As the mother of three growing children, I used to dread the thought of living in an "empty nest." The term sounded so dismal and empty, as if my purpose in life would be over once our children had flown the coop.
Today, I'm happy to report, my perspective's changed. My husband, Lynn, and I have entered our third year as "empty nesters," and we've discovered life can be surprisingly good! There are the unanticipated benefits, such as coming home at the end of the day to find our house in the same order we left it that morning. Or having the freedom to be more spontaneous about when we eat, what we eat, and how long we pray before we eat. We have more time for friends, each other, and God. Despite a period of adjustment, our empty nest no longer feels empty.
Statistics tell us that, chances are, more than one-third of our lifespan still awaits us when we enter the "empty nest." Its arrival shouldn't surprise us; it's hovered on the horizon since our children's births. Yet many of us enter it in a state of shock.
But there are ways we can tweak our lifestyle to help us minimize the emptiness and focus instead on the fullness.
Tweak Your Attitude
Of course, I grieved each time one of our children left for college. I missed their physical presence. I missed having their friends around. I even missed things I thought I'd never miss—piles of junk in the front hall or the constant sound of music I didn't choose and didn't like.
Though some grieving is normal, I knew I faced a choice: I could continue to wallow in nostalgia and dwell on the past—or embrace the future.
As I prayerfully tackled this choice, I discovered a spiritual serendipity. Our empty nest afforded me increased time for prayer. And as I spent more time with God, he transformed my attitude, changing the way I responded to this new season in life. By the time Kendall, our youngest, left home, I had a better handle on my attitude. Instead of planning to grieve this major milestone, Lynn and I took our first-ever trip to England with another couple.
We rented a flat for a week in London, then checked into a bed and breakfast in the Cotswolds, where we leisurely roamed the countryside. We slowly began to fine-tune our definition of "family," rediscovering the priority of our marriage relationship. That trip helped us focus on the exciting potential of this new time in our lives.
Tweak Your Setting
After our children left home, I felt the emptiness most at dinnertime, when Lynn and I sat alone at our long wooden kitchen table where most of our family meals had been eaten. The vacant chairs were a constant reminder of our downsized family. So we gave the table to our son, who now lives in an apartment, and replaced it with a smaller oval table with comfy swivel chairs. Colorful new placemats and candleholders transformed the space into a cozy, just-right-for-the-two-of-us space.
I began changing our nest in other ways as well. For years, our need for new sheets or towels fell to the bottom of the list of budget priorities; we had to get the kids' school clothes or update their bedroom wallpaper as they grew up. So Lynn and I simply settled for worn-out sheets and towels.
But now I began investing in us. I purchased some new towels for our bathroom and new sheets and a comforter for our bed. Since we no longer needed the VCR in our family room, we moved it to the bedroom, a much warmer spot in the winter. We converted the kids' phone line to a FAX number, which made working from home more convenient.
Although we didn't transform their bedrooms into a sewing room or home office, as many people do, we took a few posters off the walls and made their rooms more comfortable for guests. This change gave us a whole new opportunity to invite people into our home, offering them the privacy of a bedroom instead of a sofa bed in the family room.
Tweak Your Family Traditions
I've always relished family traditions. When our children were young, I pulled the same predictable decorations out of storage every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine's Day, Easter, and Fourth of July. We celebrated in traditional ways, too. Though the number of faces around our Thanksgiving table varied each year, our family of five formed the nucleus of this celebration of feasting. We spent the day preparing food. We got out the fancy white tablecloth, good china, and silverware, and the kids made place cards for our guests.
I dreaded our first Thanksgiving alone, because I feared their absence would magnify the emptiness of this new season of life. So we accepted an invitation from friends, and for the first time in 20 years, I didn't cook a turkey. I anticipated withdrawal symptoms, but to my surprise, I enjoyed the freedom from responsibility! Now Lynn and I look forward to all the new ways we can celebrate—such as serving turkey to the homeless at our church, or taking a cross-country ski trek—thanking God not only for food, but the blessing of his creation.
On our first Valentine's Day as empty nesters, we realized going out for dinner alone was no longer unusual. So we invited a single mom to share dinner with us at home. Our first Mother's Day and Father's Day alone also felt a bit odd, so Lynn and I began to honor each other for the role we played in our children's lives, instead of depending on them to set the pace. As we learn to hold our children more loosely, we're growing closer and opening ourselves up to what God has in store for us in the future.
Tweak Your Time for God
The Bible tells us there are many seasons to our life. For years, I've lived in the hectic, demanding, childrearing season of life. But in our quieter empty nest, Lynn and I are enjoying the tranquility of more stillness. Other than getting involved with some mentoring relationships with younger people, we haven't rushed to fill our extra time with lots of outside activities. Instead, we're relishing the opportunity to have more time for thinking, reading, or praying, without inconveniencing anyone else.
I especially enjoy having more time to ponder some of the memories I've stored in my heart over the last 20 years. As I journal them and reflect on them, they become tangible reminders that God, who has so richly blessed us in the past, surely will continue to bless us in this season of the empty nest.
—Carol Kuykendall has written several books, including A Mother's Footprints of Faith (Zondervan). A vice president at MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) International in Denver, Colorado, she has three grown children and is enjoying her "empty nest" with her husband, Lynn.
"Celebrating the Empty Nest," by Carol Kuykendall, was originally published in Virtue