Contrary to the current trend, finding purpose as an empty nester isn’t about finding activities to fill up your days. Many empty nesters feel like their purpose disappears the day their last child leaves home. But what if your purpose hasn’t changed as much as you think it has? In this article, Lori Ann Wood shares the four cornerstone concepts that she learned about her true purpose in the early years of empty nesting.
The holidays are over, and I’m feeling a bit lost with no themed parties to plan, no cakes to decorate, no special meals to make.
These were my happy places. Even before Instagram and Pinterest existed, I scoured magazines and books for the best and newest celebration ideas. I just loved being a mom to little ones.
Now, with my children all grown, some days it can seem like I’m all out of dreams.
Looking back on my life as a young girl in the 70s, I had lots of dreams. Things were changing in terms of roles for women, and even as a child I could feel it. Still, one of my big dreams was a traditional one: being a mother. But somehow, when I imagined being a mom, I didn’t imagine the part where they’re grown and call a different door home. I also didn’t consider the fact that this empty nest phase lasts far longer than the in-house one.
So, when my babies moved from their bed-side bassinets into an XL twin in a dorm room, I started to feel an odd loss. I started to mourn my dream. I thought I had lost my purpose.
In my first few years of empty nesting, I’ve discovered four cornerstones to finding meaning after raising children. I just wish I’d known about them before our bedrooms emptied out.
1. UNTANGLE YOUR ROLE FROM YOUR PURPOSE
If you google the topic “purpose and empty nesting,” you’ll likely find long lists of suggestions like find a hobby, go back to school, declutter your house, travel, get in shape, volunteer—all worthy ideas and all possibly part of your emerging new role.
But none of these determine your eternal purpose.
In our effort-focused society, we often confuse our ‘purpose’ with our ‘role’. A role is associated with functions, behaviors, and parts played. Purpose, on the other hand, is more abstract and alludes to reasons, intentions, and objectives.
We will have different roles at different stages of our lives: mother of toddler, realtor, artist, advocate, caregiver. Sometimes we will be very busy in a role, and it can feel all-consuming. Roles will take us on different paths. Roles come and go.
But purpose is another matter. Purpose is constant. Purpose is eternal.
Jesus was alluding to purpose and roles when He summed up the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37-39).
Loving God is our purpose. How we serve others is our role. Our everlasting purpose is our relationship with Him, which we will continue and complete in Heaven. Here on earth is the only chance we have to bring others with us into a relationship with God. So, our role—our function and behavior—has to involve others, and it has to evolve to bring more and more people into our orbit. Our constant purpose, throughout every season and within every role we take on, is to develop a closer relationship with the Father and become more like His Son. Our changing roles should always involve ways of helping others do the same.
Contrary to what popular culture may tend to convey, our current role does not define our worth or determine our identity. Only our purpose can do that. And that purpose is foundational. Knowing our purpose is all that will sustain us in tragedy. All that will endure into the next life is that relationship with God and the souls of those we will influence.
But here’s the wrinkle: while we may choose our roles, we don’t pick our purpose. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
According to ‘His’ purpose, not ‘ours’. That should be freeing. It’s not up to us to set our own purpose. He’s already got that under control. And relinquishing that weight brings us clarity and meaning. In his book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” Rick Warren writes, “Life is about letting God use you for His purposes, not using God for your own purposes. Until we understand that, our lives will never make sense.”
Our lives will only make sense when we realize that God’s purpose for our lives is unchanging, but the roles He has for us constantly evolve as we age and grow. Our parenting role may have changed, but our life purpose has not. God set it once and for all, a long time ago, as part of our identity as believers. “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11: 29).
Michael Fick, writer and pastor, said: “Gifts and callings that are irrevocable are hard to come by outside God’s reign. Careers, money, relationships, and even health get ‘revoked’ all the time. It’s important for faith communities to create space for lamenting these things when they leave our lives. God’s callings and gifts, however, are different. Our identity in baptism belongs to us forever.”
It is our challenge, then, to find identity in our purpose, rather than in our role. This applies especially to the parenting role. Though it started with our own young children, our changing roles become new ways to influence others for His Kingdom. Empty nesters know roles will end and change, and sometimes even disappoint us. Our God-designed eternal purpose is a sign we are made for something bigger than ourselves, bigger than our families, bigger than this world.
Whatever new role is ahead for us, it should be driven by our constant purpose to know Him.
2. GIVE YOURSELF GRACE TO GRIEVE
Even with an understanding of an enduring purpose, we can still feel a sense of loss over the roles we are relinquishing. And that’s a good thing. As Jamie Anderson wrote, “Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.”
Loss is part of the resurrection story. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s part of our life story, too. Grief is acknowledging and feeling that loss. For mothers like me who loved being a mom of littles, it can feel overwhelming. Brene Brown says, “We are grieving the loss of normal while trying to find our footing in a new, more isolated normal. It is a big ask.”
Empty nest moms encounter this loss every time we walk by an empty laundry basket or a clean bedroom with a well-made bed. We feel it when we open the door to a car full of gas or a pantry full of food. Empty nesters may grieve over unmet expectations, loss of social circles, a cleared calendar, a quiet house.
We need to accept our feelings and give them space to breathe.
50 years ago, experts noticed that people tend to experience five separate stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance.
Acceptance has traditionally been considered the fifth and final stage of grief: This is actually happening. My children are leaving. My role is irreversibly changing. I am being forced into a quasi-retirement from mothering.
At some point as we process loss, it is healthy to recognize, This is where I am.
