Think the Empty Nest transition will be smooth sailing? Five things about Empty Nest you’re not expecting, and why you need to know.
I’ll never forget the look on my husband’s face when the doctor handed him that giant pair of scissors. “Go ahead and cut the umbilical chord, Dad!” the obstetrician cheered with enthusiasm.
My husband turned green.
Not one for blood and gore, he had dutifully stayed by my side, or more specifically, by my face, the whole delivery. He sighed with relief when our perfect, pink daughter popped out and his coaching duties were complete, at last.
Now he was suppose to do the doctor’s job? I fully expected him to collapse into the vinyl easy chair and make the time out sign with both hands. To his credit, he rose to the occasion despite being caught off guard.
He stuck his meaty fingers into the stainless steel circles and made the final cut that welcomed our baby into her amazing, little life.
5 Things About Empty Nest
Let’s face it, parenting means lots of unexpected surprises.
- The diaper bag was fully packed-except the one time your kid had a blowout in church.
- You gave the perfect five year old birthday party, only to learn most of the kids were total brats.
- Driving for the school field trip made you a supermom, until you got lost and showed up an hour late.
All that crazy is far behind you once the kids are launched, or at least on their way, right? Au contraire, novice. What could be tougher than FAFSA forms, college visits, and handling an unexpected tattoo? Brace yourself for being alone.
Emotions range from jumping up and down with excitement to intense sadness and grief. There is no “right way” to get through the Empty Nest transition, it’s different for everyone.
But, just like you had parenting books piled high on your nightstand, you’ll want to be prepared for this next step. You’ll be more ready for what’s up ahead once you consider these 5 things about Empty Nest.
One: Changes In Your Most Important Relationship
After the initial joy of running around the house naked (if you’re into that), you may be surprised to discover some rough spots in your most important relationship.
If you and your husband became parents near the beginning of your marriage, you may never have had this much time alone. Sounds incredible, right? No more interrupted conversations, having to watch your kids’ TV shows, or sleepless nights waiting for them to get home.
It can seem like you are moving in opposite directions, but on a continuum you are actually moving closer to the center. Realizing this can help you capitalize on it and refocus on each other.For Your Marriage
We had five years of marriage under our belt before we had children. It was a solid base to return to. But the shift in our relationship still surprised me once the kids were gone.
Annoying habits and unresolved conflicts raised their ugly heads once the distraction of parenting was out of the way. Not to mention the fact that we’d each developed different interests and friend groups throughout our parenting years.
Without a deliberate plan to reunite, we could easily have drifted apart.
Beware of Rocks Ahead
Whether you’re looking down the road to Empty Nest or find yourself in the thick of it, take some steps now to salvage your most important relationship. Begin by deciding to invest in each other.
If you’re the only one who sees a need to devote more energy to your marriage, don’t wait around for your spouse to get motivated. You’ll feel better for taking the first step to reconnect with your most significant relationship, whether or not your efforts are reciprocated.
This article by Claudia and David Arp gives some great suggestions:
Get some rest.
This significant life change takes lots of emotional and physical energy. Get to bed early, take naps, stay in bed and read when you can. You’ll recharge your body and your mind and have more to offer each other.
Schedule a celebration.
Our 25th wedding anniversary coincided with our Empty Nest. We took an epic trip to New York City. An unfamiliar location gave us a new perspective on our goals and the space we needed to review our successes. A date night or weekend away will work just as well.
Remind each other this is a transition time.
I’m the worst when it comes to “doomsday” thinking. My pragmatic strengths quickly turn into worst-case scenario thinking when I’m confronted with a struggle. Usually my husband is the one to adopt the “this too shall pass” viewpoint. This attitude can bring a desperately needed break to the intensity of a transition time.
Don’t make any big decisions.
Full disclosure-we sold our house within a month and a half of dropping our youngest off at her dorm. That’s a pretty mammoth change, but it’s one we’d planned a long time. The point is to give yourself time to process the changes, instead of looking for a “quick fix”. A drastic change in job, location, or relationship won’t fill the emptiness of the Empty Nest.
Plan regular connections.
Choose a long-neglected hobby, or develop a new one. If you’re anything like us, it will take some trial and error. You may have to try a few groups and activities on for size before you find something that you both enjoy.
When all is said and done, staying together is a decision. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, insurmountable conflicts arise. Don’t be afraid to seek out good counseling resources to help work through your next steps.
Two: Uninterrupted Blocks of Time
Although I knew I’d miss my kids, I longed for time to myself after they left. I dreamed of organizing my junk drawer, having coffee with friends, and taking up rock climbing.
