As some of you may know, I am a chaplain with Marketplace Chaplains. Several weeks ago, one of the employees asked if I would pray for his wife because she was having a difficult time adjusting to her children no longer living at home. Her youngest child had left home recently and moved out of state. As I prayed for her, I remembered that one of my last research papers was on the empty nest stage of life. The following week, I printed out a copy of the paper and gave it to the employee to share with his wife. I thought that some of the information might be helpful.
Yesterday when I made my worksite visit, the employee took me aside and shared that his wife had been blessed by the paper and had shared it with her co-workers. He thanked me because he felt it had also helped with their relationship. I was grateful that they both had been blessed.
I have decided to share the research with all of you just in case some of you are going through this stressful time of life or know someone who is. Even if you are not facing this stage yet, many of the principles can be applied to any stage of life. I will break this down into about two weekly blogs so as to not overwhelm you with information. I will go ahead and post the references at the end of this first post in case you want to read any of the reference material.
The empty nest can be a very challenging time in a woman’s life. Not only is she facing the loss of children, she is also facing physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual challenges. This paper will explore some of the unique challenges faced during the empty nest stage and offer suggestions on how to better adjust to this turbulent stage of life. Learning to accept changes to her body, seeking support during the emotional upheavals, and learning to cope with the psychological challenges are important goals for successfully flourishing during the empty nest. Renewing her commitment to a fulfilling second half of marriage is also very important. However, the most important goal to flourishing during this time is a woman’s relationship with Jesus Christ. Ultimately, the answer to every challenge is to be rooted firmly in God’s love.
Flourishing During the Empty Nest Stage of Life
Every woman goes through several stages within her lifetime. Kathleen Hart (2003) identifies some of these stages as “premarriage, marriage, newlywed, pregnancy, birth, parenting, career, homemaking, teenagers, caring for aging parents, and somewhere in-between, a midlife crisis” (Moore, Briscoe and Wilson, 2003, p. 70). When children leave home, a woman enters the empty nest stage. Raup and Myers (1989) believe the term “empty nest” is too ambiguous and demeaning to women. They encourage counselors to use the term “postparental period” (Raup & Myers, 1989, p. 182). However, for the purpose of this paper, the term empty nest will be used.
While each stage offers its own unique challenges, the empty nest stands out as one of the more challenging stages for many women. While some women transition easily and walk through this stage with little effort, others may face emotional, psychological, and spiritual trauma like no other time in her life. When the children leave home, a woman is left with not only an empty house, but also what may appear to be an empty life. She has spent more than half of her life investing herself into the lives of her children. A woman may believe she has lost her identity. She begins to realize that she does not know who she is. Because most of her life has been wrapped up in meeting the needs and wants of everyone other than herself, she may experience a myriad of conflicting emotions as she enters the empty nest.
For married women, Arp and Arp (2001) identify the empty nest years as the second half of marriage. They believe this time can be the most rewarding in a couple’s life (Arp & Arp, 2001, p. xxi). However, as they point out, the time to prepare for the empty nest is before the children actually leave home (p. 483). A woman must “embrace the transition” if she is to be healthy (p. 15). Leaving this stage of life is necessary, “moving on is the challenge” (Rainey & Yates, 2008, pp. 14-15).
Accepting Physical Changes
Several significant physical changes begin to take place around this time. Hot flashes, night sweats, and extreme irritability are a sign of approaching menopause. As pointed out by Deeks and McCabe (2004), menopause normally indicates to a woman that her “role/purpose in life is changing” (p. 389). Some look forward to the cessation of menses, while others have a more negative view and see this stage as another reminder of an aging body.
Coping with night sweats, hot flashes, and irritability are challenging on their own. Add those discomforts into the mix of dealing with the adjustment to an empty nest and many women find their lives unmanageable. A woman should consult with her gynecologist to determine what treatments may be necessary to lessen the adverse effects of menopause. Some women may be candidates for hormone replacement treatment while others may be more comfortable with natural alternatives.
Raup and Myers (1989) found a woman’s experience during menopause is shaped by her role and identity in life (p. 181). If a woman’s identity has been wrapped up in living for her children, she will have a very difficult time facing the changes during menopause. Additionally, Dare (2011) suggests that divorce, aging and the death of parents “present more serious long term challenge to women” (Dare, 2011, p. 111). This fact shows the importance of a woman reaching out for support from her friends, church and community.
Fortunately, many women do accept menopause as a positive change to their bodies. Deeks and McCabe (2004) found that many women successfully transition through this changing of their body.
What may appear as negative events at various stages in life appear to be replaced with positive events, such as the freedom from menstruation, and the time for women to achieve goals which they were unable to achieve because they were previously caring for children. While feelings of meaningfulness and a sense of achievement may change, menopausal women do not necessarily perceive this as negative. (p. 396).
Seeking Support during Emotional Upheavals
Women have reported experiencing several conflicting emotions during the empty nest stage. Rainey and Yates (2008) compare the end of mothering and the beginning of the empty nest to the meeting of the ocean and dry land:
In some places the shoreline is cragged, wild, and perilous while other
in other locations the ocean rolls gently onto a smooth restful beach.
The shorelines of our emotions are equally varied and as vulnerable to
changing circumstances as is the coast to the tides and weather. But
take courage. Someone once said, “This ship won’t sink and the storm
won’t last forever. (Rainey & Yates, 2008, p. 16).
As with any stage of life, a woman must recognize that emotions may change on a daily basis based on the circumstances surrounding her at the time. Surrounding oneself with positive and carrying friends is essential. Joining a women’s support group will also help ease some of the difficulty of dealing with conflicting emotions. If a woman begins to feel that her emotions are leading to depression, she should consult with her medical doctor and also seek Christian counseling.
Next week we will continue with "Coping with Psychological Challenges."
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Dare, J.S. (2011). Transitions in Midlife Women’s Lives: Contemporary Experiences.
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