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Empty Nest, Full Life

Don’t look back in loneliness — look ahead to love.
by Marge Fenelon | Source:

“Good-bye, little pig. Go build your house of brick,” Patty Easton murmured to herself when the last of the Eastons’ three children moved out of the house. Patty and her husband, Dick, have three grown children, ages 27 to 33. Dick is an English professor and Patty is and adjunct professor of children’s literature at Washington-Jefferson College in Pittsburgh.

“If you let them go, they come back,” she explains. “But if you try to hold on to them, they’ll be gone for good. Parenthood is one of those jobs you’re meant to work yourself out of.”

Eventually every set of parents faces the day when the last child ventures out to make his or her way in the world. At which point Mom and Dad join the ranks of the “empty nesters.”

After devoting decades of their time and energy to their kids, a couple can find themselves needing to redefine relationships and priorities. The transition can be a traumatic one for all involved, but it doesn’t have to be. The key is in the praying — and the planning.”

“Pat and I became very conscious when the kids reached the age of 10 or 11 that parents have to become separate identities,” recalls Dick. “We came to realize that the couple is the primary relationship and, if the couple isn’t happy, the kids won’t be happy.”

Dick and Patty began working on their relationship as spouses, taking time out for one another, making dates and getting a sitter so they could have time alone, and fostering common interests that didn’t involve the kids.

“You’ve got to find balance,” Dick says. “This is especially true once the kids are out of the house, but it starts when they’re still around. The couple has to rediscover each other, to make time for each other. We needed to know ourselves as Pat and Dick, not Mom and Dad.”

Indeed, empty nesting includes the pain of letting go, but it also the joy of growth and discovery.

Most empty nesters find themselves with more time on their hands than they’ve had in the past. They may also experience a surge of new energy as they’re relieved of the responsibilities of day-to-day childcare.

This can be a great time to take advantage of the opportunity to explore interests and abilities that had been undeveloped before.

“This can be a very exciting time of life,” says Father Dick Mirsberger, pastor of St. Rita Catholic Church in West Allis, Wis. “For some, this is the first time in their lives that they’re discovering how to reach out to others besides their children, and they find new and fulfilling ways to serve the Church.”

“There’s a spiritual dimension that wasn’t there in the workaday world,” adds the priest. “In the process, they grow personally and spiritually. It’s their gift to the community, to their God and, ultimately, to themselves.”

Of course, Father Mirsberger advises, the relationship between the husband and wife is always primary. He suggests the couple sit down together and assess their gifts as individuals and as a tandem. Then evaluate how much time and what kind of time you’re able to commit to new activities. Think about where you feel comfortable serving and in what capacities you excel.

Then ask your pastor where the greatest needs are and discuss with him how you might be able to fill those needs.

“Since we’re less focused on the kids, our horizons have broadened,” says Leisa Thigpen. Leisa and her husband, Paul, have two grown children ages 19 and 25. “We don’t ever forget about the kids, but now our attention span is broadened. We don’t talk about the kids so much. Instead, we talk about politics and culture. We do more for the Church than we ever have. We’re doing a lot of things that we never had time to do before.”

The Thigpens co-authored Building Catholic Family Traditions (OSV, 1999); Paul has also written numerous other Catholic titles.

Certainly the Thigpens miss their grown children, they allow. They spend plenty of time catching up with their progeny by phone, e-mail and instant messaging — not to mention face-to-face during home visits.

Still, they note, the relationships have changed. They see and treat their children like mature individuals rather than youngsters in need of care and supervision.

“We have to remember that children are the fruit of the marriage,” says Paul, “not the root of the marriage.”

New Mission, New Meaning

Cultivating a relationship with your grown children takes some doing at first. Some simple steps can get your relationship moving in the right direction and, gradually, growing by its own momentum.

