By: Gregory Popcak
Kim and Alex are getting ready to send their son, AJ, to college. “It’s been a crazy-busy time” says Alex. “I never would have believed how much was involved in getting a kid off to school, but first with the campus visits and applications and financial aid forms and then the shopping and packing I haven’t known which end is up for months.” Kim agrees. “It’s been a wild ride. And then add to it the whole “empty nest” thing. I’m excited to have more time for Alex and to pursue some of my own interests, but it’s been really hard letting go. It kind of surprised me, actually. I have a good relationship with AJ, and I really like being a mom. I’m not sure I’m ready to give all that up yet. It hurts to think about it”
Empty nest syndrome isn’t a clinical diagnosis, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Empty nest syndrome can include symptoms similar to depression; crying, social withdrawal, feelings of loneliness and isolation, as well as significant marital distress. According to some experts, up to 75% of parents experience some symptoms of empty-nest syndrome and although people usually attribute the majority of empty-nest related issues to moms, research shows that it hits dads just as hard. Of course, it’s not all bad news. For parents who are prepared, research shows that the empty-nest years can be a great time for getting new levels of enjoyment out of your marriage and your personal life. Here are some things you need to keep in mind as you are approaching–or weathering–the transition into the empty nest.
Ask God for Strength and Wisdom.
Beth-Ann has three kids, the youngest of which, Ben, is a freshman at a college several hours away. It’s been hard to let go, but Beth-Ann draws a lot of strength from her prayer life. “The more I’m able to draw closer to God the more I feel like he’s taking care of things. Of course I worry about my kids, but it’s just easier to let go of some of it anyway if I know God is looking out for them. Of course, I save some of those prayers for myself too. Hopefully, I have a lot of life left in me yet and I need to figure out what God wants me to do with my time. I still have a lot to sort out, but I feel good about where things are going.”
Research consistently shows that prayerful people handle stress and life-transitions better than those who do not have an active prayer-life. The empty-nest years present many challenges that can become opportunities if you have the right attitude about them. The chance to take your marriage to the next level and to discover new ways to develop your talents and lead a meaningful life well-into your later years can seem less intimidating when you can feel a strong connection with God and know that he still has great things in store for you. Make sure to schedule regular time for prayer and simple spiritual reading each day. Take more advantage of the sacraments and parish life. If you really want to take your spiritual life to the next level, talk with your pastor about locating a spiritual director–a person who is mature in the faith and can help you with accountability and support as you seek to discover the next step in God’s plan for your life.
This isn’t an ending. It’s a new beginning.
Eric shook his head and laughed. “I was worried that I wouldn’t ever hear from my kids once they left the house. I think they talk to me more now than when they were living here! The oldest called me about a minor issue with her new baby. My second is constantly calling because he is having a tough time deciding on a major. It’s funny. My relationship with my kids is definitely different now that they’re grown or growing up, but I’m no less busy as a parent than I was when they were living under my roof!”
A lot of parents think the empty-nest years mean that their child is going away and never coming back. That is rarely the case. Although the nature of your interactions with your kids will change (you’ll be more of a mentor and sounding board than a person who tells them what to do) you will have plenty of opportunities to parent. Many moms and dads are happily surprised by the contact they continue to have with their kids when they’re away at school or even once their married with a family of their own. In fact, studies show that having a strong relationship with one’s parents is a predictor of success in college and beyond. Don’t believe the popular hype that your young adult kids won’t want to have anything to do with you.
That said, figuring out the nature of your relationship with your adult kids can sometimes be tricky. You need to be humble and willing to learn when and how best to relate to them. Let your kids know that you want to stay close but let them know that you are open to feedback about the best way accomplish that closeness. Commit to an ongoing conversation with your young adult children about the best way to relate to them as they launch. Openly and sensitively discuss those times when you feel they might be pulling a little too far away (avoid attempting guilt trips at all costs) and give them permission to raise concerns if they feel you are treading on their rightful independence. As long as you can cultivate that honesty between you, you’re sure to have a great relationship with your kids long after they’ve left the nest.
