Written by Paul J. Bucknell on February, 19, 2020
The Empty Nest Syndrome in Slow Motion
It occurred to my wife and me that we are going through the changes in life typically known as the Empty Nest Syndrome—though at a slower rate than others. The changes that brought us to this point of recognition include seeing our last child getting her driver’s license, high school graduation on the horizon, and the fast-coming reminders of retirement age.
Parenting, along with its expectations, is always changing, causing us to shift our perspectives, responses, and actions. It reminds me of what happens when one stands on the beach with the waves coming in and going out. As the waves circle about your feet and erode the solid base of sand supporting you, you suddenly feel a sinking feeling and need to shift the position of your feet. Parenting, likewise, is best understood as going through various stages. Nothing stays the same.
Keeping everything the same allows one to master various skills, understand one’s child, and creates efficiency with time. But just the opposite situation occurs. Children grow and move from one stage to another. Just as parents begin ‘to figure out’ one child and learn how to handle him or her, then, bang, the child suddenly enters another period. Being unaware of the new phase can cause panic and wonder. “What’s going on?” Everything seemed to be going fine, but now, you have lost control. You again feel wholly unprepared and don’t know what to expect. You have no clue on how to handle your cute little toddler. Parents end up playing ‘parenting’ tag and always seem to be ‘it,’ the pursuer.
I’m now, however, looking at these changes from a broader perspective. I know and teach others about the five stages of parenting, but these stages focused on the relationship the parent has with the child. The stages trace the development of the relationship one’s children should have with their parents. I paid little attention to how we as parents need to adjust to life itself, though.
But something else zeroed in on our lives. Though it relates to our children, we are going through a massive life adjustment. When I told my wife about these changes, she wanted to know what I meant. So, let me describe and state what I told her, and which seems to be the slow transition from one enormous epoch in our lives to another. I’m fully aware that everyone carves his or her own path through this empty nest period of life but think it helps to give everyone a platform to help them reflect their own lives with.
The Organized and Efficient
Our first epoch is largely identified with raising, nurturing, and caring for our eight children. Although not deliberate or foreseen, we have been homeschooling our children for what seems forever—since our oldest daughter was in the 4th grade, around 30 years ago or so. We led and fed each of our eight children. Our last child, in this lengthy process, is now finishing her final year at a virtual school program. Soon she will be graduating. As I reflected through this huge epoch in our lives, it has been dominated by struggles with time, trying to master management and gain efficiency. At times, life seemed better described as surviving, especially when ministry was busy, kids deceived us, or another child became ill.
For the most part, however, we were trying to provide the basic needs and attention that each child required, including homeschooling them. The biggest scare for most people when they first think about homeschooling is over the problem of socialization. That was never an issue with us, especially since we have lots of children that along get together fine. No problem!
Our main challenge was management. For us, costs prevented any serious contemplation of private school while our local schools lost their privilege to educate our children. (Who does the city think they are fooling? The decrepit city public educational system is another huge but important discussion topic!)
With one child coming after another, our homeschool lacked no lack of students! We needed to find books, arrange another seating place, and find time to correct their papers. Because of this challenge to appropriately care for eight children, we can describe this period as one of mastering management and efficiency. And, so, it is true with all home schooling parents, and maybe all parents.
Parents feel as if they are in school themselves—always learning something!
We needed to gain the belief that God would give us the finances, time, energy, etc., to get through each day and year. Increasing pressures and challenges always led to new solutions. (This was years before Amazon Prime, so there were many more challenges of searching for and securing school resources.) We had little time for ourselves and safeguarded our marriage with a lunch date once a week and nightly prayer times.
My wife and I became used to being totally busy. Even on Sunday we focused on ministering to others. We still had to get everyone up in time for the 9:00 am church prayer meeting and usually ended up being close to the last ones to return home from church. God squeezed every ounce of laziness out of us.
Then, as the children living at home began dwindling, and our last child at 18 is ready to graduate from high school, get a full-time job, and move on, we are finally starting to experience an empty nest.
The Filler Stage
Just recently, we began entering another era, the filler stage. On the one hand, we see and talk about all of the significant changes taking place in our family—one son recently married and moved out. Another grandchild, James, just safely entered this world. But we are becoming aware of a much bigger change that has started taking place around us.
