Empty nest need not mean empty life

Empty nest need not mean empty life
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Next month when our youngest child leaves for college, the biggest change may not be in his life but in ours.

We are done with dropping them off at school, or giving them driving lessons, or helping them with difficult homework assignments: We will officially become “empty nesters.”

My wife and I ponder sitting at the dinner table and standing by the kitchen counter, where exuberant political dialogue takes place and common sense advice is shared. What will it feel like with no kids in the house: just long periods of silence.

So one evening during a walk with my middle child, while she was home for summer break from college, I shared our dilemma and she aptly replied. “Dad, you have to figure out what you want to do.”

I thought for a moment, and said the first thing that came to my mind. “But I don’t want to do anything.” Yes, there are patients to care for at the hospitals, a house to maintain, and national healthcare issues needing commentary, but these were all secondary to our primary responsibility for nearly a quarter century of being parents and sharing our day-to-day lives with three children.

For years, I have counseled my children on the choices they will face on their journey to adulthood, calling them the 4 Cs: college, career, companion and city. But what about me? As I reach the age of post childhood raising and pre-retirement years, what are my priorities? After months of pondering, I told my children what it is: the three Ds.

First is “De-stress.” With less day-to-day responsibility of children and more time in hand, I have a choice. I can add more working hours or use the time to reduce the day-to-day stress in life, for example, by watching more movies, listening to music, working on my writing, or reading a book. Stress in any stage of life is harmful, but as we age, the effect of that harm becomes more apparent with risk of heart attack, ulcers, stokes and even common infectious illnesses.

The second priority in this “empty nester” stage of life is to "Detach." This is hard to do. All our life we have been gathering material goods, which may be a house, a car or a new electronic gadget. Each time, we wanted more – a bigger house, a better car or a more updated gadget. Now, it may be the time to reflect on what I “need” versus what I “want.” Becoming detached is a way of saying to ourselves that we are content with what we have.

Detachment needs to go beyond materials. We need to begin detaching from our pride and ego. We don’t need another award for community service or praise at work to feel our self-worth. Becoming detached is a way of saying to ourselves that we are content with who we are.

And maybe a little detached from our children. Being a helicopter parent is OK when kids are in elementary or middle school, but once they are in college or graduate school it is out of place because it does not give them enough room to grow.

The third priority in the preretirement years is to “Define.” I believe that as we age, we need to begin to define our legacy, that is, who we are, what we believe in, and what contribution do we want to make to our children, our family, our work, our church and our community. Consciously and proactively defining a legacy allows completeness to the narrative of our life.

Change is not easy but the 3Ds, De-stress, Detach and Define, may be natural consequences of age and time. I may have only realized this after my daughter asked me, “What do you want to do?” And now, I have an answer.

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