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A Mom's Guide to the Empty Nest

Share This article Whether she stayed at home with her kids or held a demanding corporate job, every mother will feel the effects of her last child leaving the nest. The transition to the empty nest, like every other milestone in a woman’s life, is best when shared with a good girlfriend who is a few steps ahead of you on the journey but close enough to shine the light back in your direction.

In their new book, Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest, authors Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates share the joys and challenges they have experienced as their children have grown and taken flight. Drawing from their own experience, they encourage readers to embrace this period of change and anticipate the next great adventure God has planned for them. 

The authors recently discussed the book.

What inspired you to write about this topic?

We are two friends in different phases of experiencing the empty nest.  For some time, we’ve been struggling with this awkward new season in our lives.  There are lots of books that have helped us in other seasons of life—books on marriage, on parenting toddlers and teens—but when you hit this season of the empty nest there is little out there!  All of a sudden there’s a void.  Not many are talking honestly about the challenges of this season, and few are giving us practical help in how to walk through it and get a fresh vision for what’s ahead.  Over the past couple of years we’ve had many honest talks about what we are going through ourselves, and we’ve talked to other women in various stages of the empty nest.  We felt the need to say out loud what many are feeling and experiencing and then to provide ideas for how the empty nest can become the best season in our lives.  One of the main things we’ve realized is that, as women, we need friends to walk through this season with us.  Our husbands can’t always appreciate the changes we face, and our mothers are from a different generation.  The empty nest season is much like JELLO—hard to grab hold of and constantly changing shape.  There’s no mold that we can pass on to others, no consistency.  It affects each of us differently but there is comfort through friends who can assure us that we are normal and who can remind us of a God who has a plan for this time.  This book is an invitation for readers to come alongside us in friendship as we grapple with the big questions that surround the empty nest season. 

What are some of the feelings that define the empty nest experience?

There is a wonderfully descriptive word for the emotions of empty nest women.  Ambivalence—experiencing two opposing feelings at the same time.  If the hundreds of women we’ve talked to are a reliable marker, and we think they are, it’s clear that we are given to experiencing polar emotions in short cycles—loneliness from not belonging to the motherhood club anymore, excitement about the future and new adventures, anxiety because we don’t know what is ahead for us and our husbands, and peace of knowing we have finished well yet sadness over our parental mistakes.  We may experience a nagging insecurity because we have no idea what we are good at anymore.  The end of mothering and the beginning of the empty nest is like the meeting of the ocean with dry land.  In some places the shoreline is craggy and perilous while in others it takes the form of a tranquil beach—a place to play and relax.  The shorelines of our emotions are equally varied and as vulnerable to changing circumstances as is the coast to the tides and weather.  But take courage.  Someone once said, “The ship won’t sink and the storm won’t last forever.”

After their children have left, many women feel lonely and isolated.  How can they find new friends during this season?

One of the most surprising things that many empty nesters experience is a loss in friendships.  The calendar is suddenly void of adult camaraderie that used to take place around the common interests of teenagers.  But one of the great blessings of the empty nest is that it allows time to hang out with friends.  If you are out of practice it may be awkward at first, but the joy of girl time is worth the effort.  Consider these tips as you pursue new friendships:

  • Pray!  Pray that God would make you a good friend.  Ask Him to lead you to one or two “soul sisters” for mutual encouragement.
  • Take the first step.  Make a list of several women you would like to get to know.  Ask them to meet you for lunch or coffee.
  • Be persistent.  You may feel that you didn’t really click with the gal you just had coffee with last week.  That’s okay.  Just ask another one.  Developing close relationships takes time.  Don’t give up because one or two get-togethers didn’t turn out the way you had hoped.
  • Be open.  We need all sorts of people in our lives—people of different ages, races, and theological, political, and educational backgrounds.  Spending time with a diverse group of friends will enrich your life.

One of the biggest challenges for empty nesters is learning how to relate to their adult children.  How can parents begin to relinquish control?

Picture a seesaw.  To achieve balance in mid-air, both people have to do some shifting.  Relinquishing control involves identifying where you are and shifting to where you need to be for the sake of your child and yourself.  Most of us will fall loosely into one of the two ends of the seesaw.  On one end sits “the helicopter parent” and on the other “the hands off parent.”  A helicopter parent tends to hover over her child, trying to micromanage the child’s life from a distance while the hands off parent will be less likely to interfere at all, wanting her child to make all his own decisions now.  Though both of these parents deeply love their children, kids who have just left the nest will benefit most from parents who are a balance of the two types.  Call once a week or so, send periodic emails or notes of encouragement, make occasional visits, get to know their friends, and let them know that, even though you have confidence in their judgment, they can still consult you about major decisions.  Keep in mind this is a weaning period for both the parent and the child, and it will be awkward for both for awhile.  Our role is shifting from “coach” to “cheerleader.”  Instead of calling every play, we cheer for them as they succeed and stand by them in comfort when they fail.  Our goal is to raise secure and confident kids who are prepared to handle whatever life has for them.