Management and efficiency lessons gradually ended. We must have graduated from a hidden class! Think about it. We are no longer managing all of our children’s lives—their food, living, habits, schooling, schedules, etc. Our parenting responsibilities are virtually nil. Before, our early daily wakeup schedule could handle most anything—sickness, complex schedules, missing book, failing test, etc. But now, in reality, we have little or nothing to organize. (Actually, we need to force ourselves to get extra sleep as we get older.) Compared to all the many details we were formerly overseeing, life has become easy, simple, and empty.
Our gained efficiency started to work against us. We mastered how to save time to serve our family and church, but then, all of a sudden, we have loads of time but nothing to fill it. And being reluctant to commit our remaining life to television watching, life came to look like a car going over a patch of ice, losing control by lacking sufficient friction.
We are also going through a period of life that keeps us guessing. Situations and unknown decisions seem to keep us perpetually in flux. I don’t want to leave the impression that all is not well and that we are not extremely busy. My wife still is in charge of the elementary children at church, and I am busy with the many aspects of ministry. But, even still, we discover significant amounts of free time. We are still surprised when we discover just my wife, Linda and I, are at home all alone. These kidless times are not just free time for us. We are occupied considering how to replace having no responsibilities to prepare lessons, food, assignments, etc., for our children.
Our life lessons have unknowingly changed. We are not so quick and sharp as before—in body or mind, but are still equally convinced that we live accountable to God for our time and lives. As His servants, our time is His time. What does it mean? Before, it was self-evident with a house full of kids. Now? It’s not so apparent.
And so, we end up praying each night that the Lord would guide us with our free slots of time and our remaining active lives. As a bonus, we have a few more moments to share what we are learning from our early morning quiet times with each other. We also have more time to reflect on the needs of those around us. But still, there is so much more time on our hands! This troubles my wife more than I because I am still busy with ministry.
We need to be careful not to carelessly descend into pride and compare ourselves with others or end up endlessly critiquing or gossiping. That is not what extra time is for. We believe God wants to use every empty moment. That is what we have been trained to believe in these last decades—every moment counts. But things will be different. Like the Apostle Paul, we are running the race, but suddenly the track under our feet has seemingly disappeared (1 Cor 9:24)!
So, we are spinning about on a new patch of ice, here and there, wondering how God wants to fill our lives. Part of the present course is to catch up on developing our relationship with Him. And, of course, now that we have children and grandchildren (sixth just born), living near and far, we must not forget them. But they don’t need us as before. Life has changed.
The most considerable changes we are experiencing might not be our changing outward circumstances, however, but on how we are emotionally handling not being needed or feeling unwanted. How should we understand ourselves with all these shifting situations? Our schedules are not so cram-filled, and we can use that gained self-discipline to faithfully and quietly pray and reflect.
Discerning the Inner Changes
So what do parents go through during the empty nest syndrome? The outward changes include our kid’s moving out, no school schedule, no preparation for dinner, and far too quiet! They can now drive themselves to events. These outer changes can suddenly trip a parent’s security button. They are so used to caring for the needs of their children (or maybe an older child who cares for a distressed parent who then dies), they are unaware what is going on behind the scenes—those not so obvious emotional struggles. Consider a few situations that tend to tug at our hearts.
Our home is quiet, though not dead silent. Few children are home, and the keyboard is played less often. The children are often away at mealtime. Those that have their own places to live are less often heard from. Inwardly, we feel unneeded and of less value because we contribute less to others. Sometimes, grandchildren fill this emotional need for someone needing our assistance, but we need to recognize that God has some new lessons for us to learn.
- Children no longer “need” you.
When a person has from over many years of service gained satisfaction, praise, and reward, they can easily feel left out. Perhaps, they feel as if they are letting God down or, contrariwise, God has forgotten them. As Christians, we counter this by stating the truth.
(1) We thank the Lord for all the years of service to our children and opportunities to pass His wisdom and love on to them. God has been faithful. Don’t forget Him!
(2) We continue to take up opportunities to serve gratefully as God opens doors—with our children, grandchildren, and neighbors.
(2) We rededicate ourselves to serve Him; however, He deems wise. Our relationship with Him has not changed. As we have had many years of serving (i.e., Martha), the Lord is balancing our lives with being (e.g., Mary)—relishing our times of learning and being in His presence.
We admit people in this kind of transition quickly get confused as to how to fill their time. The major point to remember is that you are bound to Him first. You (should have) served your family through the Lord’s strength and wisdom. The busyness of meeting all of life’s demands can cause us to neglect the nurturing of this spiritual relationship with the Lord. Spend more time with Him, your gracious Lord!
- “I don’t know what to do with my time.”
