Visits to the playground, long walks in the stroller, dance lessons, horseback riding, flying kites, the father/daughter dance, basketball, homework, summer camps, Youth Trust and sleepovers are just a few of the things that have been occupying our family’s time over the last 17 years as we raised our daughter.
By Julie Baumgardner, MS, CFLE
I can honestly tell you there have been many times throughout the years when I thought the day could not arrive soon enough when our daughter would leave the nest. Standing steadfast in the midst of a strong will, emotional outbursts for no apparent reason, the ups and downs of friendships, and waiting until the last minute to finish the big homework assignment are just a few of the highlights. But now that the empty nest is staring us in the face, it feels like our daughter grew up in the blink of an eye. In spite of all the challenging times, my mind wanders a lot, thinking about the joy she has brought to our lives. Life has been lively, fun and adventurous with her in the picture.
Since we are the parents of an only child, many people are wondering if life will still be as lively, fun and adventurous when it is just the two of us. Truthfully, I think we are anticipating the opportunity to experience the next season of life.
Don’t get me wrong … we love our daughter and have totally enjoyed watching her grow into a beautiful young lady. However, through the years, I think both of us have tried to take to heart the fact that one day it will be just the two of us again. If we want our relationship to work well when we hit the empty nest, we better pay attention to our marriage at the same time we are raising our child.
Experts say that couples who find themselves in the position of being “alone again” often find it difficult to adjust. In fact, there has been a 32 percent increase in the number of “alone again” couples choosing to divorce after 20-plus years of marriage.
Some of this is attributed to the fact that so many couples let their marriage become child-centered while they are raising their kids. Schedules, meals, activities – everything seems to revolve around the kids. When the kids leave home, the spouses look at each other and wonder why they married each other in the first place. For years, their whole identity has been wrapped up in being a parent. Now that role is changing and they find themselves in the midst of an identity crisis.
Keep Your Marriage First
Studies show that the best gift you can give your kids is to keep your marriage strong. In reality, the greatest gift you can give yourselves is to take really good care of your marriage, even in the midst of raising children.
Couples who find it easiest to transition from a home with children to an empty nest are those who have taken the time to nurture their marriage over the years. This means being intentional about date nights and marriage enrichment opportunities to help you keep the lines of communication open, manage conflict and problem-solve. You don’t want to arrive at the empty nest with a ton of baggage that has accumulated through the years. Nobody likes paying the price for extra baggage – on the airplane or in the home!
You also need to make time to dream. How would you like to spend your time once the kids are gone? Will you travel, learn a new hobby or finalize plans for the renovation you have been putting off? Before you actually have an empty nest, you might find it helpful to talk with folks who are already there. Ask them to share their experiences: What surprised them most after their kids left? What helped them make the adjustment? What did they wish they had known before all their kids flew the coop?
Empty Nest Prep
David and Claudia Arp, authors of 10 Great Dates for Empty Nesters, found that some couples drift into the empty nest with little thought and planning, while others come crashing into it with a major crisis – one feels new freedom, while the other feels great loss. Others enter into this new stage of life with eager anticipation.
The Arps believe the empty nest stage of marriage can keep getting better and better – if you work at it. This time offers you the opportunity to make changes in your relationship that can improve your future together.
Here’s some great advice from the Arps and other experts for getting your empty nest off to a great start:
Get some rest. You may be surprised at how much your life has been running on adrenaline as you tried to keep up with career, homework, sports activities and family commitments. Give yourself permission to go to bed at 8 p.m. if you want to. No longer do you have to coordinate a hundred different teenage schedules. Take some time to slow down, settle in and renew your stamina.
Resist filling up your time. When kids fly the coop, they do leave a void. After a couple of weeks, you may feel the urge to take on new commitments. Resist the temptation to immediately fill up the time and space. Enjoy your newfound freedom before taking on any new commitments.
Make no immediate changes. People who reach the empty nest and are dissatisfied with their marriage relationship often begin to look around for other options. Because change can be stressful and because they are unsure about the future, some spouses bolt out of the marriage at Mach speed only to regret their hasty departure. Before you make any changes, give yourself time to gain perspective.
Consider doing some of those things you put off due to lack of time and energy. Some people look forward to being able to clean out closets, start a garden or paint a room.
Acknowledge that this is a time of transition. Transitional time can bring out insecurities that fester just below the surface. One great thing about this time in life is that it offers us the opportunity to redefine ourselves and our marriage.
Don’t be afraid to grieve. It is not uncommon to feel a sense of loss or regret during this time. Don’t be fooled – the empty nest hits men just as hard as it hits women. Empty nest dads may feel a sense of regret over things they didn’t do and time not spent with their children.
Ask for help if you need it. Seek counseling if your empty nest marriage is showing signs of withdrawal, alienation and negativity.
Don’t fear the silence. One woman said: “It’s weird … so many of our conversations were focused on the kids. I look at my husband and wonder who he is. What are his passions? I don’t have a clue.”
Enjoy each other’s company. Instead of being like two ships passing in the night, now you can make plans to go on romantic dates, schedule get-togethers with friends, or learn something together like swing dancing.
Stay connected. Care packages and emails are a great way to stay connected to your children without coming across as overbearing or desperate.
Keep your sense of humor. It will help you get through the tough times.
Celebrate! Parenting takes a lot of time and energy. Your goal for the past 18 years has been to get your child to this place. Give yourself a pat on the back! Additionally, it is important to acknowledge where you have come from and where you want your relationship to go in the future.
Just the Two of Us
All marriages, healthy and unhealthy, face challenges; however, the difference between the empty nest marriages that make it and those that don’t is that the successful ones are committed to growing together and working to solve problems as they arise.
I would be fooling myself if I didn’t acknowledge that dramatic changes are on the horizon. I am certain there will be some challenging moments, but I am firmly convinced that we will handle those instances just like we have handled others in the past. We will keep putting one foot in front of the other, seek wise counsel from others, and recognize that this too shall pass. Learning how to walk through these moments together has been powerful because it has made our relationship what it is today.
Julie Baumgardner is the executive director of First Things First, a research and advocacy organization dedicated to strengthening families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.