Soon enough, I realized an unexpected fact about myself. In my daily tug of war with my schedule, I’d developed an extremely short attention span. Staying on task was really difficult, even though I now had the luxury of uninterupted hours.
After my initial “watching TV and eating bonbons” period, I started missing the busyness of my former life. I was forced to admit that my identity, my activities, and even my hobbies stemmed from living life with my kids at home.
In the end, it took some time to go from waiting for a text reply from my kids to enjoying my own company. Instead of casually meeting other adults at my kids’ activities, I now need to make a point of scheduling get togethers. Rather than built-in conversations about the day’s events, I have to pick up the phone and call a friend or relative and catch up.
Three: Feeling Jealous of Your Kids
As it turns out, we parents are ramping up to the most challenging time of our lives just as we send our kids off to responsibility-free utopia. Or so it seems.
Although our young adults feel pressure and anxiety to succeed in their new environment, in many respects the world is their oyster. They have friends next door, buffets of food at their beck and call, and no need for wrinkle cream or a mortgage.
But today, for the first time, the overpowering melancholy is gone, the bittersweet nostalgia too, replaced by an envious, excited adrenaline. To be at the true beginning! To be moments away from meeting strangers, some of whom will be in, and change, the course of your life forever!Rob Lowe, Unprepared
My husband and I spoke of our jealousy in hushed tones, ashamed of our desire to turn back the clock.
- Eating a large fry and shake without counting calories!
- Staying up til dawn, knowing you could catch up on sleep on the weekend!
- Sitting down on the floor without needing help to get up!
In reality, neither of us wanted to repeat those angst-filled years. Especially not with today’s constant barage of bad news and social media pressure. But it did help to talk about our feelings and admit they were there.
We came to terms with our role in the world. Just as parents before us had kept the home fires burning, we were now the “responsible” ones paying taxes and taking the dog to the vet.
Four: Needing A LOT Less of Everything
Stockpiles of school supplies, bedding, and snack food grew increasingly larger as the beginning of school drew near. I wanted my kids to be prepared for anything and that meant MANY trips to Target.
My first outing to the grocery store after both kids were gone was quite a shock. I no longer needed to buy six bags of kettle cooked chips and four liters of orange soda. The routine I’d taken years to hone was of no use to me now.
Even though we’d spend big bucks for college and travel expenses, I was shocked by how much we could cut back at home. Over time, my husband and I developed a very simple diet. We realized we preferred to spend most evenings at home rather than going out for entertainment.
Most of all, we were ready to let go of our possessions. Momentos and status symbols we’d acquired over the years were now unwanted baggage. I joked that all I’d want, in the end, were plastic boxes filled with macaroni art and finger paintings my kids had made.
Once we let go of our children, the rest seemed unconsequential. We downsized our home drastically. Along with it, we donated roughly half our furnishings.
At first, I struggled to let go. But once I got started purging, I quickly realized most of our “stuff” was slowing us down. We hope to travel together, save for retirement, and be more available for aging parents. A basement full of the relics from our past sucked more energy than we realized.
Five: Unexpected Grief
I remember sitting on my son’s bed after he’d left for college several states away. The lingering scent of his aftershave hit me with a wave of unexpected sadness. Although I was eager for him to launch, I also knew our relationship would never be quite the same.
Of course, I missed his size 10 shoes at the garage door and the sound of his laughter filling the basement media room. But I was surprised by unexpected grief. Just the other day, I walked our dog past a church where he use to meet for scouts. There it was again.
Your children might be on the other side of the world, but you can talk to them free by video link these days on Skype any time you like.Grief and Sympathy
Caramel apples in the grocery store reminded me there was no one at home who’d be excited to eat them. Yesterday, while I was running errands, I watched a young mother trying to keep her preschool daughter from ruining stacks of greeting cards.
The little girl was curiously pulling each card from its place, eager to describe the picture to her exasperated mother. That was me not long ago.
As time passes, I’m getting better at riding the waves of unexpected grief. I can choose to put on a brave face and move on. But I’d rather be thankful for the happy memories grief represents.
I’m no longer filling the same role in my children’s lives, it’s true. Sooner than I realize, they’ll be starting their own families. For now, I choose to take a moment to say “thank you” for the simple times when it was just us.
Sooner or later, even the most vigilant parent will be forced to wing it. Like the doctor at our daughter’s delivery, life will hand you the long-handled scissors and insist you cut the chord.
That moment, most probably, will come as a surprise. When it happens, I wish you incredible memories and a spirit of adventure. And a sigh of relief as you collapse into your easy chair.