The Empty Nest

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Opening the closet door to look for wrapping paper, I saw it hanging in solitude. Cheery lilac fabric with flowers hand-stitched on the bodice—her high school dance costume.

The material had been chosen with care, sewn by a friend, and worn through dozens of performances through the years.

Those years, those moments, are now in the past.

It was all past—and it slapped my consciousness as I closed the closet door and left the room, forgetting about the wrapping paper I came for.

Our children have grown up and moved out.

The nest is empty, and that full, rich time of our lives that took us on a whirlwind ride of activities and anticipations has suddenly come to a halt.

This new stage of empty nesting, in its infancy, includes walking into her bedroom, halting, and scanning the room. The bedroom is missing its heart. Our last child has moved out to attend college. Moving on in life is all well and good—and it definitely should happen. But the painful reality remains: the nest is empty, and it won’t be filled the same way again.

I admit, this stage in my life has been and continues to be an adjustment. This time in life is messy. The Eight Seasons of Parenthood describes it well, tagging it the “family remodeler.”

I am a fairly upbeat, happy person who enjoys life and wants to be a student of it. During this past year, however, I’ve met another person in the mirror. This is what I have found and what I am learning about this new stage of being an empty nester:

Everyone handles the stage of launching adults-in-training differently. Some may say how a parent handles the empty nest is gender-related. Fathers are ready for it and look forward to what is next. Mothers grieve for what was and won’t be again. No matter what, we are all wired differently and must respect our different ways of walking through this time of messy adjustment.

Give yourself time. It’s a grieving process—at least it is for many of us. I find myself watching with tender, sometimes misty eyes little girls in their pink and purple outfits or those gleefully bouncing out of the swimming pool.

Grief takes time, and no one can give you the exact timeline for yourself. But acknowledge it is grief. Not all groan and wail, but tears are understandable. There is a loss of being needed and being present for those we love most. The adjustment can be a two-steps-forward-one-step-back process.

Anticipate how to fill your extra mental and/or physical time. The spring prior to our fall of becoming empty nesters, I decided to move from a part-time to a full-time teaching position. I knew I would have a lot more mental and physical time in the fall, which has been true.

However, I didn’t anticipate the emotional aspect of leaving one teaching position I thoroughly enjoyed at the same time as our youngest left home. Looking back, I now see that I set myself up for two “losses”—yet I wanted to be intentional in making plans to fill the space I knew I’d have.

Know that you may have to wrestle with who you are. Who is that in the mirror? Again, this may pertain more to women. Even with a vocation I love, I have wrestled with who I now am. Many women grow up dreaming of being a mom, yearning for that “someday” of motherhood. That was certainly me. I realize I am still a mother, now of two college-age daughters; but it is, and should be, different. Connecting with them occurs more with phone calls, Facebook (the reason I signed up), and yes, at times, texting.

Be prepared for an emotional low. I know of depression. I have several dear people in my life who have struggled with this “flu of the soul.” I had never personally been in this pit until the autumn of our empty nest. Did the depressing times come and go? Yes, although I understand they can last indefinitely for some. Can they throw you “under the bus” with your own thoughts? Most definitely.

Acknowledge the low times, talk about them. Journal your thoughts. Write your prayers to God, who knows your heart. Writing gets anguish and anxiety out in healthy ways. So does scrubbing a tub, I’ll admit, but writing brings more peace to the heart.

The summer before the empty nest, I read Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist. It was a great read, especially the page where she writes about God being in the depths with us. I returned to it repeatedly in the first months of empty nesting.

Be patient, be sensible, and see your doctor if the shadows and despair stay with you too long. Talk with a close friend or a counselor. Exercise regularly. I have found that exercise helps my brain even more than my body.

Do something for yourself. This may involve “pacing” the time to get through the weeks or months that seem long without your son or daughter around. After so many years of thinking first of our children, it takes time to even answer what we may enjoy ourselves. Again, exercise is something I do for myself. Buy the nice coffee at the end of the week. Purchase the item you may need anyway, but get it at the end of the week or month as something to look forward to.

Do something for someone else. Choose someone or a family in a different stage of life and be Christ to that person or family. We all see families who are struggling through the very times we now grieve—do something for them. Remember the young people around you who are out on their own for the first time just as your children are. Do something for the generation ahead of us who walked through this stage decades ago. Write a note, fill a need, be present. Look for those you aren’t related to who need a connection.

Be patient with yourself—and your spouse. This is new terrain for both of you. Give yourself time. Give your spouse time. Most likely, the two of you will handle the empty nesting differently. Plan things to do together. Go on a date. Take a walk. Meet for coffee. Take a dance class (we’re trying it!).

I’m still working through the empty nest thing and don’t know how long it will take to feel settled. But it is coming, I am very aware of that, and that is OK. I realize I have to move through the seasons of this particular time of parenthood as we do with the calendar. Nothing really meaningful comes overnight.

This season on its own is full of meaning—and potential. I see limitless possibilities to model to others, to meet new friends and learn from old ones. To get to know my spouse deeper and revisit many of the ways we lived the years before we had our daughters.

It is a stage that in itself means days, months, years, but certainly—time. Time is precious. I want to learn how to navigate this stage well, to grieve well, and to move ahead with the knowledge that God is with me, yes, even in this. If the birds of the field are important to God, we can trust that this time in our lives and how we are doing are important to him as well.

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