What’s that old saying? Man makes his plans and God laughs?
My husband, David, and I had talked about dreams we had for our empty-nest years: Taking our tandem bike to several exotic destinations. Opening a unique bed-brunch-and-bikes place (since I’m not a morning person, the breakfast idea wasn’t going to fly). Selling our house and buying an RV, spending a few months at a time with each of our kids wherever they happened to live.
We became parents at an older age than some—I was 35 when I had my first, almost 41 when I had my last—so we were going to be a bit older by the time we fledged all our kids. We thought our ideas sounded really good, but God knew what was coming down the road.
The Day It All Changed
It was 10 years ago when my sister-in-law called me. “Mom’s decided to take you up on your offer.”
My mind raced to remember making an offer to my mother-in-law who lived in the mountains of North Carolina.
“What offer was that?” I decided to ask, since I was coming up blank.
“To move in with you.”
Time seemed to stop. I wasn’t sure what to think. I hadn’t remembered having such a conversation. As myriad thoughts ran rampant through my head, I put David on the phone so he could get the rest of the story.
David’s mom was leaving his dad. His parents had argued over a silly misunderstanding, and his dad, as was his habit when confronted with hurt, packed up his stuff and left. It had happened before. She said never again.
There really was no discussion. We couldn’t just leave her out in the cold.
So on Mother’s Day weekend, David flew up to North Carolina where they packed a small U-Haul trailer, attached it to her SUV, and moved her to our home in Florida. Our kids were 6½, 10 and 12 at the time. We didn’t really know what it was going to look like, but we trusted that God was going to redeem what was a heartbreaking situation.
On the surface, this might not seem to put too much of a kink in our plans. His elderly mother wasn’t going to be around forever, right? The problem with that is the age gap between us is only 18 years. I know sibling groups that have an age gap as big as that. She might outlive us all!
Because she has no income besides social security, we provide her a place to live without cost. But if she becomes frail as she ages? Two years ago she fell and broke her leg and had to have 24/7 care for more than a month. I’m no Florence Nightingale, so I was very thankful for my sister-in-law who moved into our house for that time to do the bulk of Momma’s care.
And Then It Changed Again
Another bombshell hit our home just about a year and a half ago when our then-20-year-old son’s girlfriend was pregnant. They were already living together, but they didn’t see their way financially to keeping this baby. He was still in college; she had never finished high school. Both worked in food service making minimum wage and tips.
By the time they told us, she was more than 20 weeks and they had decided to put the baby up for adoption. Our hearts were broken not only by their seeming indifference to the God who loves them, but by the knowledge that we would have a grandson out in the world somewhere that we would likely never know.
But over the course of just a couple of weeks, we felt led by the Spirit to extend an offer: If they really wanted to keep this baby, we would help with childcare when they were working.
God’s plan of redemption through all this would become clearer as we went on, but we knew we were about to start on a journey of the greatest lesson in grace we had ever received, and our empty-nest plans would be put on a shelf.
Just call us the double-decker-sandwich generation.
According to a 2013 study by Pew Research, “Nearly half (47%) of adults in their 40s and 50s have a parent age 65 or older and are either raising a young child or financially supporting a grown child (age 18 or older). And about one-in-seven middle-aged adults (15%) is providing financial support to both an aging parent and a child.” The Sandwich Generation: Rising Financial Burdens for Middle-Aged Americans.
We added another deck onto that sandwich with caring for our grandson. Even though neither he nor his parents live with us, our physical and emotional investment in their little family is substantial. That, plus the needs of our 16-year-old daughter and our other college-age son, keeps us continually dependent on the Lord.
Dealing with the Delay of Empty Nest Dreams
Though David has been completely on board with both situations, navigating the emotions that come with the delay, or maybe even the loss of our empty-nest dreams, is rough. Would we ever be just the two of us again? What if his mom needs daily care? Are we looking at our five-days-a-week caring for our grandson for years to come? What kinds of strains would these relationships put on the most important human relationship of all, our marriage?
What all this has done in our household is launch us into trusting God’s goodness and grace to a depth we hadn’t experienced before—day by day, one foot in front of the other, clinging to Jesus the whole way.
According to the Pew Research article, “Presumably life in the sandwich generation could be a bit stressful. Having an aging parent while still raising or supporting one’s own children presents certain challenges not faced by other adults—caregiving and financial and emotional support to name just a few.”
Yet their research found that the majority of couples in this position were happy with their lives. “Some 31% say they are very happy with their lives, and an additional 52% say they are pretty happy. Happiness rates are nearly the same among adults who are not part of the sandwich generation: 28% are very happy, and 51% are pretty happy.”
What this says to me is that happiness is not based upon circumstances. When we can depend on God through every disappointment, challenge, and uncertainty, our joy remains.
The fact is, nobody knows what the future holds. We may lose our partner before our nest is empty and never get to experience our dreams. Our partner or we may experience a catastrophic health event that requires full-time care. For some, retirement is a pipe dream as their financial circumstances make it necessary for them to work beyond their 60s. We may have children who boomerang back into our homes for indeterminate amounts of time. It’s not that they’ll want to, it’s that they might need to.
Our middle child is in college, but we don’t know what will happen after he graduates. He will need a job that can sustain him. While we pray for that, we don’t know what that journey will look like.
Our daughter still has two years left of high school. We have no idea what her future looks like, and she’s got time to figure it out. But who’s to say something won’t happen to her that requires her to live at home in our care? We just don’t know.
But we know who God is.
And so, we hold our empty-nest years loosely. My parents passed away in their 70s, so David’s parents are the only ones left. We are thankful that his mom is in good health and that she has made many more friends here than she ever had in North Carolina. There will need to be more conversations down the road, but for now, we’re doing OK.
We are thankful to have a chance to spend significant time with our grandson, who, of course, is the most adorable baby on the planet. He adores his Papa and follows him around the house like a little shadow. We know our time with him is a gift that most grandparents don’t have. When I thought I would have wide open time to pursue my writing, instead I squeeze things in before the baby comes and between naps and “night night.”
The goal is to flourish in whatever situation God has us. This life might not be what we envisioned, but an empty nest is not guaranteed, and it’s not even the point. Just because our children may be launched doesn’t mean there aren’t others who need the sanctuary of our home. And so our hearts, like our nest for now, remain full.