Finding Home Again: Karen James
by Rowan Collins
“It’s a strange place, but a good place.”
Karen James recently found herself with an empty nest. For the first time in almost 40 years, there are no kids (or, rather, adult children) in her house.
James, who has three grown sons, says she struggled earlier in the summer when her youngest moved out of her house and in with his girlfriend.
“I felt abandoned, I really did. I didn’t know what to do. I’ve never in my entire adult life lived alone. I was terrified.”
After spending time “feeling her feelings”, as she says, and isolating herself, James started to take small steps to reclaim her space and make her home truly hers. Some of these steps, like rearranging and buying matching plates and silverware (“Finally!”), were not noticeable from the outside, but made her feel more relaxed and in control.
“Being at the Alliance helped, too. Doing things for my community helped. And then all of a sudden I decided to take my space back.”
Other steps were much larger. James started flying her rainbow pride flag outside of her home, something she did not do when her sons lived at home.
“I wouldn’t hang a flag [before] because I was afraid that it would cause [my sons] hardship in the neighborhood but now I don’t care what anyone thinks. It’s hanging on my garage and you can see it when you come down the street and that feels more authentic. It feels like I have permission to be proud now.”
Just this October, James took her first kid-free vacation in almost four decades down to Florida to visit friends. She found the experience transformative.
“It was an all-LGBTQ vacation…it wasn’t about what my sons needed to do. It was about me!”
She muses that she has now given herself permission to focus on herself and her community in a way she didn’t have before. She has been volunteering with the Alliance for over a year and has found meaningful friendships in her time here.
Beyond the physical space between her and her sons, she says the most interesting thing is the shift in their emotional relationships:
“I’m learning to be the parent of three adult men. Versus the parent who has to constant keep them focused. It’s a new place…The biggest fear of any mother of young Black males is that we’ll lose our children to violence. I wanted to keep them so safe but they’re men now. And that’s a hard transition to make. I don’t have to shelter them anymore. They get to be who they are.”
“I’ve also been in recovery for 25 years and my sons…aren’t! I’ve started to enjoy the peace and calm.”
While she navigates the transition from full-time mom to empty nester to independent woman with grown-up children, James takes time to reflect on the challenges she’s faced and what lies ahead for her.
“Being a mom was a big part of who I am but that’s not all I want to be. I want to be a person that is whole!”
In the meantime, her sons haven’t moved too far away so they’re still able to stop by and help take care of the dogs, Rock and Rosie, when James is out of town, or do laundry from time to time. “I’m still wondering who’s gonna do the shoveling this winter!” James cracks.
Her advice to others experiencing the anxiety of an empty nest? Feel your feelings.
“Let them happen. Suddenly you start realizing this isn’t the worst thing that can happen, it’s kind of cool. And find things to fill in the void, get involved with activities and organizations so you don’t go from all family, all the time to alone completely.”
With all the change and turbulence from this summer finally settled down, James is excited to tackle the next step of her life: love.
“I want to experience love with a woman who completes me. I’m ready to share my life with someone who isn’t my son!”