Refocus on your Relationship
The first thing Mark and Amy did once their last child left home was to go on a Marriage Encounter weekend. Amy says, “I think we’ve done a pretty good job taking care of our marriage over the years, but I knew things would change after the kids left and I thought it would be good to get some time to figure out what we needed from each other at this stage in our lives. Mark agrees, “I appreciated that she wanted to be intentional about our relationship and not just assume things would work out. I think they probably would have, but getting that weekend to brush up on our communication and actually make some plans for this next phase of our lives was really nice. I think we feel a lot closer to each other than a lot of our friends who are empty-nesters and haven’t taken the time we have to get things off on the right foot.”
One of the biggest fears for empty-nesters is what will become of their marriages? Again, for most couples, research seems to indicate that, with a little work, the empty-nest years can be among the most fruitful and rewarding times in a couple’s lives. Like Mark and Amy, however, the more intentional a couple can be about managing this next stage of marriage, the happier they will be. Making an investment in the marriage by taking advantage of programs like Marriage Encounter (www.WWME.org) or, if your marriage needs a little repair work, Retrouvaille (www.HelpOurMarriage.com). Reading books on marriage together can be a genuinely useful way of learning new techniques for improving your relationship and sparking conversations with your spouse about where you would like to take the next stage of your lives together. For some, counseling may open up new avenues for intimacy and understanding. Regardless of your approach, those couples who approach their marriage intentionally will be the ones who are able to make the empty-nest years the best of their lives together.
God’s not finished with you yet.
Many parents greet the empty-nest years with dread because they fear that they will no longer have any meaning or purpose in life. This can be an especially big fear for stay-at-home moms who feel that they have been “forced into retirement” by their children’s departure. “I really had a hard time when the kids first left.” Says Sandy. “Nothing I imagined doing could compare to the joy I got from being a mom. I used to imagine that my days after the kids left would consist of cleaning an already clean house, lunching with the ladies and waiting for my husband to get home after which I’d bore him to death with stories about how nothing happened again. But it hasn’t been like that at all.”
The reality of the empty nest years often doesn’t bear out the fears of parents who feel that, having given so much to their kids, they won’t know what to do with themselves when their children leave. The secret to resolving this transition is to not think “What will compare to being a parent?” Anything that you compare to that role may initially, feel rather pointless and uninteresting. Instead, ask, “What can I do that would help me live a more meaningful, intimate and virtuous life?” Research on what makes people happy in life emphasizes these three qualities as the secret to feeling fulfilled.
Meaningfulness refers to your ability to use (and develop) your gifts and talents in a way that both enriches the lives of other and benefits you. For some, that might mean going back to school. For others that will mean volunteering or pursuing meaningful work. Regardless, the more you use your gifts and talents to benefit others, the more you will come to feel that your empty-nest years are valuable. The second quality, intimacy, is all about strengthening relationships. We already discussed strengthening your marital relationship above, but what about your friendships and relationships with extended family? Now is a great time to shore up those bonds that have loosened with time. Finally, virtue refers to our ability to take what life throws at us and use it to become a stronger, better person. Use the empty nest years to learn more about your faith and to practice the virtues that would help you be seen by your kids as an example they would want to follow.
The bottom line is, the empty nest years often are more terrifying as a concept than they are in reality. Taking one day at a time and approaching this next stage of life intentionally is the best way to guarantee that the best years of life are yet to come.
Resources for Empty Nesters
Marriage Encounter: (wwme.org) A marriage enrichment weekend that helps couples open lines of communication and intimacy.
Retrouvaille: Like marriage encounter, but for couples who are struggling with more significant challenges. A very effective program for marriage renewal. (www.HelpOurMarriage.com)
Why Marriages Succeed or Fail (and how to make yours last). By John Gottman
For Better…FOREVER: A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage. By Gregory Popcak
The Life God Wants You to Have. Gregory Popcak
Marriage-Friendly Therapists Registry: MarriageFriendlyTheraspists.com–Offers local referrals to marriage-friendly, professional relationship therapists.
Pastoral Solutions Institute: www.ExceptionalMarriages.com —Offers Catholic-integrated marriage and personal counseling by telephone for Catholics worldwide.
To talk to someone immediately about any issues you may be struggling with pertaining to marriage or the family, contact your local PaxCare Tele-Coach and get the skills you need to succeed!