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Are You Experiencing Empty-Nest Syndrome?

Are You Experiencing Empty-Nest Syndrome?

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands. — Isaiah 43:19 MSG

On the drive home from dropping our youngest daughter off at college, my wife and I both went silent for about two hours. Periodically, I looked over at Cathy, and more than a few times, I watched a tear take a stroll down her cheek. If someone had been watching us, they would have thought that instead of experiencing a beautiful transitional moment in our family’s life, we were mourning the death of a loved one. When we arrived home, the house that had been headquarters to constant action, no little amount of tension through the teen years, noise, movement, chaos, laughter, memories, traditions, and more noise was tomblike quiet.

  • We had just entered the empty nest, and not only were we unprepared, but we had been so busy with life that we hadn’t even seen it coming.

The following night, I sat down to dinner. Cathy had prepared a massive amount of food. She said, “I guess I need to adjust my cooking portions.” As I performed my nightly kitchen-cleanup duty, I put more food back into the refrigerator than we had eaten. Yes, we were going to have to make some adjustments, and we later realized it wasn’t just in meal planning but in practically every aspect of our lives. After all, we had just devoted 23 years to the daily parenting of our children, who had now morphed into adults (sort of), and we were no longer needed on a day-to-day basis. In addition, we had buried a few of our marriage issues under the “taking care of the kids mat,” and we had some work to do.

Just about the time we were getting used to the empty nest, our adult children started moving back home, and we had to learn how to do life with boomerang children. All three of our girls came back through our revolving door several times. Authorities tell us that the average age to begin empty nesting is 48.7 years. We think our last boomerang happened a few months ago, when we were 67. But hey, isn’t 60 the new 40?

No doubt the transition to the empty nest was harder on Cathy. I had my work and was overly focused on it. Cathy was still working as a teacher, but in our home, she had been the sun and we were all her planets. She was a bit lost without her leadership role. (I think she was depressed for a while, but a husband’s diagnosis should sometimes go unmentioned.) We later learned she was experiencing what is called the empty-nest syndrome.

As a bit of foreshadowing, I’ll share an observation from Heidi, our youngest, when she was about five years old. Trying to figure out the pecking order of our family, she asked, “Dad, if Rebecca [middle child] bosses me and Christy [our oldest] is the boss of Rebecca, and Mom is the boss of everybody, then are you the boss of anyone?”

But Cathy wasn’t the only one who discovered she needed to reinvent herself. I had some work to do in that department myself.

For many people, the empty nest brings other issues to the forefront, such as being caught in the middle of caring for aging parents, caring for needy adult children, health issues, menopause, and changing roles in marriage. Sometimes in-law issues get complicated, as do the problems of finances and future retirement. The list can quickly become a long one. Our road undoubtedly will be full of twists and turns and some unexpected thorns, but even with all that life naturally throws at us, I’m convinced that if you take just a little time to prepare, the empty-nest years can be your best years.

Many individuals spend more time in the empty nest than with their children in the home. Whether you are single, married, or in a blended family, the empty nest brings both the joy of victory and the agony of some defeat. You have to cope with loss and find your new identity. You make midlife course corrections. If you are married, you once again gaze into each other’s eyes as you did before you had kids, though those eyes may have more wrinkles and your faces may be fuller than they were two decades ago. Unless you did an amazing job preparing for the empty nest, and most of us didn’t, you may be looking at a stranger who is going through their own identity crisis.

I’ve spent my entire adult life researching, speaking on, and writing about the values of strong marriages, confident parents, and empowered kids. Yet the empty nest took me by surprise. It was much more difficult than I’d thought it would be — and if this makes any sense, much better too. I’ve told friends that I wrote Finding Joy in the Empty Nest out of my need (desperation?) to reinvent and recalibrate parts of my life, my marriage, and even my relationships with my adult children. Very quickly, the research for this book became personal because I found myself reading for my own benefit before I could write or speak one sentence to others. To be candid, some of the writing on this subject seemed a bit trite, even shallow. “Plant a garden, join a bridge club, and volunteer at the hospital.” These are great ideas, but as I listened to the people around me, I learned that empty nesting is more about a sense of loss and the need to find new purpose and passion, while changing the relationships we once had with our children.

It’s possible that your best years are ahead of you, and how you choose to live will determine the outcome. I believe that most games are won in the second half and that you, no doubt, have a beautiful though possibly not easy road ahead of you. It’s odd for me to give a brief illustration about good wine since I don’t drink, but it’s a fact that the aging of wine improves its quality. Sometimes an aged wine is dramatically better and more distinguished because it is stored with care. As we age, we can learn from our experiences and improve our lives to finish well. It’s my prayer that Finding Joy in the Empty Nest will help you do that.

I’ve kept this quote from the Old Testament close to my heart:

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new. It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it? There it is! I’m making a road through the desert, rivers in the badlands. — Isaiah 43:19 MSG

As you launch your kids into the world, be alert, present, and prepared: you’re launching yourself as well. I hope you will make empty nesting a meaningful, rich, and even fun time amid struggle, perhaps a few tears, and grief. Your children are not who they once were. And neither are you.

Adapted from Finding Joy in the Empty Nest: Discover Purpose and Passion in the Next Phase of Life by Jim Burns.

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Your Turn

Are you in the empty-nest stage? It can be both a great joy and an odd transition launching kids off to their adult lives! But, God is at work in your lives as well as theirs. Are you embracing it? ~ Devotionals Daily