I think we're alone now: How to keep your nest feathered when your children have flown the coop

By Virginia Curran Hoffman| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
Article Marriage and Family

There are many passages in the parent-child relationship: birth, weaning from the breast or bottle, preschool or kindergarten, high school, full-time work or college, the first serious relationship, the first apartment, college graduation, earning a wage and paying bills. Each has its own mixture of pride and fear, encouragement and nostalgia.

Psychologists call the last few of these passages "launching," the growth of the young person toward full adult responsibility. The goal of healthy launching is the emergence of whole human beings-of both generations-who can each maintain a healthy sense of self, accept differences in each other, and relate with each other in positive, mutually respectful, and supportive ways.

The launching period is a new beginning for parents as well. Most parents have two to four decades of adult life ahead when their children leave home, a whole additional chapter beyond what their grandparents had. So they face some challenging questions that life did not pose 50 years ago:

  • How will we get along as spouses without the children in the middle?
  • What will each of us do with our individual lives after the children leave?
  • How do we adjust our parenting to fit our now-adult children?

I have tried to explore answers to these questions that are both psychologically sound and inherent to the message and model of Jesus' life.

Just the two of us
How will we get along as spouses without the children in the middle? This is the issue that causes the most apprehension about the launching period. What will happen when we have to relate to each other directly instead of talking to and through the children?

One approach is the simple (not easy, but simple) practice of presence. The core of all relationships is being present to another: giving our full attention in a kind and receptive way, without barriers. As we learned from years of parenting, there is a world of difference between listening with one ear while the mind is elsewhere and listening with interest and the mind completely engaged. Without these moments of one-on-one connection, any relationship can feel empty. In the post-children quiet, it is helpful to spend a part of each day being present to our spouses.

Even if one disagrees with a particular opinion, it is possible to be present, to accept and respect the other's dignity, and to concentrate on better understanding that person's ideas and why that person holds them. Subsequent discussions always go more smoothly if each person is confident that she has been heard or his position is understood. Pretend to be interviewing a stranger to avoid the trap of assuming the answers.

Couples who make a point of spending adult time together regularly throughout their married life, pursuing things they enjoy doing together, have a big advantage in the launching stage. Throughout marriage a weekly or biweekly date is a good practice to help keep romance alive. Dates can be simple and inexpensive; child care can be traded with another couple. The point is to be present to each other without the children, talking with and listening to each other and doing something that both enjoy. Whatever a couple does-going out for a beer or ice cream, dancing or bowling or walking in the park-dates keep the primary relationship strong and make for an easier transition to life together after launching.

Those couples who focused all their time, energy, and conversation solely on the children for 20 years or so may have to invest some time rediscovering how to be present for and with each other as they were present for the children. There are some user-friendly tools designed just for them. My favorites have been field tested by couples and students and received enthusiastic reviews:

Giving that full attention to someone, accepting him or her as a person, sharing the impact of whatever pain or joy he or she is feeling, and being willing to respond with compassion is truly a sacred act. Compassionate presence is the core of Jesus' life and message, the model he taught in the story of a caring outsider, the Good Samaritan. This is what followers of Jesus are supposed to do and to be.

Practical pointers
If launching coincides with retirement, it can be trying to share the same space all day without annoying each other. Maureen says, "I can't stand it! He follows me around the house all day telling me how I should be doing things, even though I've been doing this for 25 years." Tom says, "I'm just trying to be helpful, but according to her, nothing I do is right. I feel useless around here."

It's time to step back and take another look at the big picture. However chores were divided while the children were home, launching and retirement are occasions to reconsider their distribution. Gone are the days when the man worked at the factory while the woman worked at home; he came home to rest or retire, but her shift never ended. Whatever the past pattern, there should be less work needed now. It is time to lighten and share the load.

The key is to find a balance together so that each one is responsible-not just "helping out" or coaching from the sidelines-for about half of the person-hours needed to make the household function.

It helps, too, to have some time to do things alone, apart from one's spouse, like having lunch with a friend.

A greater challenge faces those couples whose interaction has deteriorated to sniping and negativity. If, during the years of active parenting, one spouse's internal running commentary about the other has become dismissive and critical, that attitude leaks out through actions and tone of voice.

Couples who find themselves in an atmosphere of hostility-put-downs, sharp edges to verbal exchanges-will need to do some repair work. A strong sense of marital commitment, the courage to change, and the assistance of a qualified therapist may be helpful here. If a car engine makes a grating noise, or if it stalls in traffic, we don't hesitate to see someone trained to identify and work on the problem. I wish people would do the same for their important relationships.

Relational problems that are ignored rarely go away. Therapists do not "fix" anyone, but they can help partners do the work of addressing issues and learning to be present to each other, if that is what they want to do. It is best if both seek help together, but if one is unwilling, the assistance is valuable for the person who is ready.

Now what?
What will I do with my life after the children have gone? If my whole adult life has been centered on my children, what is my purpose in life now? Beyond the questions of whether we can finally take a vacation after years of college tuition are the deeper questions: How to be with the emptiness or loss we feel, and how to find a sense of purpose for this chapter of life.

