolescents do better academically, socially, and emotionally when their moms and dads stay involved as parents. This is why I continue to pay attention—even though they want me to be seen and not heard.

Making Use of the Time You’re Given

Ultimately, I’ve come to see my extra time as an opportunity for me to make changes that will be good for me and my children. It’s also a chance for reflection. As part of that reflection, I have advice if you’re in the same boat (or boarding it soon) and want to feel productive and fulfilled in your newfound free time:

1. Refuse some of the free time you’re being offered.
Your children think they don’t need you—but they do! Rather than allowing them to do what they want and scroll through TikTok all day, hold on to the reins a little longer. For instance, insist that you have at least one meal together each day. In our busy household, that can mean anything from eating breakfast as a family or setting aside time for a late dinner so we can reconnect. Even though your kids might act like this is a pain, they’ll benefit from the extra time to commune as a family.

2. Expect your newfound time to come in chunks.
Sometimes, your free time won’t feel so free. Case in point: When one of my children has to be at an event for a few hours, I don’t always have time to run back home after dropping them off. I have to make sure to plan ahead so I can make effective use of that interim time. I might run errands. I might exercise. I might listen to podcasts (Brené Brown is a favorite). The key is having options. If you’re a voracious reader, keep a couple of books in your car. You can grab one and catch up on self-education or even entertainment. Otherwise, you’ll remain bored and feel like you’re losing your “me” time.

3. Try something you never made time for before.
Pickleball: The mere thought of it used to send my nonsporty mind spinning. Yet I’ve taken it up and actually like it. Now, I’m in a league and pick up games with people outside the league. I’ll never become a pickleball champion, but taking up the sport has opened me up to a social realm I never knew before.

My older teenage daughter is mortified, but I bought an extra racket in case she decides to join me. (She plays a little tennis, so you never know what the future might hold.) The point is that you have no excuses for not stretching outside your comfort zone. Do something new, no matter what it is.

4. Add more individual ‘us’ time with your kids.
Let’s say you have one older and one younger child. Take some of the time you no longer spend with your older child and focus on the younger one. Maybe you take a walk together or just go shopping for school supplies. You never know what subjects of conversation might arise. After all, some deep talks spring from mundane, everyday discussions. Be open to listening and learning. Oh, and make excuses to be around your older child, too. My high schooler is driving and frequently surprises me by bringing up weighty topics when we’re on the open road. Keep some of your free time unoccupied so that you can be present when it matters.

Your kids need to fly. They need to fail. And they need to hand back all the time they used to take up in your week. It’s up to you to figure out the best way to get back to “play” after years spent hitting the pause button. Don’t fret, though. In no time, you’ll be complaining again that you have, well, no time.

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