Empty Nesters, You Have a New Purpose Now

older woman staring off to the distance with a contemplative face

Our “baby” of five kids is just two short weeks away from being 21. It occurs to me that even though he’s living with us temporarily and working, he’s for all intents and purposes grown, though maybe not entirely gone.

It also occurs to me that it’s the first time since I became a mother 37 years ago that I’ve felt completely free to do exactly as I please with my time every single day. I haven’t had this kind of freedom since, well, ever.

After my college years, there was the teaching job and the wedding and the children who began showing up. After three, I was unable to have any more, so we adopted two, mainly because I couldn’t imagine life without piano lessons and potty training.

I loved motherhood, and with every year that went by, I realized I was working myself out of a job. Eventually, I’d have to say goodbye to my favorite occupation—raising kids. What would I do next? And who would I be then?

I didn’t know.

Empty Nesters

This Kind of Love Is What Makes a Mother's Legacy boardWhen our baby turned 20, I realized it was the end of 24 straight years of co-parenting teenagers. That was a streak I was happy to give up. But it has taken some adjustment. As much as I’m glad not to worry about whether or not he comes home at night, I liked feeling vital and needed. I liked being Supermom. It’s hard to take off my cape.

I wander around the house now wondering what to do next. And honestly, I like the quiet and the hours to myself. I like the feeling that no one is depending on me for rides to practices or clean khakis. I like a whole day before me and mainly my writing, or friends that call. I’m glad that everyone is alive and thriving.

And yet…

It was such a sweet gig, and sometimes, I’m really sad it’s over. I was the mom who went all out on all occasions so my kids wouldn’t miss a thing. Who am I now?

Your Identity Doesn’t Change When the Kids Are Gone

Who I am now is who I’ve always been. Nothing that matters has changed. Being a mom is an occupation, a calling, a privilege, but it’s not an identity. It’s given me something all consuming and fulfilling to do, but it’s never given me intrinsic worth and value. It’s never been able to tell me who I am.

Only God can do that.

My identity is in God my Father, whose love makes me his beloved daughter. It’s his love that gives me worth and value, not anyone else’s. It’s his love that tells me who I am, not whether or not my kids need me. What could possibly give me more worth than Jesus’ death to make me as close to him as thought and breath? Mt 6:9; Jn 11:25.

Jesus himself found his identity in being God’s son. When John baptized him in the Jordan, the heavens opened and a dove descended, and God said just who Jesus was, “You are my Son, who I love,” (Mark 1:11). If being God’s beloved Son was enough for Jesus’ identity to rest upon, surely being his daughter is enough for me.

There’s nothing I do that can change my status as God’s daughter —not being mama or wife or teacher or writer–because who I am is not what I do. And who I am doesn’t depend on anyone, not children or husband or students or readers.

So while my identity as daughter hasn’t changed, I have had to make changes in my role as mother. The adjustments come in halting, sometimes faltering steps, but come they must. The challenge is will I embrace them as part of my children’s healthy flight away from us, or will I sabotage them and clip their wings, or worse, cause them to crash and burn?

An empty nest can be a lonely place. My friend, Ladonna, calls hers an “open nest,” a nest that’s open to whoever might land in it. It’s the open nest that encourages our kids to take flight. It’s the open nest that’s available if they need to return. It’s important that we inhabit our nests well, healthy and whole ourselves, and not look to our kids to make us feel OK. If we don’t, who else will cheer them on?

Being a mom is an occupation, a calling, a privilege, but it’s not an identity.

At its core, motherhood is raising children so they can soar, not so they keep coming home. It’s not about getting my needs met; it’s about meeting their’s until they can take it from here and make good for themselves. The goal is to love them as you ready them for life on their own.

As mamas, we don’t get pats on the back for hanging back and letting others step up in the shoes we once filled. No one is waiting in the wings saying, “Attagirl.” There are thousands of deaths we die to parent grown kids, and most of them are unsung and unknown by anyone but yourself.

Who would sign up for this? We all did. And I’m guessing we all still would.

So now that the kids are grown and (mostly) gone, how do their parents grow up and embrace their lives on their own?

6 Ways Empty Nesters  Can Embrace this New Season
1. We accept reality and stop whining.

It’s tough to feel put out to pasture, but it can also be our ticket to the best free fall we’ll ever have. It all depends on perspective. Therapy helps, and so does having fun with friends. Find your healthiest option and work it. There’s nothing like a day with the grands to remind me how much I’d rather be living my life as it is today than going back to my years-with-kids. Memory is often sentimental, not real.

2. We give ourselves away to others.

Part of what makes raising kids wonderful is how it forces us to forget ourselves. There’s nothing like volunteering in the community or at church or with grandkids to keep us focused on other people and not on how we might be feeling. Giving love to others brings it back to us.

3. We find something we love and enjoy it.

These golden years are prime years for writing that book, taking that class, making that trip, organizing those family pics.

4. We invest in other relationships.

If we haven’t maintained friendships during our child rearing years, it’s not too late to make friends now. Find the people who share your interests and suggest pursuing them together–reading, crafting, praying, cooking, painting, hiking. Whatever you like, find somebody who likes it, too. Plan outings and invite, invite, invite. Eventually, somebody will stick.

5. We keep our hearts open to our grown kids, but we don’t live or die for them.

Children are not to be worshipped. They’re not God for us. We don’t give them the power to make or break our day. If they aren’t open to you, find folks who are. If they are, be sure you have healthy boundaries so you don’t get lost in them.

6. We seek God like it’s our job.

Maybe we’ve kept in touch with him over the years while we’ve raised our kids. Maybe we haven’t. Regardless, there’s no shame in getting back in touch now. There’s excitement and sweetness in connecting with him in ways we’ve not had the time to explore before.

And it’s important that we get well connected for what’s ahead– weathering retirement and lifestyle changes, losing loved ones, facing aging and the health issues that come. As the bumper sticker wisely reminds: “Old age is not for sissies.”

When my father was in his 80s, he told me he was not going to be a bitter old man, always complaining about how rotten he felt or how young folks were messing up. He was going to spend his remaining years loving everybody in his path for all he was worth. And he did. When he died, I could still feel his love for me. And I can still feel it today, years later.

Leave a Legacy of Love

Children of all ages want parents to act like parents–to be grounded, to be faithful, to be wise, and to love them well. Children weren’t meant to be emotional supports for their parents. They want parents they can be proud of, ones who handle the seasons of life that come along without falling apart and without looking to their kids to make the parents alright.

I don’t know any other way to do this than to seek God with all I’ve got. Only he can ground me and make me faithful, wise, and loving. That was my father’s legacy to me. And it’s a good one to pass along, because it’s not the stuff Daddy left me or the things my Father in heaven gives me that warm my heart most.

It’s the love.

If you’re having a hard time adjusting to this new season, we encourage you to listen to this podcast episode: Your World Just Turned Upside Down—What Now? with Marlys Johnson Lawry – 197

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