We have to be careful not to try to fill emotional spaces with food, alcohol, or escape relationships. Nor does it work to expect that our spouses be solely responsible for making our lives fuller and more worthwhile. It's better to spend some of the new quiet time being present to those feelings, to ourselves, and to God, and being open to what will come next. The emotional energy is there for a purpose, to give us that push to move into the next chapter of life.

Another trait we should consider when we embark on this new journey is openness to those beyond our family or our social, religious, ethnic, or national groups. One of the factors that riled some of Jesus' contemporaries was his habit of caring for and sharing meals with outsiders of the day: members of other religions or ethnic groups, less than observant members of his own religion, and those who were otherwise "unclean."

Years ago I read about an experiment based on the Good Samaritan story. The people who were in a hurry because they thought they were late were the ones less likely to stop and help. This might be a good period in our lives to stop and take the time.

Post-launching parents can be found volunteering in homeless shelters or literacy programs, using their talents for those on the margins. Some invest time getting to know fellow church members on a deeper level, behind the usual "Sunday faces," and building real people-touching-people communities.

These are some other questions that each married partner can consider individually and then discuss together: What are some places for potential growth in my own life, for stretching my mind and body? How can my understanding of the world be expanded? What talents can be further developed? What are my opportunities for creativity, learning, physical activity, hobbies, fun, social contact, or volunteer work? Would this be a good time to take up yoga or brisk walking?

Among couples who had divided wage-earning and home-care into separate domains while the children were young, it is not uncommon at this stage for each partner to feel a need to stretch their other side. The full-time caregiver may wish to use newly available time to pursue talents and interests that have long been set aside. The person who has spent years punching a clock may regret having missed opportunities with the children when they were young and may desire more couple time at home. It takes a lot of listening-the most important communication skill-and compassionate presence for both partners to be supportive of each other.

It is hard enough to deal with our own uncertainties, but it may seem even more challenging to choose to be patient, loving, and supportive of a spouse when he or she grapples with change. There is a fear that if our partner deviates from the 25-year pattern, everything will fall apart. If one is honest, it should be clear which activities threaten a marriage and which keep the two partners vibrant within their marriage. Couples who work to keep their marriages strong manage to find a way to balance individual interests with appreciation, affection, and a regular pattern of enjoying time together.

Mark got involved in Jean's peace and justice work, and she learned to ride on the back of his motorcycle-steps neither of them would have predicted 10 years earlier. Jim repairs small engines, while Ellen and a friend started a gift shop. Alice and Paul joined a hiking group. Larry is a history buff, and Darlene an avid gardener. This is a good time for couples to try a new activity they can enjoy together, particularly something at which neither one is an expert, so they can learn together.

We can challenge ourselves to try one new activity-half an hour a day or a couple of hours a week-to invest in our own health and wholeness.

Parenting 2.0
How do we adjust our parenting to fit our now-adult children? Keys to relating with adult children include staying in touch without smothering, flexibility, and the ability to let grown children make their own decisions.

The best way I found to stay in touch with grown children is by e-mail. College students have been known to keep strange hours, even totally opposite my own. I learned I could send an e-mail when I am awake without running the risk of interrupting their study or sleep, and they can receive the message during their own active periods. E-mail can also be a very good way to have a conversation that requires delicacy and extra thought.

Flexibility is the secret to peaceful holidays. Some twenty- or thirty-somethings dread the annual guilt trips by parents or fights with their significant others over where to spend the holidays. Some try to satisfy all parents by choking down two dinners on Thanksgiving. Margie and Stan decided to make the relationship their priority: "The holiday will be celebrated whenever you are here, or when we can be together." They focus on the joy of being together rather than the date.

Today's economy poses other challenges to flexibility. John and Sue's son graduated from college but was unable to find any of the professional jobs for which he had studied. Facing low-paying work and a pile of student loans, he moved back with his parents for a time. Barbara and Dennis' daughter was struggling to balance full-time work, spend enough time with her child, and pay for food, rent, and medical expenses after her marriage ended in divorce. She and her daughter are back with her parents.

We have learned that when our grown children make decisions, we are the audience. This requires a clear shift of attitude or mental position from the conventional parental role. Occasionally we can express our concerns, but we no longer have a vote. Even if one of our own is making a decision that we are sure will fail, all we can do is calmly discuss the problems we see, love them whatever steps they take, and be there for them if it does fall apart.

When a group of people was ready to throw stones at a woman for her actions, Jesus cautioned against it, reminding the people that they had all made wrong choices. Ed and Marie are so glad they didn't respond to their son's hostility with more of their own or sever ties when he became involved with a woman who was as angry at the world as he was. Loving presence made the difference. They kept the emotional door open, were there for him when she left, and they now have a strong, healthy relationship with him.

Jean and Bob spend weekend visits to the homes of their out-of-state children doing projects: fixing a fence, building a cabinet in the family room, painting the deck. What started with helping one son move into an apartment became a tradition: When Mom and Dad come to town, everyone works together on the next project. Of course this requires lots of mutual respect, listening to all ideas, and letting leadership flow among all participants. It has taken them time and practice, and it might not work for all families, but they say it has built good memories and satisfying results, just as barn-raisings did generations ago.

When grown children set out to build their adult lives, we parents begin our own new chapter. The more proactive we are in approaching the challenges of this stage, the more we will be able to discover the joys this period has to offer. The key to the transition is putting faith into action by learning new ways to be present-to our spouses, our children, and the world.