Mention the term "empty nest" and one’s mind immediately conjures up a picture of an empty house. Gone are the hustle and bustle of growing children, the noise and laughter, the activities and all the chores of parenting.
There is a big gap and an emptiness left by the last of the siblings who bid farewell. This could be a very difficult time of a parent’s life, especially for a full-time homemaker, whose life revolves very much around the needs of her children. She may feel "useless" or "redundant" now that the children are gone and she is no longer needed. Coupled with mid-life transition for men and menopausal changes for women, the "empty nest" has the potential of turning into a very unsettling time, or even a crisis in some families.
When a grown-up child leaves home, parents will feel the pain of loss. Often they miss the little boy or girl whose life was so dependent on them. They are suddenly made aware that the parent-child relationship has now evolved into that of an adult-to-adult relationship. They need to allow themselves time to grieve the loss and to adjust to the change. If they accept this change, and begin to relate to their children as adults, they will begin to enjoy their sons and daughters in a new and different way.
To prepare for an empty nest, we must learn to let go of our children. This is not easy, because it goes against the desire and instinct of every parent to protect and care for the children. But in order to grow into a confident and mature individual, every young person needs to learn to stand on his own feet, to take care of himself, to make decisions for himself, and this is often best achieved when he is away from home.
The husband-wife relationship is sometimes put to test when the children are gone. In a family where the focus is primarily on the children, or where the children are the "buffer zone" between their parents, it is especially hard to face the prospect of an empty nest. This only underscores the importance of not neglecting to strengthen the marital relationship during the hectic child-rearing years. Parents, especially mothers, need to develop their own life apart from the children.
An empty nest can be particularly difficult for the single parent, without the support of a spouse. Being usefully occupied at work or other activities is helpful. So is having support group of friends and relatives.
Fortunately for many Malaysians, our grown-up children often return home to stay if they happen to work in the same place. Some may even continue to stay after marriage. Though the nest is not physically empty, parents will need to constantly remind themselves that their adult son or daughter is no longer the little boy or girl. Tensions may arise if they continue to treat their adult children as though they are still little.
Question: We hear so much about mothers being depressed and unable to accept the empty nest when the kids leave home. In our family, however, it was Dad who took it hard. He went into a state of depression for more than a month. Is this unusual?
Answer: No, it happens very commonly. In a recent study, 189 parents of new college entrants were asked to report their feelings when their son or daughter left home. Surprisingly, the fathers took it harder than the mothers.
That resistance to the empty nest was the theme of the movie Father of the Bride, which was a hilarious and touching tribute to the love of a father for his daughter. When George, the dad, sat across from his daughter at the dinner table and learned that she was engaged, he took the news hard. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He had to clear his vision when he saw his daughter as a baby girl, and then as a ten-year-old tomboy, and finally as a beautiful young woman of eighteen.
His little girl had grown up so quickly, and now she was leaving home. He would never again be the main man in the life of his precious daughter, and there was grieving to be done.
Why do men sometimes take the empty nest so hard? One of the key explanations is regret. They have been so busy – working so hard – that they let the years slip by almost unnoticed. Then suddenly they realise it is too late to build a relationship with the child who is leaving home forever.
For those of you who still have children or teenagers at home, take a moment regularly to enjoy your remaining time together. Those days will be gone in the blink of an eye.
Question: Why do you think so many parents are reluctant to let their kids go after they are grown?
Answer: One reason is that parents fear their children aren’t ready to stand on their own, and they worry about what will happen to them. They want to protect them as long as they can. But more important, they hate to see childhood come to an end. We care passionately about our kids and would do anything to meet their needs. But when it comes to letting go of our grown sons and daughters we don’t fare too well. In fact, those two characteristics are linked.
The same commitment that leads us to do well when the children are small (dedication, love, concern, involvement) also causes us to hold on too tightly when they are growing up. I will admit my own difficulties in this area. I understood the importance of turning them loose before our kids were born. I wrote extensively on the subject when they were still young. I prepared a film series in which all the right principles were expressed.
But when it came time to open my hand and let the birds fly, I struggled mightily! I had loved the experience of fatherhood, and I was not ready to give it up. Now, however, I relate to my grown children as adults and find this an exciting and rewarding era too. There is a time for everything. There is also a time for everything to end.
Question: I have found it very hard to turn my kids loose and face the empty nest. I know I need to release them, but it is so difficult. Can you help me?
Answer: Humorist Erma Bombeck described this difficult process in terms that were helpful to me. She said that the task of raising kids is rather like trying to fly a kite on a day when the wind doesn’t blow. Mom and Dad run down the road pulling the cute little device at the end of a string. It bounces along the ground and shows no inclination of getting off the ground.
Eventually, and with much effort, they manage to lift it fifteen feet in the air, but great danger suddenly looms. The kite dives toward electrical lines and twirls near trees. It is a scary moment. Will they ever get it safely on its way? Then, unexpectedly, a gust of wind catches the kite, and it sails upward. Mom and Dad feed out line as rapidly as they can.
The kite begins pulling the string, making it difficult to hold on. Inevitably, they reach the end of their line. What should they do now? The kite is demanding more freedom. It wants to go higher. Dad stands on his tiptoes and raises his hand to accommodate the tug. It is now grasped tenuously between his index finger and thumb, held upward toward the sky. Then the moment of release comes. The string slips through his fingers, and the kite soars majestically into the beautiful sky.
Mom and Dad stand gazing at their precious "baby," who is now gleaming in the sun, a mere pinpoint of colour on the horizon. They are proud of what they’ve done – but sad to realise that their job is finished. It was a labour of love. But where did the years go?
That is where you are today – standing on tiptoes and stretching toward the sky with the end of the string clutched between your fingers. It’s time to let go. And when you do, you’ll find that a new relationship will be born. Your parenting job is almost over. In its place will come a friendship that will have its own rewards.
Remember: The kite is going to break free one way or the other. It’s best that you release it when the time is right!
This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia and the Questions and Answers are extracted from "Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide" by Dr. James Dobson with permission.
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