|Lisa Kilsdonk (right) of Baker, Montana, misses daughter Tessa now that she is halfway across the country attending Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.|
Childhood is fleeting. That explains why even the smallest milestones - from the first wobbly steps to the loss of a baby tooth - can trigger a swell of parental emotion. Yet few things prepare parents for the often-jolting transition from full house to empty nest.
"It hits us at different times - and sometimes when we least expect," says Susan Yates, a mother of five grown children and co-author of the book, Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest.
Unlike the preschool years, which have a clear beginning and end, the empty nest is not neatly defined, Yates says. One parent may feel sad as a son or daughter enters the final year of high school. Another may not grieve until the last child graduates college or weds.
Whatever the timing, launching offspring into the adult world can be a poignant adjustment for families. Yates, who interviewed empty nesters across the country, says most parents reported varying degrees of loneliness. One reason seemed to be a lack of social support, she says.
"When the kids are little, we schedule play dates and seek out adult friends," Yates says. "But during the teen years, parents get so busy with the kids they put everything else on the shelf - including other relationships. By the time this major life change comes along, they can feel isolated."
Marriages may suffer as well. A study by Bowling Green State University in Ohio identified a disturbing trend among older couples. The divorce rate for people age 50 and older more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, researchers found. At the time of the study, this demographic accounted for more than a quarter of the nation's failed marriages.
Of course, the empty nest doesn't have to trigger an emotional or marital crisis. Wes Bartel, director of Discipleship Ministries for the Assemblies of God, says families can build a foundation for navigating this transition in a healthy manner.
"Early on, my wife and I established the goal that we wanted our children to become successfully independent from us," says Bartel, father of two adult children. "But we also knew we needed to become successfully independent from them. That meant keeping a primary focus on God and our marriage."
Bartel says while the process wasn't painless, he found solace in his relationship with God.
"I remember the quietness of the car as I drove home from visiting my daughter in college," Bartel says. "I prayed and made a recommitment to my personal walk with God and my marriage. I would advise people who are going through that to lean on God. Don't continue in quietness and frustration. Some of the best years of your life are still ahead of you."
Last August, Lisa Kilsdonk of Baker, Montana, sent her youngest daughter, Tessa, to Evangel University (Assemblies of God) in Springfield, Missouri. After spending 28 years raising four children, she says this new life stage marks a turning point that is both emotional and rewarding.
"Some days are harder than others," says Kilsdonk, whose husband, Rod, serves as pastor at Baker Assembly of God. "Sometimes the loneliness hits like a tidal wave, and the craziest thing can trigger it, like walking past Tessa's room and seeing it clean - bed made, no clothes on the floor."
Yet Kilsdonk says there are benefits to having the kids raised, such as having more time to devote to ministry, her marriage and her teaching career. She also enjoys close relationships with her other grown children, two of whom have started families of their own.
"I strongly dislike the term empty nest," Kilsdonk says. "It has such a sad, hopeless-sounding connotation. This time is a natural, normal part of the process of life."
A study by the University of Missouri in Columbia suggests many of the changes parents experience after the kids leave home are positive.
"As children age, direct caretaking and influence diminish, and children are often seen by their parents as peers with whom they can have continuing relationships," says Christine Proulx, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri.
Diane Ashton, a mother of three grown sons and a teenage daughter, says her evolving role has left her wondering where to direct the time and energy that had gone into parenting for so many years.
"I'm still working on it and praying about it," says Ashton, who attends Allison Park Church, an Assemblies of God congregation near Pittsburgh. "Fine Arts, Bible Quiz, basketball - that has been my life. Suddenly there's a lot of transition going on, and I'm wondering, Who am I, and what am I supposed to do next?
Adding to the shifting family dynamics, one of Ashton's sons recently moved back in after several years away at college.
"With different kids going different directions, God has made it obvious many times that He is in the middle of it all," Ashton says. "In that way it's all been good. God has shown that He cares about the details of our lives. I'm realizing I don't have to figure it all out. I can stand on God's promises and trust Him with the future."
In today's tough job market, a growing number of young adults are remaining in the nest - or returning to it. A survey by the U.S. Census Bureau found the number of 25- to 34-year-old men living with their parents increased from 14 to 19 percent between 2005 and 2011. Among young women, the figure rose from 8 to 10 percent in the same period.
Nevertheless, most fledglings eventually fly. And while letting go is never easy, Bartel says parents can find satisfaction in watching their children spread their wings.
"Children are a gift from God," Bartel says. "But we have a responsibility to develop them so that God can use them. That also means giving them back to God when the time comes."
Author: Christina Quick, Pentecostal Evangel