But even if there was no neglect, spending more time with the Lord, though it might appear to be a spiritual luxury, is often what He wants. Be sure to rededicate your allegiance to the Lord. Bask in that extra time with Him for it is from that relationship, in His time, that He will bear fruit through our lives, even though it be very different from before. Don’t fall into depression and deception by concluding, “Because I am not busy helping my children and there is no inner satisfaction, I am of no value.” These conclusions are false. Jesus Himself did not have children but sought God’s will for His life.
Of course, we are getting older. Pain and forgetfulness are our new acquaintances. But our personal value does not come from our service to our children but in responding to God’s calling to be faithful wherever He places us. That calling has now shifted, and it might shift again. The change in our circumstances reminds us of life changes. As much as we might not like it, we need to move on. The Lord has other lessons for us to master and other opportunities to seek.
Openly tell the Lord, “You are the only One that I serve. I am here for you, whether busy or not, needed by others or not.” This prayer keeps our life rightly prioritized and organized. This structure helps keep our minds from excessive deception, vain ambitions, and wrong conclusions such as:
Start by replacing an empty schedule with planned times with the Lord. Learn to listen to the Lord more intimately. This will become your key event around which you schedule other things. Trust Him for the new lessons on how to follow Him. Strategically use your time to please Him. By engaging more deeply with Him, you will be able to slowly transition from gaining value from what you have done to daily seeking God’s will for you in Christ. Learn to gain value from His love for you apart from what you can do. It is similar to believing the gospel message. Master the lesson well as it is critical for the later assignments that He assigns us.
We have gotten so used to making decisions; it is hard to give that control up! It’s hard to realize that others—even our children—prefer to do things other than how we would. Sometimes, it hits our pride hard. We finally realize our great way of doing things is not considered great by others. Our children are their own persons and like the way they plan and carry out events, clean (or not clean) their homes, etc.
- “It doesn’t matter what I do.”
- “Now, I have time and money to live for myself.”
- “I feel unwanted, so I will distract myself from such thoughts by eating or saturating myself with movies or social media.” (We don’t necessarily think aloud about these things, but it is the way we might think.)
- It’s hard to give up control
Planning family events are also taken out of our control. This drastic change can become troubling to us. When others—even family members—do not esteem our ways as best, we can get rather upset with them. Perhaps, we view their ways are incompetent, untimely, or incomplete. Probably each parent has had to learn to ‘bite their tongue’ (hold their opinions and judgments back) so not to offend their children. Others are still sad about the rude remarks they made but still unwilling to apologize. Some of those comments are made because we feel insulted.
We feel as if we have mastered life to some degree over these past decades (if we don’t face another challenge). We know how things can best work. This kind of attitude, however, can translate into arrogance and interference with our children. We forget how we have learned things—often through many mistakes over a spread of years. If we are not careful, these struggles, within and without, can create huge problems.
One father recently wrote to me that even at 30 years-old, his son would not date and marry the person he wants. I’m not saying that the present son-girlfriend relationship is good or bad, but by insisting control over his son, his relationship with his son cannot become healthy as it should be. He cannot mentor nor befriend. He is the Controller and has usurped God’s position. Because the parent-control issue continues, the pressure on the relationship will further sour it, causing it to get worse. In this case, the father needs to take steps to improve his ability to converse normally with his adult child.
Facing an empty nest helps get a better picture of the transition that might be taking place in our lives—or in the lives of others. Part of those concerns derive from good habits of serving others and not knowing how to replace them. The inward emotional adjustments can be harder to handle. We just can’t see the isolation, lack of security, or, perhaps, due to pride, are unwilling to properly respond to them and move on. Each transition highlights new areas to grow and trust the Lord. These changing situations above all are from the Lord beckoning us to meet with Him and trust Him to lead us through these times.
Discussion Questions for the Empty Nest
- What is the ‘empty nest syndrome’ and its typical results?
- Why is the author’s empty nest syndrome slowly occurring?
- Do you find yourself in such a situation now where your children are leaving home? If so, how do you respond?
- What are the structural/schedule changes that you are facing during these times?
- What are some of the emotional changes people experience when going through these massive shifts in life?
- What are some unhealthy responses parents might make during this time?
- What is the most crucial adjustment(s) you can make during this time? Why is this spiritual ‘fine-tuning’ so important?
- Explain any steps you can take to better respond to your situation.
For Further Study
Bible Meditation from Joshua 1:6-9
- Paul and Linda have written two parenting books. Check out the BFF Parenting Digital Library.
- Resources on enjoying more intimate times with God.
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