By Dennis Rainey
I remember well when Barbara and I took our oldest child, Ashley, to college. The three of us stood in the dormitory parking lot, huddled-up, arms entwined, sobbing. I was crying so hard that I couldn’t pray—my own daughter had to pray for herself!
As we drove away from the dorm, my “little girl” stood on the sidewalk, waving goodbye. I turned to Barbara and said, “Can you believe that in a year we’ve got to do this again with Benjamin?”
I paused for a moment. The tears were drying on my face, but the pain of the loss was fresh. “This hurts too much,” I said. “I’m not doing it next year. I’m going to rent a dad for a day to do it for me!”
As parents, we all know the time will come when our kids will leave the home. But knowing we need to release our kids doesn’t make it any easier when the time actually comes.
Somehow, I mustered up the courage to go through this process five more times in the next 11 years. And in August of 2003, after moving our youngest child, Laura, into her college dorm room, Barbara and I returned to an empty home.
I wish that we could report that after a couple of years we had made an easy adjustment to the empty nest. But we didn’t. The process took longer and took different turns than we expected.
Yet as we have continued to move through this new season of our lives, we’ve come to realize that God has something great planned for our future together. We’re looking forward to a new season of fruitfulness I’m calling our “prime time” years.
A difficult adjustment
It is normal for mothers to look toward the empty nest with fear, because so much of their identity is wrapped up in motherhood. For nearly 30 years, Barbara poured most of her energy into motherhood—and she loved it. When that period ended, she felt somewhat lost.
She knew she would always be a mother, and she was overjoyed to now have grandchildren, but it was all different. She looked at her future and wondered, “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”
In typical male fashion, I thought I’d help Barbara through this, and then we’d ride off into the sunset together. But I soon learned that the adjustment was difficult for me as well. I still had my work responsibilities, but I became a bit melancholy as I thought of how our lives had changed.
Here’s something I wrote at the time:
Well, now the kids are gone. I knew the day would come. I just didn’t expect the dawn of a new era of the empty nest to come so soon. I’ve always spoken of the future as, “Someday when the kids are gone …” Well, someday is here.
It seems like just the other day that Barbara and I were starting our lives together. A whirlwind dating relationship … six weeks later, a simple wedding … followed by a storybook honeymoon.
Our nest was empty for two years before God graced us with Ashley, the first of six that filled our quiver in 10 years. Diapers and highchairs defined our lives for more than a dozen years. Well, the diapers are gone, but the highchair is now being used for one of our grandchildren.
The refrigerator is half full, the house is very quiet and clean, and interestingly it stays that way. The phone doesn’t ring off the wall. There’s plenty of hot water. No kids surround my car when I arrive home from work. When we go to bed, we leave our bedroom door open.
There’s no homework, ball practice, teachers’ meetings, no sibling rivalry, and car insurance is once again reasonable. Our orthodontist has retired—on us! There’s no tension in the air about modest clothing for school, prom dresses, who sits where in the car on the way to school or to church.
And, most important, our fire pit is a bit cold these days.
I mentioned the fire pit because it was an important place for our family. It was a place for fun and conversation—we had a lot of discussions there with our kids over the years. Now, when I look out the window and see that empty fire pit outside, it seems like a reminder … to be grateful for the great memories we share with our children, and to realize that I can’t go through the rest of my life focusing on those memories.
From empty nest to prime time
In fact, in many ways I don’t like the image of the “empty nest.” Anyone who has seen an empty bird’s nest knows that it lacks a sense of purpose. It’s a reminder of what was and what will never be again. It was a place of birth, life, growth, and noise; now it is silent. Just memories.
I don’t want to be stuck in this place of silence. That’s why I consider the empty nest a transition phase. The rest of our lives—the years of prime time—were designed by God to be fruitful and purposeful.
You may be in the same situation as Barbara and I are, or you may be facing it sometime in the next few years. Let me share a few things we’ve learned during this season of life:
1. Use the time to work on your marriage relationship.
For many couples it’s not easy to adjust to being together without children for the first time in a couple of decades. You might think you talk with your spouse a lot … until you find yourself in a house with nobody else to talk with!
You’ll need to make decisions about how you are going to spend your evenings and weekends. Perhaps you need to starting dating each other again—or take off for a weekend of fun and adventure at some romantic locale. Or attend one of FamilyLife’s Weekend to Remember® marriage getaways to focus on understanding God’s purposes and plan for your marriage.
You may be thinking our marriage is too tired, too old, and too rutted and boring to salvage. But hear me when I say, “It’s never too late to invest in one another.” Kick it into gear and begin to pursue one another … again.
2. “Prime Time” offers time to reassess and reevaluate your lives.
In our case, Barbara evaluated everything in her life. She thought about how she’s going to relate to her kids and to me. She considered what she is good at and not good at. She took a test to assess her abilities and interests. I found that, during that time, she needed me to take a lot of time to talk with her and especially to listen to her.
As a result of this reassessment, you may want to encourage each other to pursue some interests that you haven’t had the time to consider while your children were at home. Barbara is a talented artist, and early in our marriage I bought her a drawing table. But with children she really didn’t have time for art. So for nearly two decades that table was stored in a crawl space underneath our house.
As the empty nest approached, however, I encouraged Barbara to take some watercolor classes. And one day we pulled that old table out from under the house. It was covered in mold, but it was in good shape after we cleaned it. So now Barbara is using it as she cultivates an important part of her life that had gathered dust as well.
And in the last 12 months she decided to enroll in a course of study online with Dallas Theological Seminary. Instead of helping with our children’s homework, she has homework for herself. She is doing what she really loves … studying the Scriptures.
“Prime Time” reminds us there is life after children.
3. Ask yourself, “What is my mission for the final season of my life?”
Do you realize you may have several decades of very productive life ahead of you? It’s important to ask God to give you a fresh “calling” on how He wants to use you during these years of prime time.
For many of you, grandparenting will undoubtedly be part of this mission. As grandparents we have the opportunity to influence our grandkids in powerful ways. This is a high and noble calling!
But that’s not all. Consider two challenging passages of Scripture in the Gospel of Matthew. In Matthew 22:35-40, Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” Christ replied:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”
In this passage Jesus tells us that nothing is more important in life than loving God and loving other people. Now, look at Christ’s words to His disciples just before He ascended to heaven:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Here Jesus articulates the greatest job assignment ever given—the Great Commission of proclaiming the gospel of redemption and reconciliation to those who are lost. When we combine the Great Commission with the Great Commandment (loving God and loving others), we are left with a pretty challenging agenda for us as we move into our prime time years. Each of