“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