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Making the Most of an Empty Nest

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The transition to becoming an empty nester can be a positive change for many parents. It is a time to refocus, improve one’s relationship with one’s spouse, and enjoy additional time for work and service outside the home.

But for some parents, empty nest syndrome becomes a reality. These parents may feel a profound sense of loss and not quite know how to move forward.

For Clarita Cueva, the mother of four sons who recently flew the nest, the transition brought some confusion as to how she should use her time.

“When your life is so busy with your kids and their activities and PTAs and helping with the school, that is your identity,” she says. “Instantly, that’s taken away.”

Cueva went from being a full-time stay-at-home mom to not knowing what she should do or be.

“Trust me, it’s a little creepy to be on the PTA board when you have no kids in school,” she says.

Despite the changes, empty nesters can still take steps to improve their emotional and physical health and stay connected with spouse and family.

Acknowledge Your Feelings

When Cueva made the transition from being a full-time mom to having no kids at home, she struggled with feeling useless.

“You feel worthless because the world measures your success on your work . . . on your career,” she says. “The Church has a tendency to measure your success on your families. When you’re in the in-between, . . . it makes you feel really worthless.”

These feelings of worthlessness and loneliness are normal for new empty nesters, and it’s important to acknowledge those feelings.

The American Psychological Association suggests creating rituals, such as planting a tree or redecorating your child’s room, to acknowledge and accept the loss. They also suggest keeping up with regular healthy exercise and eating routines, putting off big decisions until you feel ready, and seeking professional help if needed.

Personal prayer, scripture study, and journal writing can also help empty nesters cope with the changes and make a smooth transition to the next stage of life.

“Experiencing a profound loss at your children moving out speaks to the love and care and concern that a parent has for their kids, so we don’t want to dismiss that but rather channel that in a direction that will be helpful for the children that you love so much,” says Dr. Jeremy Yorgason, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. “Some of that energy and love could be channeled outside the family, maybe in a volunteer capacity in the community. Some of it to grandchildren, nieces and nephews, or in the Church to missionary work.”

Plan How You’ll Use Your Time

Effectively navigating the transition into the empty nesting stage can be similar to adjusting to other changes in life: getting married, having children, or beginning a new career, for example. Those who don’t do well with other life changes may also have a difficult time adjusting to life as an empty nester. That’s why planning and preparation are so important.

“We do so much to plan and prepare financially for retirement, and yet we don’t think as often about what activities we’ll be doing and how we’ll be spending our time,” says Yorgason. “If there was one suggestion I would give, it’s that as parents approach the time of the empty nest, [they need] to consider what they’re going to do with their time so that when it comes, it’s not a surprise.”

Each empty nester plans to fill up his or her time in different ways. Recent empty nesters Richard and Marilyn Nicholes are both working full time now that their kids have moved out.

“We feel more liberated, yet we have less energy,” Marilyn says. “If we were any busier, I think I’d die!”

Aside from working, Jerry and Carol Gerhardt spend their extra time with family history work and temple service. They also belong to a dinner group with other couples who are also empty nesters.

Cueva has found much peace of mind in volunteering. She visits the sick and the elderly in her neighborhood, babysits children of young couples, volunteers with Meals on Wheels, and serves in the temple and in callings. When people ask her what she does for work, she tells them she’s a “professional volunteer.”

Strengthen Your Marriage

One thing empty nesters should certainly plan for their newfound time is spending more time with their spouse. A significant problem with some empty nesters is that as they suddenly have more time to spend together as husband and wife, they realize they’ve grown apart. This may be a result of becoming so involved with their children or careers that they neglected their marriage relationship.

Becoming empty nesters or retiring from work doesn’t necessarily decrease marital satisfaction. The quality of the marriage during the empty nesting stage is probably going to be much what it was before the transition.

“If a couple is experiencing good marital quality prior to retirement, chances are they’re going to continue with that and maybe improve,” says Yorgason. “If they’re experiencing poor marital quality prior to retirement, then it’s a different picture and one of further declines.” Marilyn Nicholes found that she and her husband had more time together as their kids moved out.

“We enjoy each other’s company,” she says. “We work together in the house. We help fix dinner together; we clean the house together; we do a lot of things together.”

The most important steps you can take are while the kids are in the house. As difficult as it may be, husbands and wives need to continue spending quality time together. As married couples enter the empty nest stage, they can continue to improve their marriage relationship with the increased time they have to spend together. Research suggests couples can even become more satisfied with their marriage after the kids move out.

Develop an Adult Relationship with Your Children

The adult relationship between empty nesters and their children can be extremely rewarding. It can be difficult for both parents and children to make adjustments to their relationship, but it’s an important step in making a successful transition.

Cueva says her relationship with her sons has changed now, but that’s a good thing.

When her newly married son called her with some good news, Cueva asked him what his wife thought of the news, and he confessed he hadn’t told his wife yet. She told her son he needed to hang up and call his wife, and in the future, he should tell his wife things before he told his mother.

“You have to realize they have their own life now,” Cueva says. “I’m not worried about every little thing about them—it’s not my issue anymore.”

While parents can offer advice to their adult children, ultimately they need to let their children make their own decisions.

“It’s probably a healthy thing for parents to back off a little bit and support their child in their choices,” says Yorgason. “Sometimes they want what’s best for their kids, and sometimes they do have a little better perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s best to impose that perspective.”

Though empty nesters’ relationships with their children change as the children leave the nest, these new relationships can be wonderful and fulfilling.

“When we talk, we talk more politics, we talk more adult, grown-up things,” Cueva adds about her relationship with her sons. “That relationship has been kind of nice.”

Stay Connected with Children

Although the relationship has changed, it’s still important for empty nesters to stay in touch with their children. Parents can establish rituals and routines with adult children, such as frequent phone calls or dinner visits if children aren’t too far away. Parents can keep family traditions alive, team up with children in doing family history work, and hold family gatherings and reunions.

“We miss having our children in the home regularly, but new technologies have made staying in contact much easier,” say the Gerhardts. “We text; we phone call; we Skype. Those things help a lot.”

Yorgason suggests that kids be the ones to reach out in communicating with their parents. “When kids communicate with their parents, it relieves some of the pressure that the parents feel when they’re wanting to stay connected with the kids but not wanting to overdo it,” he says.

Move Forward

While the empty nest stage may seem like a time of loss, it is also a time of gain. With the change often comes more time with husband or wife, more time to do service outside the home, and more time to pursue goals and dreams.

Clarita Cueva has made new friends with the elderly people she visits, and one of them now attends church with her. Richard and Marilyn Nicholes have been able to enjoy grandparenting. Jerry and Carol Gerhardt are setting goals so they can eventually serve a mission together.

“For most people it’s a really positive time and a really enjoyable time,” says Yorgason. “It’s a shift. It’s a change. It’s a time of . . . adjustment, but it’s generally a really positive thing.”

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