After so many years of fulfilling the roles of “mom and dad,” many couples are uncertain of how to relate to each other once the nest is empty.  How can they prepare for this new season of marriage?

Consider these two scenarios:
Bess and Gary couldn’t wait for the empty nest.  Raising their kids had been tough.  They’d had different approaches to discipline, they’d struggled on a tight budget, and they’d postponed many of their dreams in order to be with the kids.  Finally, they were about to be free from the daily stresses of parenting.  They couldn’t wait for it to be “just us” again.  

Shelly’s situation was just the opposite.  She had poured her life into her kids; they had come first.  Now, as the last child got ready to leave, she was scared, really scared.  “I don’t even feel like I know my husband.  I haven’t been alone with him since I was 26.  Our whole life revolved around the kids.  Now what will we talk about at the dinner table?  What will we do on weekends?  I don’t know if I have enough energy left to put into this relationship.  And I don’t know if I want to.”

No matter which scenario most closely mirrors your own, there are some positive steps you can take as you enter this new season together.  To start, reaffirm your covenant to each other.  Those wedding vows didn’t include an escape clause!  Wives and husbands often have different expectations of what empty nest life will look like.  It will be most helpful if you begin to discuss the empty nest before you actually get there.  Share how each of you is feeling about what lies ahead, and don’t be surprised if he hasn’t thought about it at all!  The advent of the empty nest provides a great opportunity to recapture and rediscover ways of having fun as a couple.  And they don’t have to be big things.  Sometimes it’s the spontaneous things, particularly in the area of lovemaking, which is made much more convenient by the absence of teenagers in the house.  Even though the kids have grown and flown, God still has a purpose for your marriage.  Now is a good time for the two of you to sit together and craft a marriage vision statement.  One thing is certain: those who have prepared ahead for the transition to the empty nest have had less marital friction.  In fact, many have said that this season is providing the most fun they have ever had with their husbands!

For many women, the empty nest season brings with it a major disappointment (i.e. failing marriage, dashed hopes for a prodigal child, responsibility for aging parents, health problems).  How did you handle your biggest disappointment?

One of my [Barbara’s] daughters chose a road for her life that we would never have foreseen or imagined in the sweet, delightful, innocent days of her childhood.  Her life-altering choices significantly affected Dennis and me and our other children, bringing us much grief and disappointment.  As a result, my transition into the empty nest was hardly a joyous experience. 

By the time she was a senior in high school, our daughter had dropped out of school, left home to live with a friend (not the kind we would have approved), and began using entry level drugs.  Our hopes and dreams for this child were vaporized, and we often had no idea where she was or if she was safe.  As parents, we felt left behind and “divorced” from the community of friends we had formed with parents of her classmates at school. 

In the darkest days of personal suffering from the effects of my daughter’s choices, I taped a small card to my steering wheel on which I’d written “Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its perfect result that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”  I learned that the greatest expression of personal faith is when an individual continues to believe in God and chooses to trust Him even when circumstances are extremely difficult. 

While I still wish my daughter had chosen a responsible, healthy way of life, I can say with complete honesty that I am grateful for the experience because of where my husband and I and our other children are today.  I have experienced significant and real encounters with the living God that make all the suffering worth it.  I wouldn’t go back to knowing Him as I did before.  The richness of today makes yesterday’s relationship empty by comparison.

In the book, you compare motherhood to a marathon. When we reach the finish line, we are often exhausted and in need of refreshment and restoration.  You stress the importance of taking some time off.  What did this look like in your own life?

Susan: Six months into the empty nest journey, a good friend told Dennis and Barbara that she should take a year off and do nothing unless she wanted to—no travel, or speaking, or meetings, or work, unless it was fun.  To be given permission to take time for personal rest and restoration was astonishing.  In hindsight, neither Dennis nor Barbara had any idea how depleted she was from the trials of their daughter’s rebellion and the sheer volume of needs she’d been meeting for their six kids over the past 28 years.  Like the Israelites in the Old Testament, she took a sabbatical—though not for an entire year!  For about six months her work was cancelled.  Instead of rushing to and fro, she focused on resting and allowing her mind, body, and soul to recuperate from the years of motherhood.  The goal of that time was restorative: taking an art class and a Bible study class, sleeping in, and exercising regularly.  Those classes and the rest from work pressure were therapy for her soul.  Expressing her latent gifts gave her joy she hadn’t felt in years.  The sabbatical was an unexpected idea and also a wonderful gift.  

Barbara: Looking back, Susan realizes she simply raced headlong into the empty nest without much break.  Now, several years into the empty nest, she too is cutting back and planning a break.  Taking a long time off might not be a practical possibility for everyone, but we encourage every empty nest mother to schedule some time for rest. She has earned it!  Whether you get away for a weekend or simply relinquish some of your church or community responsibilities for a little while, you deserve a breather.


Want more advice? Purchase your copy of Barbara and Susan’s Guide to the Empty Nest. Also, visit their Web site.

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