Since our daughter was married this summer, making that the last one to fly the coop, many have asked, “So what’s it like to be empty nesters?”
It’s been 27 years since we’ve been this alone, and since I’m a pastor who reads books on marriage, and who pays attention to the stats, I’m aware that this year is supposed to be one of the hardest on my marriage. Understandably so – I get it. You can’t lie about the stats, they are grievous for sure! And I know that I can’t bank on yesterday’s grace – I need even more for today. But there are a few things to keep in mind so that when they’re gone, it won’t feel so empty.
First, here is an extended definition of the Syndrome:
“Since a young adult moving out from his or her parents’ house is generally a normal and healthy event, the symptoms of empty nest syndrome often go unrecognized. This can result in depression and a loss of purpose for parents, since the departure of their children from the nest leads to adjustments in parents’ lives. Empty nest syndrome is especially common in full-time mothers.”
It’s true, a real feeling of loss takes place when they leave; it would be strange if mom and dad didn’t feel and experience a real sense of loss, even with tears. But that’s not the problem. The problem for the marriage is not the loss of the kids, but the loss of the marriage while raising the kids. It’s exactly what the above paragraph revealed: “. . . loss of purpose for parent . . .” That is the problem – it’s making parenting primary and the marriage secondary. No wonder then that when the purpose of parenting is gone, so is the marriage.
HEAR THIS ALL YE PARENTS RAISING YOUR KIDS: There is no investment of time, energy, money, sports, education, dowry or annuity, that you can pass on to your children that has the ability to make them feel important and loved than like a marriage that thrives after they’re gone! If your marriage does not survive, no amount of sacrifice and investment over the years will compensate. If your marriage does not survive, you are stealing from your children’s future happiness; there aren’t enough piano lessons to buy, or football seasons to play, or coloring books to color with your children, to overcome the emptiness that your children will experience if you split.
So I beg you, with all of my heart:
1. Work harder on your marriage than your children. They don’t need everything that you can give. All my parents gave me was a pile of rocks to play on, a lake to swim in, some grape vines to swing from, and a shot-gun to shoot squirrels. But now, I don’t have any of those things – they’re gone. But what I want most, I have by God’s grace: an old porch with my mom and dad still in love with each other. That’s what you want to give your kids.
2. Raise your children. Don’t worship them. Children are a blessing from the Lord, not idols to extend yourself or supply a lost identity of yourself. Your children are not yours – they’re on loan from God.
3. Believe that if you pursue your marriage in front of them, they will be healthier and happier. Which means, guard your dates and learn to say, “I’m sorry, but she/he was my wife/husband before you were my child. And she/he will be mine long after you’re gone. We have to protect our time alone so that we will have something to give you in years to come.” They may not understand now, but they will.
4. Forge a complementary wall of solidarity. I say complementary, because as male and female we are equal but different, and we have different roles to fill. We complement each other because there are things that each must and can do that the other can’t. I say solidarity, because mom and dad must work together and not allow their children to divide and conquer. This will be impossible apart from prayer and vigilant focus on Christ. One spouse will be more permissive and the other more disciplinarian. Mom and Dad, go to the bedroom with the Lord and settle this. Then come back out and together, lead your children, or spank them. But don’t let them get between you, not in bed and not in the living room.
5. Finally, cultivate open and un-defensive communication. If you don’t, once the kids are gone, there will be little to talk about. It’s hard work to go on a date and not talk about the kids. I remember. But you have to work at it now. Also, I’ve seen the results of hypocrisy in marriages: true feelings are suppressed at the expense of the marriage. It’s risky to say, “I want to talk about my feelings when you say/do _____.” But risk it! If you don’t learn to rock the boat now, and endure some painful storms, you will not be able to overcome the wretched silence when the kids are gone. For crying out loud, have a decent fight once in a while.
If you happen to be reading this and you’re in a marriage that looks like it will not survive the empty nest syndrome, or it already fell prey to it, here is the best advice I know to give:
a. in front of your kids, don’t demean your ex.
b. in front of your kids, own your contribution and say sorry.
c. in front of your kids, say a few things that their mom/dad did well.
d. if you know Christ, in front of your kids, pray for your ex.
e. if you know Christ, believe that God’s grace is greater than your sin – ’cause it is!
BTW, to answer the question above about what it’s like to be empty nesters, my answer is, “I don’t know. It feels more like a hot tub! Isn’t that what the good Lord intended?” (Prov. 5:18, 19)