Me, My Dreams and My Empty Nest

There are many women experiencing similar dreams and mixed feelings at this time of encroaching midlife and empty nests. At the time it first started for me, it wasn’t a conscious concern. I’ve always held dreams, ambitions, and aspirations. I’ve always longed to further myself, feeling inspired by others’ ventures. Spurred on by their courage to try new things, and their tales of newfound hope and achievement.

Standing in front of a red wall, Zoe holds up a pair of dirty walking boots, pointing at them with a surprised look on her face. At this point, only her dreams were ahead of her. Her empty nest was still a few years away.
Zoe post-training walk in 2010 – the year before the South West Coast Path adventure

Step back ten years

My daughter was sixteen, so not quite at the point of moving away from home, although her independence was blooming. I’d harboured dreams of walking a long-distance path for fifteen years and I knew about the South West Coast Path. Despite looking for a challenge to mark my fortieth birthday, I hadn’t entertained this path as a viable option. Why? Because I didn’t believe I was capable. This was the adventure that fit, athletic, adventure-type people embark upon. I was none of this, so how could it possibly be for me?

Zoe is standing outside, at night with her hair windswept but wearing a broad smile. Her blue, waterproof smock, gloves and woolly hat in her hand suggests it's a cold night but she's happy, training for her dream and unbeknown to her, also training for how to cope with heartbreak and her empty nest.
Zoe, partway through a wet and windy, winter training walk in 2010.

Common feelings of inadequacy

Looking back, I can see how common these feelings of inadequacy and self-limiting beliefs are. Not just for me, but for many women in their midlife. I had spent years as a mother, a daughter, a partner in a loving relationship and an employee. To my students, I was a facilitator and I guess, deep down, I was also a dreamer. These daydreams often get me through the hum-drum of daily struggles. The need to whisk myself off to another imaginative place has always carried me through tough times. Somehow, as I approached the landmark age of forty-years-old, imagining, dreaming or vivid visualisations were no longer worthy of ‘cutting the mustard’. I needed something more real, more tangible.

The transition then, although extreme in many people’s eyes perhaps, was essential. There was no ‘softly softly’ approach. Seven weeks, walking a path. Carrying everything on my back that I would require to survive, and facing fears I thought impossible to overcome. Crossing rivers. Wild camping solo. Heck, even walking alone – at forty, I had believed none of this to be possible. But it was. It permanently changed my life and here I am ten years on, without a doubt still feeling those benefits.

Zoe is wearing black shorts, a blue cami vest and a Tilley adventure hat and sunglasses. She stands next to a large sculpture of oversized hands, holding a partly unfolded map that is double her height. It has the words at the top, South West Coast Path.
Zoe, at the starter marker of the South West Coast Path in Minehead, July 2011

Coping after a break-up

Two years after walking the South West Coast Path, my long-term relationship of thirteen years came to an abrupt end. Within nine months, my daughter had left home. It was natural to experience feelings of loss. My acceptance of having fewer people in the house had already begun by the time the September move into university halls came. Focus and adventure challenges remained an important part of my life. This said, I had shelved my plans to walk the county boundary of Dorset that year. I was too caught up with adjusting to another way of being.

Enter ‘running’, stage right. Woah! I didn’t see that coming. Despite having never been a runner, enjoyed running, or even had the slightest inclination, I craved the kick of endorphins. They would course through my body, as I cried my way around the streets of Poole, banging out running rhythms to Eminem and Black Sabbath. Each time, within half an hour, I would return rosy and tear-streaked. Strangely feeling energised and alive again, until the next tidal wave of emotions rolled their way in, that is.

A group of runners in multicolored tee shirts and vests with Zoe in a red vest with a green band and a blue bib number (313). She smiles as she looks directly at the camera, despite this being only a few months after heartbreak and empty nest.
2014 – a few months after finding myself single, heartbreak and running had stripped me of excess weight.

As the weeks and months passed, the weight of my sorrow subsided. The energy and need for this accessible form of exercise and instant mood-lift continued, so I ventured to parkrun and joined a local running club. By the latter half of the year, my physical being was strong. I was still licking my emotional wounds, but I was healing and had found myself in the dawn of a new relationship. Yet another unexpected turn of events.

