How would you describe the way you feel when one of your children leaves home?" I asked a friend. "Oh, that's easy," she said. "When one of my children leaves home, it's like having another limb cut off." Amputation? That reaction sounded a little extreme, until my firstborn left for college. My sadness seemed entirely out of proportion for such a normal, expected event. After all, didn't our daughter's blossoming independence mean that we as parents had done our job?
I missed interacting with my daughter every day, and I was faced with constant reminders of that loss: seeing the empty chair at the dinner table; running to my daughter's bedroom to tell her the latest news and finding it unoccupied and quiet; reaching for her favorite foods at the market and then lowering my hand, as the tears welled. My life was radically changing and no one seemed to notice. I felt silly and very much alone.
But I wasn't aloneand neither are you. Parentsespecially momsexperience a broad spectrum of midlife experiences. As I began observing, talking to, and reading about parents who faced the challenges of midlife and the empty nest, I discovered insights that helped me prepare for this season of life. Although each parent's experience is different, I hope these insights can help you face your own changes.
A Weaning Process
Weaning is a complicated process, and so is your journey as an empty-nester. Thinking of this midlife change as a processinstead of an event that begins and ends when you take your child to campuscan help you prepare for the kinds of changes you may face.
For example, some parents are baffled when the child they had always been so close to is suddenly angry and rebellious before leaving home. Sometimes, the more connected children are to their parents, the harder they must work to break away. The resulting conflicts are confusing, but they are common as moving day approaches.
Some moms and dads breeze through the empty nest transition. After the initial adjustment, they find that they love their new lives and enjoy having more free time. Others count the days until their children return home for a vacation break, and then spend the day after they leave crying, grieving for them all over again. The process of letting go of your children differs from parent to parentand sometimes is different as each child leaves home.
New Friendship Opportunities
In this time of our lives when we most need to feel part of a supportive community, we often feel isolated and alone. I've observed this in my life and the lives of other parents I know. Friends who were a regular part of our daily lives through our children's mutual activities are now moving in other directions. We have every intention of remaining close, but the reality is that life has changedincluding opportunities to gather together.
My friend Annie decided to build a new community of friends when she struggled with the isolation of the empty nest. She sent a letter to every empty nest mom she knew, asking if they'd be interested in forming a support group/Bible study for midlife moms. She was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic responses. They now meet regularly to support one another and study God's Word.
A New Kind of Relationship
At first, you may need to grieve the loss of a daily relationship with your child. After all, you participated in every step of preparing your child to leave home, from helping with the college application process to attending orientation. Yet now your child is starting a new life and you are returning to your old one, with one big differenceyour child's absence. You may feel left out of the fun and excitement of starting a new adventure.
Your first job is done, but your next one is beginning. Your new task is to develop friendships and a mutual support system with your adult children. Your new role is that of a wise friend and mentor to your adult children.
You will not enjoy a true adult friendship with your children until they are financially and emotionally independent, but you are laying the foundation now. As I've spoken to other midlife parents, I've discovered these guidelines for developing friendships with college-aged kids:
Listen more than talk.
Be someone your children can share themselves with without fear of being judged.
Avoid giving unsolicited advice, unless you sense that your child is truly in danger.
Speak to your college kids with the same courtesy you would use in speaking to a close friend.
Finding Midlife Opportunities
The Chinese characters for "crisis" have a twofold definition. They can be interpreted to mean either "danger" or "opportunity." A crisis can blindside you, sabotaging your life, or it can provide a magical opportunity to pursue adventures and dreams you'd never imagined. The good news is that you have a choice. You can choose to have a midlife meltdown or to create a midlife masterpiece.
You can choose to give up or you can choose to trust and follow God. View this season in your life as an opportunity to devour God's Word. The Bible is an entire book about people facing crisis and changeabout people who run toward God or walk away from him in the midst of crisis.
Following God will often involve hard work. But by midlife, we should know that anything worthwhile and valuable usually requires hard work.
Know, too, that after the initial disorientation of midlife, it's possible to truly enjoy this new season. Midlife is a time to evaluate our past successes and failuresand to look for new opportunities. For you, that might include mentoring a younger family, or rediscovering a hobby you didn't have time and money for during the childrearing years. Some people go back to school, pursuing more education or a career that allows them to follow their passions. With time, you may be able to see this new season as one of adventure.
A Time for Spiritual Growth
As the wife of a man who loves boats and the ocean, I have been quite seasick and scared during some of our trips. I can relate to the disciples who feared storms. The book of Mark tells the story this way:
"Immediately Jesus made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After leaving them, he went up on a mountainside to pray.
"When evening came, the boat was in the middle of the lake, and he was alone on land. He saw the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them. About the fourth watch of the night he went out to them. He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.
"Immediately he spoke to them and said, 'Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid.' Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down" (Mark 6:45-51a, NIV).
Jesus watched his disciples struggle until the fourth watch. He could have calmed the wind from shore at any time. But Jesus waited. God's relationship with us and our trust in him are more important than any immediate solution to an earthly problem. God comforts us with his presence, saying, "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."
One gift of midlife is the ability to recognize God's track record. We remember every time God faithfully sustained us when we had lost hope in the future. We remember the surprises he had in store for us when the enemy of our souls whispered, "This time God has forgotten you." We know that God is smiling as he walks through the valley with us
because he has lovingly planned what awaits us next.
This article is adapted from When You're Facing the Empty Nest: Avoiding Midlife Meltdown When Your Child Leaves Home (Bethany House).