Ready or Not
The empty nest and an unprepared parent.
by Sharlene MacLaren
There is something to be said for the realities of the empty nest syndrome and its deep sense of loss. I experienced it and can attest to its validity.
My husband and I had successfully raised two wonderful daughters. One had already left “the nest” to attend college and settled into a nearby apartment, and the other was still at home, right where I had hoped to keep her indefinitely. It wasn’t so bad letting that first one go, because, you see, I still had another child under my wing. Besides, my older daughter seemed inclined to come home often to raid the refrigerator, which I kept well stocked for just such occasions.
Throughout my years of parenting, I had watched many older, more experienced parents let their children fall from their warm, comfortable nests. Some, to my horror, even went so far as to give their babies an extra push when they didn’t move fast enough to suit them.
I asked countless times over, “What is it like? I can’t imagine my children ever leaving home — ever leaving me.” Just the thought put me in a regular frenzy.
Parents would offer knowing smiles and similar replies: “Oh, it’s not nearly as hard as you may think. When the time comes, you’ll be ready.”
This I could never quite fathom, as I had decided right from the moment of their births that my children would stay nestled under my wing for as long as I could hold them there, even if it was against their will.
Both our daughters — the younger in particular — seemed born for social life. Thus, our home buzzed with constant activity. As soon as school let out and the girls both bounded off the bus and up the walk to the front door, it seemed the phones never stopped ringing. “Is Krista home yet?” some female voice would eagerly inquire. Or “Can I talk to Kendra?” might be another impatient request.
Through the years, I was like a second mom to many a girl and, in some cases, boys. Always ready and eager to listen to their woes, I heard about their boyfriend/girlfriend struggles, their ill-fated family relationships and misunderstood feelings, their school-related problems, and the personal wars they often fought as they tried to live out their Christian lives in a Godless, peer-pressured society.
Whenever possible I offered words of consolation and support, often attempting bursts of godly wisdom followed on the wings of a silent, heedful prayer. They needed me, and I needed them.
It was a busy, two-way street.
However, it was a street that would soon undergo serious construction, forcing detours and roadblocks and completely stopping the flow of traffic altogether. It was a street that would post the dreaded sign “No Thru Traffic.”
The day we arrived back home after delivering our younger daughter to a Christian college, which just happened to be 500 miles away, we walked into a house of lifeless serenity. It was not the norm for me — or for my husband.
For days we walked around in a semi-fog, acknowledging each other with a helpless nod or a weak smile. Both understood the other’s need for something, but neither of us knew what that something was. Finally, my husband said, “It’s so quiet around here,” and I acknowledged that it was. Deadly quiet.
Attempts at optimism
As time went on, it seemed my husband began to adjust to our quiet home life, more so than I thought was appropriate. He began making crude remarks like “I’m actually starting to get used to this” and “It’s not so bad, is it? I mean, I miss them, but at least the phone has stopped ringing off the hook.”
I knew what he was doing, but his attempt at optimism fell on deaf ears.
Then came the day he said, “Just think, honey. We have our privacy back. Think of the possibilities!” To that, he tipped a mischievous eyebrow my way.
I failed to see the humor. In fact, the more he seemed to be adjusting, the worse I grew in my quest for recovery.
It seemed I’d been hit hard with the dreaded syndrome: the empty nest.
Loss of purpose
I ached everywhere — from head to toe. I lost my energy, my zest for living, my joy in the little things. It was as if my “rug of purpose” had been yanked right out from under me. What good was I? What earthly purpose did I serve now that my children seemed to not need me any longer?
Suddenly, I couldn’t manage my emotions. Crying seemed an everyday occurrence and laughing almost obsolete. All I wanted to do was sleep away my miseries. Worse, I felt as if I was fast losing my sense of control.
Panic and depression
Panic set in, and before I knew it, I had experienced what I was convinced was the big “D”: depression, although the word itself seemed somehow un-Christlike, unbiblical, and certainly unlike me. After all, how could someone normally upbeat, even-keel, cheerful, and full of godly faith fall prey to the painful clutches of depression?
My husband recognized the serious signs of change. He stepped up his prayer time with me, offered continual words of love and support, took me places, sat up with me on sleepless nights, and doted on me every spare minute. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough; I needed something more.
That was when I turned more deeply to the Bible, sought God’s peace and assurance, and literally bathed myself in the Psalms and Gospels, lavishing in each promising word. I plastered the psalmist’s words on the walls of my heart: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (37:18), along with “Be still, and know that I am God” (46:10). In my search for wholeness, I began to discover other cherished verses from the Psalms: “Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall” (55:22) and, perhaps written just for me, “God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day” (46:5).
Oh, how I needed those blessed words of assurance!
Healing and wholeness
Had I been right in my self-diagnosis? Yes, a doctor’s careful evaluation confirmed my worst fears: I was clinically depressed and suffering from a chronic panic disorder. Was it the worst thing that could have ever happened to me? No. I thank God every day that He not only brought me through that harrowing experience with the help of proper medications and His healing touch but also made me a better person for it. Romans 8:28 says it best: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” He wants to take the ugly times in my life and turn them into beautiful ones.
I am created in God’s image, meaning I am human and, as a result, am apt to suffer similarly to my counterparts, Christian or not. Perhaps a better question I should have asked myself was “Why shouldn’t I be made to suffer?” After all, it is through suffering that I am made whole. Job 23:10 says, “But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold.”
I take heart in the fact that now, five years later, I have discovered my purposes do not center exclusively on my children. There is more to life. God calls me to focus first on Him and then on my family and others. It’s been a hard-earned lesson to learn, but a necessary one.
My husband and I are thoroughly enjoying the privacy and quietude of our home with its empty guestrooms, its perfectly clean walls, sparkling windows, and fingerprint-free refrigerator. I enjoy the fact that the beds stay neatly made and that I don’t have to keep doors closed to unkempt bedrooms.
Looking to the future
Of course, one day soon we will have grandchildren. Then I suppose it will start all over — the marred walls, the fingerprints, the clutter of cribs and toys.
“You will be ready for it when it comes.” That is what the older and more experienced parents tell me.
I believe they’re right.
Scripture quotations were taken from the New International Version.