What I Wish I’d Known When My Kids Were Younger: Reflections of an Empty Nester
I’m not sure when the reality of our empty nest hit me first. It might have been just a couple of days after my youngest child left for college, when I began thinking about what to cook for dinner. I realized I could actually cook what I wanted to eat rather than planning a meal around the latest nutrition fad. Like, we could eat the cheap unhealthy pasta instead of the pricy chickpea variety.
Or it might have been the first night I went to bed knowing that I wouldn’t be awakened by a child letting me know they were home. (I admit it – I used to doze off before they got home.)
But I think it hit me hardest the first time I went into her bedroom, with its walls and surfaces filled with mementos of her high school dance team, photos of her arm-in-arm with friends on church mission trips or proudly sporting their caps and gowns at graduation a few months earlier. My eyes filled with tears and the lump in my throat felt like a tennis ball. Things had changed, and they would never be the same again.
While I knew I would miss having my kids at home, I didn’t realize how much. As a stay-at-home mom, my kids were pretty much my job. I tried not to hover too much – didn’t want the “helicopter parent” tag – but it’s safe to say that there wasn’t much going on in their lives that I wasn’t at least tangentially involved in. There were plenty of days it felt like a bit like a burden and I longed for a little time to myself.
And then, one day, I had it. As much time to myself as I wanted. I struggled mightily trying to figure out what, exactly, I was supposed to do with it. For twenty-five years, I never woke up and wondered what I was going to do that day. I knew it would be some combination of feeding, teaching, serving, cheering, driving, cleaning, advising, and hugging. I never realized how much I did in a day until I didn’t have it to do.
At the very end of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus makes a promise. He says, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20). As I adjusted to the new reality of our empty nest and my changing circumstances, I found myself thinking more about that promise. As time passed, I began to see parenting with a new perspective, and I realized a few truths I wish I had held closer while my kids were still at home.
Our identity is in Christ, not in our role as a parent. It was hard to let go of my role as the chief operating officer of our family. But as I made that adjustment in those first weeks after my youngest left home, the Holy Spirit kept reminding me that before I was ever a parent, I was a child of the King, and that was a role that didn’t depend on who was living under my roof.
With that truth so much clearer to me, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would have approached things differently if I had done a better job of seeing myself as a follower of Christ first and a parent second. Would I have been more patient? Would I have worried less over inconsequential things? It’s difficult in the heat of the battle to step back and remember that whatever crisis is unfolding at that moment could very well be forgotten in a short time. Reminding yourself daily that your children don’t define you helps prepare you for that day when they leave the nest.
His grace is sufficient for each of us. My husband has a favorite saying, one that he likes to pull out when he can’t explain a particular blessing. “It’s all grace,” he says, and nowhere is this more evident than when we look back over the time when our children were growing up. As I look back over the time spent with my kids living at home, I’ve come to a humbling but ultimately exhilarating realization: God’s amazing grace covered my children’s lives in spite of my many faults. I could fill a book with my parenting fails. Some I can laugh about, some make me wince, and others make me want to cry with shame. But because I am His child, His grace covers me and the many mistakes I made. “My grace is sufficient for you, and my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). As you navigate the stormy waters of parenthood, pray for eyes that see God’s grace surrounding your kids as well as yourself.
Changing circumstances are opportunities to grow our faith. I admit it: I wasn’t prepared for life after my kids left home. My plans mostly included sleeping more and eating my favorite foods for a change. However, after a few weeks of completely self-indulgent behavior, I began to see that I couldn’t just sleep and eat for the rest of my life. Discerning what God was leading me to do for Him now that I wasn’t spending so much time managing my kids’ lives became a priority. As I began the transition from one role to another, I saw in amazing ways how my parenting experiences had shaped me for those next places where God was leading. Remember that in every parenting moment, good or not-so-good, God is preparing you for the plans He has for you after your kids leave home.
In the intense world of parenting, it’s hard sometimes to imagine a day when your daily life won’t be completely consumed with your children. But an empty nest is still a nest – a place of warmth and security and growth. They will return to it in some fashion, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Cherish those years with your kids but do so with the confidence that God’s presence and grace are working within you in every situation to prepare you for the day they fly.