What To Do When The Nest Becomes Empty


April 27, 2017

Have you ever thought about going to bed, pulling up the covers and just staying there? I mean really camp out there.

That is what Eva Beaver does in Sue Townsend’s novel, “The Woman Who went to Bed for a Year.” This funny and touching novel begins when Eva’s twins leave home. Eva climbs into bed and stays there.

After 25 years of seeing to the needs of others, especially the twins, she retreats from the world in order to relearn how to be in it. For 17 years she’s wanted to yell at the world, “Stop, I want to get off.” Finally, this is her chance.

It may be embarrassing to admit it, but many parents feel lost when their children leave home. What to do when there are no lunches to pack, kids to shuffle off to basketball practice, dirty soccer shirts to load in the washer or evening meals to prepare for more than two people.

The cultural answer: “Get a life!” That’s shaming. Rather, as Eva, we can consider what happens when someone stops being the person others want them to be?

Eva takes to bed to review her life. She looks back on her marriage and reflects on the things she gave up when her twins were born. Then, suddenly, she feels a crushing sense of disappointment.

Her protests are seen by some as an act of defiance and before long people are stopping by to meet her. Alexander, the white van man, brings tea, toast and sympathy. And gradually over time new people enter her life to bring comfort and allow her to get to the bottom of her grief.

The story of Eva suggests that the so-called empty nest syndrome is a time of transition. At first, the response may be a feeling of emptiness. I don’t know who I am apart from the role I played as mother and wife (father and husband). Who am I is not so easy to answer. Grief becomes a familiar feeling. The disappointment over being defined by the expectations of others is acute.

This does not mean there is no satisfaction over the accomplishments of earlier years with family. Primarily, however, a shifting is occurring. Questions arise. What about my marriage? Have I avoided angst with a good bye kiss? Did a hug protect me from harsh truths? When I was exhausted, did I have to keep going? Who said go rest when you were tired?

Still more questions: do my social friends focus on the external — a movie to see, a book to read, a party to attend — and avoid any serious connection with each other?

Does church really nourish my soul? Is church just a familiar structure that offers secure beliefs? Or is church still a place of renewal?

There is great variation on the way people experience a transition; for some every dimension of life (work, family, friends, church) is considered anew.

In a brief, simple poem entitled “The Old Poets of China,” Mary Oliver helps us understand that rest and reflection moves us from emptiness to fullness. She writes: “Wherever I am, the world comes after me. It offers me its busyness. It does not believe that I do not want it. Now I understand why the old poets of China went so far and high into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.”

Oliver grants permission to move from what the world expects — the what should I be doing — to the world of how am I expressing myself. This is not a selfish pursuit. An essential part of the gospel message is that we “love the other as you.” Without a self who is there to love, only obligation and striving remain.

Perhaps a year in bed is a tad bit too long, but as Eva discovered when she created a space for herself she was able to consider the next steps on her journey.

Sit down with a cup of tea or coffee, if you prefer, and take stock of how much you are overly defined by others and how much of you exists. When you sit with yourself, offer a cup to your grief. Grief is the way through. Then perhaps the empty nest may not be so empty after all.

(Dr. John Campbell is a semi-retired resident of Brevard.)


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