Embracing the Empty Nest
Letting go of children to take hold of God.
by Jennifer Aaron
I stood in the unfamiliar grocery store, on the verge of crying. My eighteen-year-old daughter had just chosen a package of bagels for her dorm fridge, and they weren’t the whole grain kind I had diligently trained my family to eat.
As my erring daughter and her twin sister moved on, I dropped behind them to give myself time to rein in my runaway emotions. Shawn, my husband, walked next to me. “What’s wrong?” he asked quietly, seeing my red eyes.
Answering that question usually opens the floodgates, but I tried to get my words out without letting my tears out with them. “She didn’t get the whole wheat bagels!”
Shawn is a doctor who believes in the value of good nutrition, but I could see he didn’t rate our daughter’s choice as tragic enough to prompt my tears. I stopped for a moment, trying to explain. “She’s making her own decisions now, and what if she throws away everything I taught her?”
“She won’t! You’ve done a good job teaching her and her sister,” my husband said, wrapping his arm around my shoulders.
His word choice pinpointed my problem. Raising my daughters had been my career for eighteen years. I wasn’t enjoying my forced retirement party, masquerading as a college orientation weekend.
I had always seen motherhood as a calling, and I took it seriously. I took parenting classes; I read books and magazines. Obviously I knew my goal as a mom was to raise children who were ready to be independent adults. I worked toward that end during their teenage years, granting more freedoms, conferring more responsibilities.
But none of my preparation kept their leaving from being just as painful as the labor that began my motherhood.
My college freshmen had a younger sister, so I still had six years of being a full-time mom to her. I was grateful to still have the structure of her school days to shape mine, to still have someone coming home in the afternoon eager to discuss her day’s events.
But her presence didn’t stop me from missing my older girls terribly. They had literally taken over my life when they were born. My grief at this change was consuming me the way their infant needs had.
Sadness and anger
I shouldn’t have been so sad. I still had a child and a husband at home; no one had died. My daughters were smart and motivated enough to go to college, which was a good thing. How could I be so unhappy about such a positive step for them?
I felt angry at how much I hurt, as if I were being punished for having a close relationship with my daughters. If I hadn’t spent so much time talking with them and listening to their stories, I wouldn’t have missed them so much.
I felt alone in my grief. The common image is of teenagers as walking nightmares that parents are relieved to send off. Could I admit my unhappiness to anyone? I cried and prayed, “Please help me, Lord. I want to go back to bed. Please heal me in how I deal with what’s bothering me. I can’t handle anything without You.”
Tears and sin
I began to see that while my grief over this huge life change was legitimate and the pain of missing my daughters real, some of my tears came from sin. As with the tears I tried to keep at bay in the grocery store, fear prompted them.
While I have never seen myself as an anxious person, sending my babies into the world left me drowning in fear. What if they didn’t go to church? What if they didn’t find a good church? Would they be able to make good friends? Would they find a good balance of fun and studying? Were they eating well? Why didn’t they call home more often? Were they glad to be away from me? Would they be careful and prayerful in dating decisions?
Fear is a complicated subject. I’m supposed to fear God, and a healthy degree of fear keeps me safe in daily life. But the Bible’s numerous “Do not fear” commands show me anxiety can also be wrong. Some fearful thoughts are temptations to be fought, not indulged.
God nudged me with this truth as I was praying one day. I wrote, “I know You haven’t given me a spirit of fear; please help me to recognize my fearful thoughts and consciously choose faith instead.” The verse God had brought to my mind was 2 Timothy 1:7: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” I needed to use the discipline to reject the anxious thoughts swarming through my brain.
Depths from the Word
This key insight opened the door to more help from God’s Word. I turned to Philippians 4:6, 7 again and again: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I was praying, but I needed to apply the whole instruction, letting go of anxiety and trusting God’s peace to guard me against the next fear attack.
Similarly, I found new depth in 1 Peter 5:5-7:
All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.
In other situations I had focused on casting my anxiety and on the assurance of God’s care for me, but this emotional crisis had humbled me. I couldn’t see myself as mostly immune to anxiety anymore. I couldn’t be proud of my accomplishments on a given day if all I had done was get out of bed. I lost any illusion that I could handle my life, but 1 Peter told me I was better off that way.
I was deeply grateful that I had steeped my brain in God’s Word over the years. God used those familiar verses to show me where my pain was spilling over into sin, and how to set my feet back on the right path.
Even as I began to regain my equilibrium in my new normal, I missed my daughters. I hesitated to call them, though. I didn’t trust myself not to be too clingy. Their slowness in calling me left me uncertain about how much mom time they wanted.
As I spent time with friends to fill the hours I normally spent with my daughters, I learned my empty nest friends shared my mixed emotions. I wasn’t alone in treasuring and missing my children.
Of course, I always knew I wasn’t completely alone; Shawn loved our girls too. And he loved me enough to have a chat with them before they went back for their sophomore year.
I wasn’t present, but he told me the conversation went something like this: “I’m not going to listen to your mom crying again because you haven’t called. If she doesn’t hear from you once a week, you’ll be hearing from me. I know you have new friends and fun things happening, but Mom is forever, and you have to take care of that relationship.”
Their faithfulness to this commitment, my deepened friendships, my supportive husband, my closer walk with God and richer understanding of His Word — these ingredients combined for a much smoother transition when I finally sent my baby off to college.
Though my nest is now completely empty, my heart is full of God’s faithful presence with me. And that will never change.
Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
When You’re Facing the Empty Nest: Avoiding Midlife Meltdown When Your Child Leaves Home by Mary Ann Froehlich
Lost in the Middle: Midlife and the Grace of God by Paul David Tripp