According to Greg Popcak, Catholic family therapist and director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute in Steubenville, Ohio, there are three pillars on which the couple relationship must rest in order for it to thrive and become a blessing not only for the couple but also for others to whom they reach out.

The first pillar is meaningfulness, which incorporates the gifts, talents and abilities held by the couple individually and as a unit. These can be tapped and expanded to enrich present days and plan future doings.

The second is intimacy, which includes healthy vulnerability and inspiration.

The third is virtue, which emphasizes the attributes that make one a stronger, holier disciple of Christ.

Popcak recommends forming a mission statement based on these three pillars and encompassing the qualities, aspirations and inclinations of the couple in light of their new, empty-nest lifestyle. He suggests asking, “What qualities are being called out in me at this point in my life?” followed by, “What would I have to do in order to follow this call?”

Says Popcak, “The most important question to ask is, ‘Lord, what are you doing in me?’” This cultivates an attitude of service and surrender to God’s will.

And what about the “kids”?

“Parents at this stage of life don’t want to just wash their hands of their grown children,” says Ellen Thorp, former assistant dean of students at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Thorp recently left her position to spend more time raising her own small children. “On the other hand, you want to enjoy this time. Over involvement isn’t beneficial to your children anyway.”

“Sit back and enjoy this time,” adds Thorp. “Enjoy the accomplishments of your children and be confident that you’ve raised them as best as you could and take advantage of this exciting time.”

May your empty nest be filled to overflowing with faith, hope and love. 

Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin. 

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Post a Comment
Published by: AlWjYiyovHRxhj
Date: 2012-08-04 04:18:22
Thank you so much for this aicltre. I know that I was led only by the Holy Spirit to this blog I can not even tell you how else I got here to this aicltre. For several years now, I have prayed about this subject..I have 2 girls ages 6 and 7 we have never spanked our 7 year old she has never needed to be spanked, if you will, however, just writing that makes me cringe..we have however, spanked our 6 year old. She is quite defiant and disobeys, lies, manipulate, etc alot. Daddy does most of the spanking..I tend to breakdown after popping her leg it breaks my heart, I have always felt it was wrong and only taught her to hit as well. Well, that she does.. hit her sister all the time, her behavior has not gotten better from the spanking to be quite honest it has progressed and my husband and I discuss this alot. He knows my feelings on the spanking thing I was spanked alot as a child (all 5 of us children were) with the belt, hand, fly swatter, wooden spoon, you name it- it was used. I never felt love..ever after a spanking-always resentment and pain, rejection. It has affected me all of my life. I find it hard to trust people, I am quick to anger, really strugge with submission in my marriage, yell at my children alot. I pray about this subject constantly and have asked God to show me what and how I should be disciplining my girls. Asked him to help me understand what the Bible says about spanking, etc and felt like I was disobeying when I wanted to NOT make spanking a part of the discipline in our household especially when our Pastors in the past have told us that spanking is biblical. so confusing. Well, like I said, The Lord placed this aicltre in my lap tonite. I wept as I read it. Then brought my husband into the kitchen, had him sit down and I read it to him. We both agreed that it begins with us we speak and speak about how we are raising our children to Love the Lord and we are setting a terrible example for them! yelling at them, popping or spanking them etc we agreed that the change has to start NOW! and it will. Thank you for your hard work and research you put into this aicltre. I can not tell you how it has blessed me and my husband. I will share it with my friends as well. Thank you Thank you.

Published by: Ann
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
When our two children were born, I experienced love like no other. Now that they are gone, I experience an emptiness like no other. I also feel that I failed them, since they both left the Catholic faith.

Published by: Ann
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
When our two children were born, I experienced love like no other. Now that they are gone, I experience an emptiness like no other. I also feel that I failed them, since they both left the Catholic faith.

Published by: Ann
Date: 2009-01-01 10:00:00
When our two children were born, I experienced love like no other. Now that they are gone, I experience an emptiness like no other. I also feel that I failed them, since they both left the Catholic faith.

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