After her empty nest, Zoe stands in a pink tee shirt and black leggings, next to her daughter wearing the same. They are in a field, surrounded by women all wearing pink tops and preparing to run the Race For Life. Zoe's daughter has her right arm placed around her mother's shoulders and both women are smiling.
Zoe with her daughter Laura, preparing for the Bristol Race For Life in 2017.

It’s not all about going the distance

My dreams continued to focus on walking long distances each year. Taking a few weeks of planning, each challenge gave me a new focus. With a new relationship developing, I also had a companion to share the walk with, should I wish to. AFter all, solo walking and independence were still important features I was keen to maintain.

Nowadays, in these pandemic times we find ourselves in, I look forward to sowing the seeds of new walk plans, and seeing them to fruition. But there’s something else. I’ve learned that it’s not all about going the distance, walking the furthest, the longest or the toughest. It’s always been about keeping my brain focused, with my sights set on a goal. Even for a local goal, the strange phenomenon is that walking just two miles along a canal can give me a similar brain-lift as walking fifteen or twenty miles in a day.

Mike and Zoe smile for a selfie while on a canal walk. The borders of the towpath behind them are filled with summer wild flowers such as cow parsley and the sun is shining brightly. Both are wearing rucksacks and Zoe's hair is curly and tumbling down her back.
Mike and Zoe on one of their many walks along the canal.

If I’m honest, I know that I still crave the rawness and simplicity of long-distance walking with nothing but my rucksack contents for survival. Although eager to backpack, I know that my life hasn’t taken a downturn because of the Covid-19 restrictions. Goal setting, mini-challenges, projects and routine have been the mainstay of my past twelve months and the key to ensuring sanity, productivity and happiness. The outdoors has featured heavily in this routine, but I know I could improve this further by administering my daily dose of outside medicine every single day. Without fail.

Finding outside medicine

Over the past ten years, I can see how much the outdoors has played a part in maintaining my good health, be that mental or physical. I could have given up, caved in, or become a mess of unnecessary neediness, bored and unmanageable countless times. Now I realise that outside medicine is not always about weeks spent away from home. Instead, I can find it in the mundane, the doorstep adventure, and the daily challenges. At last, I look for opportunities in my day-to-day routine to fulfil the need to test and push my boundaries. It’s a joy to exercise my comfort zone within the vicinity of home, as much as I can while adventuring away… which is ideal. Testing my mental resilience only once a year would be quite absurd, if you think about it!

Sunglasses atop her head, Zoe smiles at the camera with an Osprey rucksack on her shoulders and a beech tree-lined gully footpath stretching away behind her.
Zoe, on a local walk in September 2020

Having kept my comfort zone well-flexed during 2020 and 2021 then, I can now look forward to the prospect of fresh adventures, a little further from my door and towpath. This is no different to the way I pushed my comfort zone in those initial, empty nest years. After all, it doesn’t hurt to aim for new goals and dreams, even while making the most of a multitude of home-grown adventures too.

HeadRightOut Podcast

If this has interested you, look out for the HeadRightOut podcast on all major platforms, launching on 1st May.

The word 'HeadRightOut' curls in a semi-circle at the top of the image in grey lettering. Decorated with blue and green childlike stars, a female figure leaps to the right with arms outstretched, wearing a blue baseball cap and shorts, a white tee, a lime green rucksack and lime green walking socks. She leaps with a wavy blue line of mountains or water behind her and the words 'Conversations with Resilient Women' sits underneath. Many of the women will have experienced heartbreak or empty nests but will have learned how to manage.


  1. Leanna Ingle
    April 6, 2021 / 11:36 am

    Hi Zoe, thanks for your blog update. I have enjoyed catching up and it is good to know you and Mike are happy together. I have explored the website too. Keep up the good work. Love Lea, Steve and Family.

    • HeadRightOut
      April 8, 2021 / 8:43 am

      Thank you Lea, it’s so lovely to hear from you! I think about you often and have recently been writing about my SWCP angels… aka Lea and Steve! Hope you’re all well. Z x

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