Column 11: Emotional Empty Nest Parenting
Finding the Balance Between “Hanging On” and “Letting Go”
by Richard and Linda Eyre
In Ecclesiastes 3:1 we read, “To every thing there is a season.” For most empty-nest parents it is autumn, or at least Indian Summer, in our lives. Our children have grown up and have left or are beginning to leave home like leaves falling from the trees.
So how do we think about fall? Is it a time of loss and decline, or is it the most glorious and colorful time of all? Is it a time when our family separates and dissipates, or a time when it reaches its full richness and maturity? For us parents, is it a time when we retreat or retire from family life, or a time when we redefine our role as advisers and mentors or grandparents and patriarchs and matriarchs of three-generation families?
As we make these fall decisions and set our autumn priorities, we ought to also be thinking about winter. When real old age comes, do we want to be alone or to be emotionally surrounded by our children and grandchildren?
Studies on longevity have shown that those who retire earliest die soonest, and that those in the most engaging and creative vocations live longest. Orchestra conductors lived the longest of all professions surveyed. That bears some thought. Maestros are always creating, always mentoring, always orchestrating, always conducting. Can we, in the fall and winter of our lives, become the maestros of our families?
Pain and Gain
The best decisions are made and the best goals set when we carefully analyze both the long-term pain and long-term gain that are likely to accrue from various alternative directions. If we make choices for the fall of our lives that allow the emotional bonds of the family to fray or weaken, a lot of pain will result, both in the sense of what our children and grandchildren will miss out on and in terms of our own loneliness. If we make the choice and take the steps to keep our families emotionally close despite the departures and distances, we will gain security and connectedness and motivation for our children and involved usefulness and perhaps even longer lives for ourselves.
The beginning step in the active, involved, family-prioritized approach to the autumn of our lives is to have a plan for the all-important emotional facet of our empty-nest parenting, a strategy for continuing to give love, confidence, identity, and emotional support to each other.
What a tall order! Once kids are gone – away from your daily observation and interchange – how do you even know when they are emotionally up or down, and how can you gauge what kind of emotional support they need?
The simple answer is that you can never give too much love or support, so long as you couple it with confidence in them and respect for their adult independence.
In our own effort to figure out this first facet, we again started with a memo in order to try to crystallize our own thoughts and get a discussion going. We weren’t trying to be formal or businesslike, we just needed an organized way to get all of us, living so far apart from each other, to focus on the emotional needs we could help each other with.
To: Our Children
From: Mom and Dad
Re: Finding Balance Between Our Two Common Emotional Needs
1. When you were little children, all of us living together, thinking more about Little League or being popular at Indian Hills Elementary than about choosing a college major or planning for families of your own – back in those good old days, we felt like there were two things which would, if we could instill them in you, give you a happy life. First was a solid emotional foundation of family identity, security, and pride – a safe harbor or acceptance and inclusion so that whatever went wrong outside the home you would be comforted and sustained by the unconditional love from within our family. Second was an emerging, growing sense of individual confidence and uniqueness – so you could gradually begin to strike out on your own, find your own gifts, your own niche, your own way of becoming your truest self.
2. Now that you are mostly grown and mostly gone, we find we still have exactly the same two hopes for you, although perhaps reversed in their emphasis: First, that through your own growth, with God’s help and the occasional bit of advice from us, you find and enjoy your own unique foreordination, building your own family and your own life in your own way, flowering and broadening into the person (and the family) that God intended you to be and contributing in the directions to which you are particularly suited.
Second, that the ongoing love and support of your extended family helps you to magnify it all, to go through the hard times with less pain, and through the good times with more joy.
3. There is always a certain dynamic tension between these two most basic emotional needs (the need for the security and identity of being part of something bigger than self and the need for the confidence, individuality, and freedom of being on one’s own). We’re so aware now, as you leave, of the need to balance the two – to balance continuing care with having your own life: It’s an issue on both sides of the table. You “nest leavers” deserve and desire your new freedom and independence, and yet you want our ongoing interest and involvement. We “empty-nesters” want to “get a life” in terms of new freedom to travel and do other things we couldn’t while you were our chosen, in-home priorities, and yet we deeply want to continue to help and parent you, and to continue to give and receive love and support.
