Don't Get Stuck in the Empty Nest
As parents, we know the time will come when our kids will leave the home. But knowing we need to release our kids doesn't make it any easier when the time actually comes.
I remember well when Barbara and I took our oldest child, Ashley, to college. The three of us stood in the dormitory parking lot, huddled-up, arms entwined, sobbing. I was crying so hard that I couldn't pray—my own daughter had to pray for herself!
As we drove away from the dorm, my "little girl" stood on the sidewalk, waving goodbye. I turned to Barbara and said, "One down and five to go! Can you believe that in a year we've got to do this again with Benjamin?"
I paused for a moment. The tears were drying on my face, but the pain of the loss was fresh. "This hurts too much," I said. "I'm not doing it next year. I'm going to rent a dad for a day to do it for me!"
Well, somehow I mustered up the courage to go through this process five more times in the next 11 years. And in August of 2003, after moving our youngest child, Laura, into her college dorm room, Barbara and I returned to an empty home.
I wish that we could report that after a couple of years we had made an easy adjustment to the empty nest. But we didn't. The process took longer and took different turns than we expected. Yet as we have continued to move through this new season of our lives, we've come to realize that God has something great planned for our future together. We're looking forward to a new season of fruitfulness I'm calling our "Prime Time" years.
A difficult adjustment
It is normal for mothers to look toward the empty nest with fear, because so much of their identity is wrapped up in motherhood. For nearly 30 years, Barbara poured most of her energy into motherhood—and she loved it. When that period ended, she felt somewhat lost.
She knew she would always be a mother, and she was overjoyed to now have grandchildren, but it was all different. She looked at her future and wondered, What am I going to do with the rest of my life?
In typical male fashion, I thought I'd help Barbara through this, and then we'd ride off into the sunset together. But I soon learned that the adjustment was difficult for me as well. I still had my work responsibilities, but I became a bit melancholy as I thought of how our lives had changed. Here's something I wrote at the time:
Well, now the kids are gone. I knew the day would come. I just didn't expect the dawn of a new era of the empty nest to come so soon. I've always spoken of the future as, "Someday when the kids are gone." Well, someday is here.
It seems like just the other day that Barbara and I were starting our lives together. A whirlwind dating relationship. . .six weeks later, a simple wedding. . .followed by a storybook honeymoon. Our nest was empty for two years before God graced us with Ashley, the first of six that filled our quiver in 10 years. Diapers and high chairs defined our lives for more than a dozen years. Well, the diapers are gone, but the high chair is now being used for one of our grandchildren.
The refrigerator is half full, the house is very quiet and clean, and interestingly it stays that way. The phone doesn't ring off the wall. There's plenty of hot water. No kids surround my car when I arrive home from work. When we go to bed, we leave our bedroom door open.
There's no homework, ball practice, teachers' meetings, no sibling rivalry, and car insurance is once again reasonable. Our orthodontist has retired—on us! There's no tension in the air about modest clothing for school, prom dresses, who sits where in the car on the way to school or to church.
And, most important, our fire pit is a bit cold these days.
I mentioned the fire pit because it was an important place for our family. It was a place for fun and conversation—we had a lot of discussions there with our kids over the years. Now, when I look out the window and see that empty fire pit outside, it seems like a reminder—to be grateful for the great memories we share with our children, and to realize that I can't go through the rest of my life focusing on those memories.
From empty nest to prime time
In fact, in many ways I don't like the image of the "empty nest." Anyone who has seen an empty bird's nest knows that it lacks a sense of purpose. It's a reminder of what was and what will never be again. It was a place of birth, life, growth, and noise; now it is silent. Just memories.
I don't want to be stuck in this place of silence. That's why I consider the empty nest a transition phase. The rest of our lives—the years of Prime Time—were designed by God to be fruitful and purposeful.
You may be in the same situation as Barbara and I are, or you may be facing it sometime in the next few years. Let me share a few things we've learned during this season of life:
First, use the time to work on your marriage relationship. For many couples it's not easy to adjust to being together without children for the first time in a couple of decades. You might think you talk with your spouse a lot. . .until you find yourself in a house with nobody else to talk with!
You'll need to make decisions about how you are going to spend your evenings and weekends. Perhaps you need to start dating each other again—or take off for a weekend of fun and adventure at some romantic locale. Or attend one of FamilyLife's Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways to focus on understanding God's purposes and plan for your marriage.
As you are going deeper in your relationship, take time to reassess and reevaluate your lives. In our case, Barbara evaluated everything in her life—how she's going to relate to her kids and to me, what she is good at and not good at. She's taken a test to assess her abilities and interests. As she said in an interview on FamilyLife Today® when we taped some shows on this topic: "I don't know any of the answers to those questions yet, because so much of my life was defined around my kids, and now that that's gone, I'm left with a lot of questions." I found that, during that time, she needed me to take a lot of time to talk with her and especially to listen to her.
As a result of this reassessment, you may want to encourage each other to pursue some interests that you haven't had the time to consider while your children were at home. Barbara is a talented artist, and early in our marriage, just as we started having kids, I bought her a drawing table. The problem was that, with small children, she really didn't have time for art. So for nearly two decades that table was stored in a crawl space underneath our house.
As the empty nest approached, however, I encouraged Barbara to take some watercolor classes. And one day we pulled that old table out from under the house. It was covered in mold, but when we cleaned it off, it turned out to be in pretty good shape. So now Barbara is using it as she cultivates an important part of her life that lay dormant for quite awhile.
As part of this reassessment, ask yourself, "What is my mission for the final years of my life?" You may have several decades of life ahead of you, and it's important to ask God to give you some direction on how He wants to use you during these years of Prime Time.
Parenting is a high and noble calling, but it's important to remember that it's only part of what God has called us to do. Consider two challenging passages of Scripture in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus is asked, "Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?"
And He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets."
In this passage Jesus tells us that nothing is more important in life than loving God and loving other people. Now, look at Christ's words to His disciples just before He ascended to heaven:
And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matthew 28:18-20).
Here Jesus articulates the greatest job assignment ever given—the Great Commission of proclaiming the gospel of redemption and reconciliation to those who are lost. When we combine the Great Commission with the Great Commandment (loving God and loving others), we are left with a pretty challenging agenda for us as we move into our Prime Time years. Each of us will be used in different ways, but I want to challenge you with this thought: If your mission does not include the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, you're going to miss life.
It shouldn't last forever
Don't expect to find quick answers to all your questions. Barbara and I spent the entire first year of the empty nest experiencing the new-found freedoms and losses of having had a great family, and adjusting to what it was like to be just the two of us again. We also realized we needed each other's help in determining what the rest of our lives should look like, and what our mission should be as individuals and as a couple. It took us some time to come up with answers, and that's okay.
We knew that the "empty nest" season wouldn't last forever.
And now we're loving Prime Time.
Barbara Rainey contributed to this article
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