By Michele Battle, MA, NCC
I never liked the term “Empty Nest”. To me, it sounded like a bleak, hollow place where youth and laughter once reverberated. Then suddenly, the children leave, and only silence and the prospect of aging remains.
I remember when my oldest son left for college; I couldn’t go into his bedroom for two months. Despite the fact that I knew there was laundry that should be done and books to be returned, I couldn’t bring myself to walk in there. Reminders of his absence were everywhere, his big laughter and guitar chords no longer filled the house, and the refrigerator remained relatively full. I missed his good company… I felt his absence in my gut. Was this a precursor to “Empty Nest Syndrome”? If so, I dreaded it.
When children leave, it takes patience, courage, and time to face grief at several different levels. First, I grieved the loss of the young adult who offered different insights and fresh perspectives to our family. Then I grieved the loss of the child that had fascinated me with his intelligence and wowed me with his easy athleticism. Finally, I grieved the loss of the sweet toddler and baby, who had changed our lives and gave my husband and I such happiness. It had been a quick 17 years of growth, promise, and constant activity.
But, I still had one son at home! I was okay for now!
Then last fall, after a series of life events, both sons left home at the same time. I started over: sadness, grief, and loneliness. I missed them both in different ways. I acknowledged my pain, and I came home to a silent house and cried. I practiced love and quiet prayer to celebrate their emerging adulthood. I practiced gratitude for the years that I shared with two wonderful little boys, and all the joy and sorrow that comes with having children. I found new ways to stay connected with them, using text messaging as a primary form of communication, meeting for lunch or dinner, listening to their new and independent experiences. I learned to let them take more direction in our relationship. I added a couple of new “feathers” to my nest.
It was time to reconnect with my husband, my partner. He had been grieving on a parallel plan, but in his own way. Where I got quiet and introspective, he got busy. It was time to find each other again. How did we fall in love? What did we do for fun before all of our responsibilities and obligations? It was time to go back to who we were before children, and find those people. So, we went out to dinner without children, and ate when we felt like it. We took walks, held hands, and talked. We mourned broken dreams, celebrated our successes, and shared new dreams. We made plans for the next stage in our lives. We picked a place that we wanted to live that wasn’t based on good schools or proximity to grocery stores. I added some “fibers” to my nest.
The next process was to explore my changing identity. My primary role had been mother. I had a job, but my priority was parenting. Life had kept my husband and I so busy, that we had settled into fairly traditional roles for the sake of functionality. But who was I now? Who was I before ”mother”? And for that matter, who was I before “wife”?
So I went looking for the young, resilient and passionate woman that I had been. I went back to old sports and hobbies, and listened to old music. I took more time to talk to friends, and share stories. I made new friends. I began a new career, surprising everyone including myself. I struggled with not being proficient at something at my age. It was humbling. I was a learner again, and it was both frightening and exhilarating at the same time. I realized that our world needs nurturing in many ways, and I could offer my heart to that mission.
My “empty nest” was getting fuller and richer. Now I am adding interests and dimensions to my new nest daily. I have a choice in the colors and textures of my nest. It is a process, but life doesn’t feel empty any more.
Blueprint for redesigning your nest:
- Allow yourself to feel sadness over the departure of your children. Share your grief with others. If you feel like you are unable to cope with your sadness, find a mental health professional to help you through this difficult period.
- Move towards your partner in love and curiosity.
- Reconnect with your children as independent and interesting adults.
- Ignite your passions.
- Create new interests.
- Revisit old hobbies and activities.
- Revisit your spirituality, or explore a new one!
- Treat yourself.
- Volunteer. The planet needs you! There is healing in moving outside of yourself to help others.
I am not saying there are not moments when I don’t miss the feel of a small boy’s hand in mine as we walk towards the park, or miss seeing the pure joy in another little boy’s face when he sees only me across the crowded school yard. There are many poignant moments that have become memories, which have become cherished feathers in my nest.
Now is time to focus on the richness of your experiences that continue to add dimension to your life, and chose not to dwell in the absence of what was.
“Having a wider heart and mind is more important than having a larger house. Happiness does not come from having much, but from being attached to little”.
—–Venerable Cheng Yen
Michele Battle is a ProBono Therapist at Maria Droste Counseling Center providing counseling for adolescents and adults. Michele also works as a therapist in Golden, and Black Hawk, Colorado with individuals and groups.