But finishing grief at that stage has always felt incomplete (and hopeless) to me. Christian grief can’t end in acceptance. Just like we can’t finish the gospel story by accepting the grim reality of Jesus in the grave.
Now psychologists are recognizing a hopeful element to grief, a necessary step toward healing.
Recently, grief expert David Kessler added this sixth stage to the grieving process: ‘Meaning’.
Our worlds will be different post-child-rearing. Roles will rescind, expectations will evolve. We can accept that fact as time marches on. But to move past the heaviness of grief, we must take it one step further into the sixth stage. We honor our grief when we find meaning in what we have lived and in what we have yet to live, in how our experiences can be used to honor God and care for His followers. This step forces us outside ourselves and allows even deeper healing to begin.
In our empty nest grief process, we can move past acceptance. We can leverage our loss into meaning, into a new role that allows us to continue our God-designed purpose.
3. KEEP ON MOTHERING
With all this talk of changing roles and moving forward, we have to also understand that mothering never really ends. It just changes.
Research shows that a person’s brain is not fully developed until they reach their mid-twenties, or even later. The cortex—the part of the brain that is responsible for judgment, reasoning, and morality—is still a work in progress well past the college years. As moms, we will be needed for encouraging and strengthening (and sometimes tweaking) decisions for our 20-somethings. It is a tricky tightrope to walk most days, but the stakes are high in the relational, career, and spiritual decisions they are making at this age. We are still a lifeline even when our emerging adults won’t admit it.
A concept I like to keep in mind is the idea of a hula-hoop. It’s a good visual for parenting with boundaries. Parents set firm outside limits and the child makes choices within the hoop. Made in the image of an orderly God, parents and children alike thrive with such structure. As the child gets older, the hula hoop should get bigger and bigger to gradually prepare them for a world brimming with choices. As empty nest moms, we still set our hula hoop boundaries. It’s just a really huge one with a much larger area of choice than the early childhood version, and it expands every year. Still, our children know the boundary is there and even as young adults they feel the safety and security it provides. The hula hoop isn’t gone, it just keeps growing.
And technology is on our side. Author Linda Wolff says this about the new role we have as parents of children who live somewhere else: “Cell phone calls, texts, Skype, Facetime and Google hangouts offer a stretchy umbilical cord.”
Our influence continues and evolves but never really leaves as we forge new adult-esque relationships with our children.
4. FIND A NEW ROLE OR REVISIT AN OLD ONE
When my last child left home, I faced more than an empty nest. I sensed what I call the ‘Empty Next’.
I had never really considered what the next role would be for me in life. Though I saw the transition coming for a quarter century, somehow I kept myself so busy that it seemed to broadside me when it arrived. I’ve experienced firsthand how when the youngest one leaves, not just our houses, but our futures too can feel gutted.
Though mothering children at home is often at least a couple decades of commitment, it was never meant to be permanent. Our next role won’t be either. We shouldn’t be afraid to try something new. After all, we haven’t lost our purpose, we’ve actually gained some time—not to mention flexibility.
Years after toaster pastries and soda cans, I’ve discovered that my nest may be empty, but my days and my life are far from it.
One area I have grown in since my kids have flown the coop is in the area of parenting education. I took my experience and volunteered as a CASA, a Court Appointed Special Advocate for foster children. From there, I became a Certified Parent Educator for the court system. I now lead the Parenting Education ministry at our local church, and share my parenting experiences through writing and mentoring. Though we were all parents of little ones at one time, our stories and paths will be different. Don’t worry about what new role a friend next door is taking on. As Bob Goff says, “We won’t be distracted by comparison if we are captivated with purpose.”
It takes time and effort to identify our strengths to continue living into that purpose.
In our quest for our next role, we must consider where our gifts and passion intersect with someone else’s need. That’s our sweet spot. But this will take some prayer. After all, even if we can pinpoint our own gifts and passion, only God could know the deep soul needs of others that cry out to be filled. As we seek to continue our eternal purpose in Him, we keep searching for custom-fit roles that need our touch.
Whether trying something new or revisiting an old passion, we shouldn’t undervalue the time and effort we have invested in community, church, and school as part of our earlier parenting role. Inventory the unique skills you’ve gained over your full-nest years. Dig deep. Organization, time management, budgeting, inventory, logistics, fund-raising—you might surprise yourself with the skills you’ve sharpened. It might help to ask your spouse or a trusted friend. Often, we don’t see the worth we add to situations. Their perspective can shed light on what gifts we’ve grown over those busy, early parenting years, and they can jog our memories about projects and events we’ve contributed to.
With this inventory, consider putting together a resume. The website Canva and several other online resources offer free resume templates that make it easy to do your own. If you’re applying for a job, selecting an organization to volunteer with, or just documenting where you’ve spent your time over the last several years, it will be worthwhile. A little soul searching just might help you determine the role that will keep you on your God-designed, purpose-driven path.
But don’t stress too much about finding your next role. With prayer, it will eventually find you. God’s had it in mind for you for a long time: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
After cleaning out my parent’s basement this past year, I found my diary from 6th grade. I was reminded of some unrealized roles I need to look into. And reading through that little leatherette journal, I could see that my purpose is pretty much the same as it was back then. Though it’s time for other dreams to take center stage, I’m still growing my relationship with God and trying to help others do the same.
And I have a feeling I always will be.
Have you ever been tempted to find your identity in your role, rather than in your God-given purpose? How did Lori Ann’s words encourage you to live with the gifts God’s given you and in the spaces He’s placed you?
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