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As their nests empty, life changes direction for many women

Two summers ago, Jill Kerner Schon listened as a friend from Atlanta described a fabulous painting she created at “one of those fun places where you paint and drink.” Schon, divorced for many years and wondering how best to ramp up her career as her nest emptied, instantly had an “aha” moment: The Boston area didn’t have a similar hangout.

Within five days, she and Jackie, the oldest of her three daughters, now 27, 25, and 20, boarded a plane to Atlanta to check it out as a possible business to start here. Despite doom and gloom predictions from family — and an accountant — mother and daughter borrowed money from trusted friends and took the plunge, becoming cofounders of the Paint Bar in Newtonville four months later.

Schon, 56, is just one of many women pursuing new or rejuvenated careers as their family duties diminish — including those who’ve long been working moms.

Kathleen Hall, founder of the Stress Institute and Mindful Living Network, says this transition isn’t always easy. Even women who worked full time while raising children may feel unsettled or experience “identity theft” — feeling stripped of their decades-old primary role of “Mom.” Some feel bereft, others don’t.

“Each of us experiences it differently,” Hall says. She advises women to approach this stage as “an opportunity to develop yourself — finally.”

And a chance to develop an entirely new set of skills. Schon, a former communications specialist, learned to run a business by reading books and surrounding herself with great advisers. Her Paint Bar boutique — booked each night with customers who paint, drink a little wine, and socialize — will expand to Newbury Street soon. More than 10 people help run the business, including Schon’s middle daughter, Mia, who recently joined them.

“In a million years, I never thought I would have a unique idea in the city of Boston,” Schon says. “The fact that something didn’t exist here and I’m the one doing it is a complete shock to me. “All those years of raising kids, being responsible for them, driving them everywhere, and helping with homework — that comes to an end, and women can focus on new endeavors,” she says. Peri S. Kutchin experienced this firsthand. As her youngest of two sons, now 23 and 19, began high school, she started feeling that her part-time job as comptroller for her husband’s family business was no longer “enough.”

“I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘What am I going to do next?’?” Kutchin, 51, recalls.

One day, after hearing a radio ad for Massachusetts School of Law of Andover, located right in her town, she attended an open house.

“I came home and said to my husband, ‘You’re going to think I’ve lost my mind,’?” Kutchin says. Until then, she’d never considered becoming a lawyer.

“It was very difficult and challenging in the beginning,” she says. “I had a lot of self-doubt. It was hard and time-consuming and took a lot of time away from my family.”

Kutchin was admitted to the Massachusetts bar last October, some three years after deciding to go to law school. She now serves in a judicial fellowship at Middlesex Probate and Family Court in Cambridge with Judge Spencer M. Kagan. She plans to work in a family law practice and hopes her experience “raising a family, as opposed to someone fresh out of law school who hasn’t experienced that yet” might give her an edge.

For Anna Wallace, 50, her edge is parlaying her design experience into a new venture that began “almost by mistake,” she says.

Six years ago, as she and her husband rented out their home and moved their three school-age children across town in Bedford, she found herself updating, upgrading, and decorating the family’s new home. She enjoyed doing something creative that let her “express myself,” she says.

Friends noticed her flair for design, which encouraged Wallace to earn a residential design certificate and create home design projects for a number of friends — and, later, paying clients. More recently, she began doing home staging projects with another designer.

Last year, with her daughters, now 23 and 20, moving on, and her son, 14, in high school, Wallace took on a new challenge: buying and renovating an 1838 Greek Revival home in Bedford’s historic district, which will soon be on the market. And the home they rented out six years ago? She’s now renovating and expanding that, too.

Last year, Wallace took on a new challenge: buying and renovating an 1838 Greek Revival home in Bedford’s historic district, which will soon be on the market.

The designer-turned-real estate developer is now purchasing a property that Homes by Anna will turn into two houses. Throughout, she has relied on trusted contractors to handle design, construction, carpentry, and more, as she says she “learns things that weren’t on my radar screen.”

For Terri Giuliano Long, self-publishing was never on her radar screen as she held tightly to a dream of publishing her first novel with a traditional publishing house.

She had earned an MFA, taught writing at Boston College, and completed the novel, but once her four daughters, now ages 30 to 36, moved out, she felt time was passing by as she waited for acceptance by a traditional publisher in a difficult market.

“I realized I could wake up and be 75” with no published novel to show for it, she said.

Timid at first, Long eventually dove headfirst into the emerging field of independent publishing. She created a platform for her book by becoming active in social media and staying in touch with readers — work that kept her busy “1,200 hours a week,” she jokes. The long hours were something she says she never could have found while raising her family.

Since then, she’s sold 125,000 copies of “In Leah’s Wake” and took first place in the Indie Discovery Award literary section. Her second self-published novel, “Nowhere to Run,” comes out this spring, and Long now has a full-time assistant and mentors other writers.

Beverly Breton Carroll, a lifelong writer and writing teacher, also mentors writers — with a unique nonprofit niche. In 2010, she applied for and earned a Kip Tiernan Social Justice Fellowship, which honors the work of the renowned Rosie’s Place founder.

Carroll created SPARC — Support Partnership and Realtime Communication — a writing and mentoring program. SPARC empowers needy women from various cultural and linguistic backgrounds to improve their lives by enhancing their communication skills.

Carroll founded the program after her son, now 22, headed off to college, leaving her with a strong desire to do something that would make a difference, she says. The time was right to “walk through the door to the next adventure.”

At a recent fund-raiser, supporters attempted a challenging and fun writing exercise: to create a six-word biography. One woman wrote: “Nest is empty. Life changes direction.”


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