Of all of our friends, my husband and I were most looking forward to the empty nest. We were going to be great at it!
We’d travel. We’d go to the symphony. We’d eat out every night. We’d take romantic long weekends at least once a month.
We were planning a wonderful post-kid life.
My husband and I loved being our daughters’ parents, but throughout those intense parenting years, we’d sometimes catch each other’s eye with a look that silently said, “I can’t wait for the empty nest.”
We also didn’t understand the sadness some parents expressed—how they moaned over not being needed anymore or conveyed a sense of fear about this new stage of life. Honestly, I wished they would keep their co-dependency to themselves.
Almost three years ago our nest emptied . . . and fast. Within a span of about six months, one of our three daughters moved 900 miles away, another moved 2,000 miles in the opposite direction, and our youngest left for college. Our goal of raising healthy, productive citizens had been accomplished.
Not only that, our marriage was steady, solid, and going strong, 30-plus years later. We were on good footing. The empty nest was going to be a piece of cake!
But soon, I found myself crying a lot. I couldn’t do much in the way of work. The days felt long. My husband and I ate out some, but we also ate dinner at home, which we found to be excruciatingly painful. After catching up on our days, there didn’t seem to be much to talk about. The quiet was deafening.
We took one long weekend away, but mostly, aside from trips to see our kids, responsibilities kept us at home. We were busier than ever, but as empty as can be.
We found ourselves asking, “Is this all there is?”
I recently read the Resurrection story in John 20 and, strangely, found a new perspective on the empty nest.
Jesus has been crucified. His disciples have scattered. Some are hiding; others have gone home. It’s a confusing time for everyone.
But the women keep going to the grave. To mourn? To tend? To simply be near Jesus?
On that third morning, Mary Magdalene arrives to find the tomb empty. Empty! I imagine the wind sending an excited whisper through the trees.
Panic sets in as Mary looks around for some sign of Jesus. Nothing. The tomb is empty except for two angels sitting in the place where Jesus had lain.
Mary begins to cry as one of the angels asks, “Why are you crying?”
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she responds.
I imagine all that’s going through Mary’s mind in this moment. The tomb is empty. All that she had invested her life in is now gone. What’s next? How should she move forward? How could she?
Is this all there is?
A noise. A rustle in the trees, perhaps? Something causes Mary to turn around to find a man standing behind her. She didn’t know it was Jesus.
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” A repeat of the question the angel asked.
And then, “Mary,” he says gently.
With one word, Mary immediately knows it’s Jesus.
And she is filled with hope.
Mary’s questions are my own empty nest questions. What’s next? How should I move forward? How can I move forward when my identity is so wrapped up in being a mom?
Is this all there is?
But Jesus’s questions also ring true: “Why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?”
These are the more important questions. The questions that bring the empty nest into sharp focus. Why am I weeping? In whom or in what have I placed my identity?
I’ve been “Mom” for so long I don’t know how to stop being her. In a way, I’ll never stop being my daughters’ mom, but now that they’re adults, things have changed. It’s time to pick myself up and find a more solid footing, a new identity.
Or perhaps I need to return to the identity I’ve always had, before it got tangled up in being a wife, or a grad student, or a professor, or a mom.
I read these words in Scripture and imagine Jesus speaking my name with gentleness and compassion, just as he did with Mary.
I know that Jesus is fully aware of my own confusion and questions. I know that Jesus sees my sadness, my discouragement, my disoriented sense of myself. He knows that all of these feelings were unexpected—I was supposed to be so good at empty-nesting!
With one word, I see that it’s OK that I don’t have it all figured out. It’s OK that I can’t find my footing. It’s OK that my empty nest life isn’t all that I thought it would be.
“Is this all there is?”
Three years later and I’m still asking. But I’m also learning to ask better questions, to seek better things.
With one word, I have hope and I am filled.