When the kids have all left home

Nicky Lock

Our last adult child living at home, aged 27, moved out a few months ago to a shared apartment with friends. He took with him the bed and TV he had bought himself, along with some couches from our rumpus that had seen better days. We now have two rooms in the family home almost completely empty of furniture, which in some way represent the stage of life that we have entered – there is an emptiness in what was a busy household full of children, teenagers and their friends for nearly 30 years.

Despite the fullness of our lives in terms of careers and ministry participation, something that has been an ever present focus for the majority of our married life has gone. At the same time, we are both conscious of entering the last phase of our careers, where we are not seeking to scale new heights of achievement: rather we are embarking on a journey of mentoring and passing on what we have learnt to the next generation below us. We are members of the “aging baby boomers”. I want to resist the label, but am encouraged by George Gallup’s words:

“persons aged 50 to 64 are a high energy group. Many have skills and wisdom that are unsurpassed. This group is poised to make a major contribution to the betterment of US society… if members can abandon the mindset that they should be winding down and instead grasp the concept that their lives and careers are only a prelude of what is to come… At retirement, they can move from success to significance” (The Next American Spirituality, 2000, p. 107)

However, in my practice, and amongst friends and colleagues, I hear the muted cries of those floundering in the uncertainty of these uncharted waters of transition. There is confusion as couples find themselves relieved not to be continuing the timetable driven, meal production necessities of family life, but not knowing how to conduct life, and particularly their marriage, when day to day living is not determined by the next lift required by a child.

Claudia and David Arp coined the term “second half of marriage”, in their book, The Second Half of Marriage, to describe these years after children leave home. The common theme they discovered in the marriages they surveyed was the difficulty of maintaining the quality of the relationship in these empty nest years. Yet with the increasing general levels of health and life span, the second half of the marriage can be longer than the child rearing years. The Arps argue that this part marriage can be more fulfilling than the parenting and career building years that precede it.

They propose that couples need to prepare for this stage by taking stock of their marriage, and answering eight identified challenges to the second half of marriage years. These challenges relate to letting go of past disappointments, making the shift to partner focused relationship with associated work on communication, building friendship, revitalising your sexual relationship, making adjustments to changing roles with adult children and continuing to work on growing your relationship with God and serving others together.

They encourage those in second half marriages to live out their marriages in hope and anticipation of what God has in store for them with Paul’s words:

“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14.

And this is what we have been doing recently, rediscovering the pleasure of activities we enjoyed in past quieter times, buying furniture that doesn’t have to withstand smears of food or teenage lolling about (no grandchildren yet!), and exploring what opportunities there are for us in ministry now we are no longer supporting our children at youth camps etc. Talking to others in this age group, this last one is the most challenging area. Not yet ready to move into retirees’ ministry, where do we fit for the next 10 years?