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Your new "Empty Nest"
How to adjust when your fledglings leave.

by Bill Dodds

I used to dream that I would walk through a door in my house and there would be a giant room I had never noticed before.

Why, this could be a bedroom! A family room! A living room with enough room for living!

I don't mean daydreams. I mean middle-of-the-night dreams. I didn't need a psychologist to tell me what was going on.

My house, my schedule, my life, was packed. Stuffed. Crammed.

That wasn't a bad thing. In many ways, it was a good thing. Just ... crowded.

My wife, Monica, and I had moved into our little, two-bedroom, one-family room, one-bathroom, suburban home in the fall of 1978. It was cute. More importantly, it was something we could afford.

This, we told ourselves, would do very nicely as a "starter home." We've never left it.

At that time, we had two preschoolers. A couple years later, a third child came along. We put our sons in one bedroom, our daughter in the other. We moved into the family room.

Our three children grew. And grew. And grew. They acquired stuff. And more stuff. And yet more stuff.

I can remember a time when -- really -- not a single corner in our house didn't have ... something ... in it. Not that we were victims of consumerism. (Well, no more than most families and perhaps -- I'd hope -- less than some.) It was just that five people living in a tiny house fill it up.

And not just with bodies and with stuff. But with noise. And energy. And ... personalities.

Of course, at that stage, that's what family life is all about. It's a whirlwind. It's a time of rich, varied, and unexpected blessings and grace.

It's also tiring.

When fledglings leave the nest

And then suddenly -- which seems odd when speaking of decades -- the fledglings began to leave the nest. Our daughter headed for college. Our elder son followed. A few years later, their baby brother jetted across the country and moved into a university dorm.

And then there were just the two of us. I remember when our oldest child first arrived, I had turned to Monica and said, "See you in 18 years." It had been longer than that but now, here we were.

We looked at each other. We glanced around our big, empty, quiet house. We looked back at each other. Huh.

Raising our kids had been wonderful. "This," we soon began to discover, wasn't too shabby either.

Part of enjoying our new situation had to do with us as a couple and part of it had to do with us as individuals. Now there could be more "we" time. Now there could be more "me" time. And neither was selfish. There simply was more time. More energy. More space. More money.

First, a little about "we."

If there's one thing we did right (thanks be to God), it was staying friends through all those years. We weren't just parents but rather, as parents and as spouses, we were also pals. At times, co-conspirators presenting a united front to boldly face whatever hooha one of our children was stirring up.

We had remained on each other's side, rooting for the other when bosses were difficult, when money was tight, when nerves were frazzled, when purpose and hope seemed scarce.

I had had a No. 1 fan. She had had a No. 1 fan.

Make no mistake, we didn't do a little dance after each child moved out. We missed each. It was hard. There were tears. But, make no mistake, now that the nest is empty and has been for several years, we do enjoy doing a little dancing.

The advantages and disadvantages

Just as every step of raising the kids had it challenges and it rewards, so does this stage of parenting. As in earlier days, the trick is to take advantage of the new situation, while accepting the disadvantages.

Disadvantages? Not having that day-to-day contact. Not hearing the latest news when a child is just bursting with the latest things to share. Not having an excuse for renting the most recent cartoon movie -- and some of them are very, very funny. Not being able to leave a mess -- it happens -- and trust that one's spouse will assume it was a thoughtless child who left it.

Advantages? Dinner out at the drop of a hat. A weekend away. A second honeymoon. More peace, more quiet. Time to develop new mutual interests or return to old ones set aside long, long ago.

And second, a little about "me."

This part of empty-nesting applies also to single moms and dads. Those parents who bravely stand alone on the frontlines of family life and do such a fine job. Often, they don't just deserve a rest, they deserve a medal.

For an individual, married or single, the pace of life gets ratcheted down a notch or two. There's the time and the income to try something new. To get in better shape. (Oh, all right, to get in shape period.) To dabble in a hobby. To more closely examine and explore the riches of the Catholic faith.

Having spent almost all my adulthood being a kids-in-the-house dad, now I miss having those kids around, but it's also fun watching them spread their wings and take flight. That's proving to be an adventure, too.

Bill Dodds is well-known as a Catholic family columnist and author. He is the author of Your Grieving Child: Answers to Questions on Death and Dying (Our Sunday Visitor). He makes his empty nest with his wife, Monica, in Mountlake Terrace, Washington.

Parenting tips for every stage

I hesitate to offer parents specific advice, but that won't stop me. Feel free to ignore it, just as my children frequently now smile and nod and do.

With small children:

-- Stay friends with your spouse. Seek out those moments -- and they can be brief and scarce -- when it's just the two of you.

-- Share those inside jokes. Exchange those knowing glances, both the ones that say "oo-la-la" (wink-wink) and the ones that say "Oh, man, you won't believe what they did today!"

-- Whenever possible, go to Sunday Mass together, instead of in shifts.

With teens:

-- Notice that it becomes easier to imagine them not in your home after some "discussions" regarding house rules and such. Hmmm.

-- Remember letting go of the reins -- even gradually -- is hard on the nerves. Many a Catholic parent has completed more than one lap around the beads from the time a teen's curfew arrives until the car is -- finally! -- heard in the driveway.

With adult children:

-- Accept the fact that as they stretch those still-developing wings, they may take a nose dive or two. Try to remember what you were like at that age. (If you're very brave, ask your parent what you were like.) As they hit those rough spots, they may be more interested in hearing about the Church's saints, those outstanding men and women (and children!) known for assisting the rest of us caught in a particular pickle.

-- Consider giving them a copy of the "Catechism of the Catholic Church." It can provide adult answers to their now-adult questions.

-- Continue to love your children even when you pretty much hate their choices. It's possible to let them know where you stand on an issue -- cohabiting comes to mind -- without shunning them.

-- Remember that, odds are, the adult-to-adult relationship you now share will be much longer than the one that was adult-to-child. It can be a terrific one.

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