How to Prepare for the Empty Nest

The week after my 25 year old daughter, “Claire” moved away from home into her new condo she gave me a call. After a brief chat she said, “So, what did you do today?” I did a good job in hiding my astonishment as I recounted the events of my active Saturday. Afterwards I told my husband, “You know, that is the first time Claire has ever asked me that question!” After graduating from college three years before, Claire’s journey as a member of the “boomerang generation” —those adult children who move from home to apartment and home again several times, had taken its toll on our relationship. To others, Claire was cheerful and respectful. However, to her father and me, she was sullen and “snarky.” Claire had her own little apartment downstairs where she could come and go as she pleased. Although we gave her as much space as we could, we were saddened at her resentment of our mere presence. She just did not want to live any longer under the parental roof and she was getting more and more unhappy. When her new job enabled her to purchase a small condo of her own, she leapt at the chance!

The Odyssey Years

Claire is typical of many who discover that leaving home is more of a circular process than a direct move from home to autonomy. Many young adults find work in minimum wage or non-profit organizations, or go to graduate school, and have difficulty saving money or getting health insurance. Many live with 3 or 4 roommates or continue to live at home. Paul (2003) reports that 18 million 20-34 year olds are currently living with Mom and Dad. With many having college debt of $50,000-$100,000, financial independence is a long way off. When college students are polled, 50% say they plan to live with parents for some period after graduation (Paul, 2003).

Many parents are not too troubled by a temporary move back home. Encouraging their children to pursue their passions and not just settle for a job is worth the delay in achieving the empty nest. To maintain harmony, it is important to establish home rules that maximize the young adult’s independence without inconveniencing the rest of the family. It is helpful to establish expectations about rent, chores, and a timeline for moving out prior to the child coming back home.

The Empty Nest Marriage

The empty-nest marriage is a time for new beginnings. It is a time when couples enjoy a greater freedom in their schedules, an opportunity to reconnect with their spouse, deepen other friendships and have time to pursue delayed goals and interests.

While some marriages can deepen and flourish without the pressure and demands of growing children, other marriages do not survive the reality of too much togetherness. According to the Census (2002), there is a peak in the divorce rate after 18 years of marriage. Many couples at this point report suffering from marital burnout where there has been an accumulation of too much pain and too much unresolved conflict has built up over the years. Christian authors David and Claudia Arp (2002) cite the top ten challenges facing the empty nest marriage: conflict, communication, sex, health, fun, recreation, money, aging parents, retirement planning and children. Arp & Arp (2004) recommend ways that couples can intentionally reenergize and reinvent their empty nest marriage:

  • Let go of past marital disappointments. Letting go of resentments and forgiving old hurts enables the couple to go forward with new energy.
  • Create a partner-focused vs. child-focused marriage. If a couple has not made time for romance and the marriage while the children were growing up, it is all too common to view one another as parents, rather than as partners. Real effort needs to be invested in developing a new intimate bond.
  • Maintain an effective communication system allowing expression of deep feelings, joys and concerns.

Biblical Reflection

At this, and other transition times of life it is good to evaluate where you are on your spiritual pilgrimage and grow closer to each other and God and be willing to serve others together (Arp & Arp 2002). Those who are widowed or divorced can also find a deepening satisfaction in life during this phase as they deepen friendships, and evaluate their career and lifestyle.

The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that life has its fullness and its emptying out. (Ecc. 3:1-8). At significant life transitions, it is important to spend time in the silences and empty spaces to prayerfully consider what God wants to fill that empty space. In Christ we have the model and example of living a life of service and humility: “Though he was God, he did not demand and cling to his rights as God. He made himself nothing; he took the humble position of a slave and appeared in human form. An in human form he obediently humbled himself even further by dying a criminal’s death on a cross” (Phil. 1: 5-8). This passage describes “kenosis”, the Greek word meaning “self-emptying” which illustrates God’s self-limiting of his divine nature to give genuine freedom to his creatures. As Christians, it is important to hear and heed God’s call upon our life above that of our children, our spouse, and our own desires. We are stewards of our time and talents in every phase of life.

A month after Claire moved out, she invited her married sister and me to her new home for a Mother’s Day lunch to honor her “two most favorite mother’s.” I am encouraged that my letting go of my “little girl” is allowing us to create a new, more mature relationship.

Arp C. &Arp, D. (2004). The new empty nest marriage crisis. Christian Counseling Today 12(1), 73-74.
Arp, D.& Arp, C. (2002). Empty-nest communication: can we talk? LifeWise, (April/May).
Census Bureau: Number, Timing and Duration of Marriages and Divorces: 2001.
Paul, P. (2003). The permaparent. Psychology Today, 36 (5), 40-53.

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