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The empty nest . . . the end or a beginning?

“What am I going to do with myself after the kids leave the house?” This one question seems to haunt many women as their children prepare to start lives of their own. Last week, I wrote about empty nest syndrome and how the experience of negative feelings associated with the emptying nest can be caused by life factors other than the kids growing up. Let's talk about one of those factors today: At midlife, we are entering a key developmental period of personal growth.

One reason we struggle in midlife is because while it is a key developmental transition in our lives, it isn’t talked about very often in those terms. Menopause is sometimes discussed as a physical transition that begins to occur around middle age, but have you ever heard midlife described as a psychological, social, and spiritual developmental stage of being human? Probably not, but that is exactly what it is.

When I started to research midlife and the transition into empty nesting, I was reminded of my college psychology class and the emphasis my instructor placed on the stages of human development. Infant . . . Toddler . . . School age . . . Adolescent . . . Adulthood . . . Marriage . . . Parenthood . . . Death, right? After parenthood, people apparently just coast in for that ultimate landing. Or at least that’s the way I remembered it. But what if parenthood isn't the pinnacle of our personhood and there are better things to come?

The idea that parenthood is the high point of our life experience—especially for moms—and that the post-parenting years are dull and uninteresting is a message subtly delivered by our culture. Consider your local church for a minute. It probably offers classes or small groups for infants, toddlers, school age kids, teens, maybe college kids, definitely for marriage and parenting support, and then possibly for senior citizens.

Well, how about those midlife years? The subtle message is that we in midlife are expected to go back and volunteer to help the infants, toddlers, school age kids, new parents, etc., to make it through their developmental stages. And this is a great and worthwhile thing to do. But there is also development to be done and life to live between the end of active parenting and the inactivity of very old age, although the discipleship offerings of most churches would indicate that it’s all downhill after the kids leave the home.

Another cultural source of messaging that convinces us that our downward trajectory starts when the kids leave the house is the advertising industry. Just today, an ad popped up while I was viewing a YouTube video. It suggested I purchase a product designed to forestall the day when my husband would tell me when asked if I were pretty, “It’s what’s inside that counts.” Ouch!

Today’s media places an unreasonable emphasis on the importance of looking and feeling like a 25-year-old woman well into our 50s. And if we can’t reach that unreasonable goal, we might feel invisible to society, or worse, be labeled as potentially problematic and demanding just because of our apparent external age. No wonder we feel like life is a downward slide when the kids leave the home! There seems to be little room or importance for us in our own culture.

This is where I have to applaud organizations like the Red Hat Society. Their response to this problem is to celebrate middle age. Here’s their philosophy: “We stress the importance of friendship and sisterhood, and the value of recess (play) . . . Always trailblazers, we help reshape the way modern women are viewed and valued in today’s culture” (here's a link to their website). The Red Hat Society ladies have a blast leaning into middle and old age stereotypes and forcing the rest of the culture to notice them while they celebrate aging and all the benefits that come with it. Anyone want to join the society with me?

Still, there is more to entering midlife, the empty nest, and even old age than fun and freedom to be yourself. There is real, personal and spiritual growth to be accomplished.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to share what I’m learning about the key psychological, social, physical, and theological developmental tasks of midlife. My hope is that, instead of seeing the empty nest as a syndrome or trial to endure, you will see it as the gateway to new growth, new opportunities, and a richer and fuller relationship to the God who loves you.


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