4. Proposed agreements draft: It seems to us that there are two agreements we can come to that will help if not ensure this balance.
A. That we each cast ourselves as “supporters” rather than as “critics” – that we build up rather than tear down, looking for the positive in each other’s choices. What this does is to prioritize each other’s emotional needs above what we might judge to be their mental shortcomings or errors. If we have misgivings for example about a career choice or professional decision one of you is leaning toward, we ought to first express our support for you, our love for you, our respect for your agency and our confidence that you ultimately know more about yourself and your destiny than we do. Then, within the warm cocoon of that positive confidence, we should tell you our misgivings and you should consider them. In the other direction, if you question some choice we are making, perhaps to sell a house or to take an extended trip, you ought to take the time to understand our thinking and reasons and then express support before you raise any concerns or objections.
B. That we all recognize the need for balance between support/security and individuality/independence and communicate about it, on the one hand, asking questions like, “How much do you want me to be involved in this?” and on the other hand saying, “You know I want and respect your opinion, but after all is said and done, I’m going to have to do what I think is best.” Inherent and implicit in all the communication is the unconditional love that supersedes any and all differences of opinion and says that, no matter what, we are always there for each other!
After hearing back from them, we realized we had to add a little. Emotional needs and emotional empty-nest parenting is not just about advice or correction on what someone is doing. It’s purely and simply about love and support and empowerment. The reason for creating the “warm cocoon of positive confidence” is not to soften our misgivings or criticism, it is an end in itself.
We decided we should leave the questions of giving and receiving advice to the social empty-nest parenting strategy which is more about our roles and advice-giving communication with each other.
Emotional empty-nest parenting is the first facet because it is about giving each other the kind of unconditional love that makes each other facet of empty-nest parenting possible. It is about making sure your family is an emotional safe harbor (a metaphor they all seemed to appreciate) where you know you are always loved and accepted no matter what. It is about creating what Stephen Covey calls an “emotional bank account” into which you continue to make such large “deposits” that every other kind of parenting you do can never overdraw it.
Also, once again, the kids’ responses were saying that on this emotional level we needed something simpler – something less like a contract and more like a set of principles we agreed on and promises we would make to each other.
The Emotional Safe Harbor (giving love, confidence,
identity, and emotional support to each other)
After much discussion, mostly by phone and e-mail, we finally came up with a metaphor and a format and a set of simple emotional principles that we all agreed on and “signed off” on.
Thanks for the feedback and ideas. It seems what you’re all saying, and we totally agree, is that our adult family needs to be, first of all, an emotional safe harbor where we all know we are unconditionally loved and accepted for who we are. Here is a summary of what we’ve come up with together. It has turned out to be a short and sweet emotional agreement for our family.
We’re glad you’ve helped us to see that our emotional empty-nest parenting, and the agreements and commitments we make in the first (“emotional”) facet of our adult family “constitution” shouldn’t be about advice-giving or correcting or changing each other. On the contrary, they should be about loving and accepting each other for who and what we are. That’s what the safe harbor is safe from – from second-guessing, guilt, the uncomfortable turbulence of people trying to improve you. Questions about those things are best left to other parts of the constitution.
Out “emotional agreements” are now simplified into some very basic principles, practices, and promises.
Principles of the safe harbor:
What people need emotionally from family is unconditional and even irrational (not tied to performance) love, acceptance, approval, and confidence.
In the adult Eyrealm, this works in all directions: kids need it from parents, parents from kids, parents from each other, kids from each other, and grand kids from all of the above.
The purpose of the love is not to change each other but to nourish each other.
Promises of the safe harbor:
We will love each other unconditionally and consciously strive to make each other happy.
We will always be there for each other, night or day, to laugh or cry, to rejoice or commiserate, to share each other’s emotion.
Practices of the safe harbor:
We say “love you” instead of (or in addition to) “good-bye” whenever we talk, and we think about it and we mean it.
We e-mail and call each other regularly (so we’re all “updated”).
We “listen and lift,” developing our gifts of empathy and genuine compliments – and giving these gifts to each other.
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