Although hard to believe, it’s been three years since my wife Kathy and I attended our son’s (Jordan) graduation from High School. At the time it seemed impossible to me that Jordan and his older brothers (Brad & Kelly) could have grown into young men! For me it seemed as if it had been just yesterday when the boys and I had been racing around the house in our PJ’s on Saturday mornings play fighting; Laser swords in hand…. pretending we were protecting the world from crime and evil. But… somehow the years had slipped by – almost unnoticed… and there we sat at Jordan’s Graduation Banquet celebrating our youngest son’s completion of High School and realizing time does just keep chugging along!
The reality of becoming empty nesters began to settle in for Kathy prior Jordan’s graduation year. Our two older sons had graduated and moved out of home, and as each of them spread their wings and took flight, Kathy and I noticed a fairly significant reduction in the amount of time we were having to spend parenting and directly participating in their lives daily. As Jordan moved into his Graduation year, though, the reality of becoming empty nesters hit us both full force. Jordan had achieved getting his drivers license, and as any parent will tell you, when your child can get themselves to and from their activities on their own, it saves an amazing amount of time in a parent’s life. And we were no exception. All of a sudden we had a lot of extra time on our hands.
Many nights it would be just us two sitting at the dinner table. And what I noticed above all was that our dinner table was extremely quiet. Kathy and I would dish up our meals – and move over to the table and start to eat. She’d sit eating – I’d sit eating… and other than the scratch of a form on the bottom of a plate or the sound of a knife slicing through some meat – you could have heard a pin drop most meals. It didn’t take long for me to realize that our sons had spurred on most of the conversation around the table over the years. As a family we’d talk about their school stuff, we'd talk about sports, or other activities they were involved in. We’d talk about their friends, and their friends’ parents and so on.
What I also realized was that Kathy and I had stopped talking. We had stopped talking with one another without even noticing it was happening! We thought that because we were talking with our kids and to one another about our kids and their lives that we were – talking to one another when in reality we weren’t really talking to one another, instead we were discussing – discussing our children’s lives. In fact it seemed that we actually didn’t know how to talk to one another anymore. And so… night after night we would sit there – eating our meals – in silence – and then clear the table when we were done and move on to watching television or reading on our own. Over the years that we had spent parenting our kids and working at our careers we had somehow lost touch with one another. It was like we were two acquaintances living in the same house rather than the vibrant couple we had been when we first met.
And so… one evening out of the blue I broke the silence as we ate with the question “so is this how it’s going to be?” Kathy looked at me confused and said, “is this how what’s going to be?” To which I replied “you sitting there… me sitting here… you eating your meal… me eating my meal… you putting your dishes in the dishwasher… me putting my dishes in the dish washer… you turning on the TV – us watching TV – you heading upstairs to bed… me heading upstairs to bed… only to do it all over again tomorrow? Is this what empty nesterhood is going to be? Because if it is – it’s really boring!”
This led to a discussion that went on for awhile about the times that we had both wished we could have more time on our own together – without having to parent – and how we realize now that we somehow had lost something over all of those years. We concluded that as wonderful as it is to have children – that our kids do NOT bring us closer together in many cases – in fact often they can consume us and erode away the relationship between spouses by simply just keeping parents so busy that there is little time to keep up with one another - about one another.
It took a week or two for me to digest the conversation that Kathy and I had that evening over dinner. What I realized was that we needed to reconnect. Both of us had changed over the 20 plus years we had been parenting. We weren’t the same people who had met and fallen in love. We were different and there were things I didn’t know about Kathy and there were things she didn’t know about me. What came to my mind was that we needed to do something together that forced us to talk. So after some brainstorming, I came up with the idea of the “empty nesters road trip.”
For the next few weeks I spent time planning an Oregon, California Coast road trip for Kathy and I. I plotted the course, booked the nicest hotels, and learned about many different sites we could see as we travelled. When I had everything hashed out, I announced to Kathy that we were heading out on a 3 week “empty nesters road trip” as soon as school concluded for the summer (Kathy is a teacher). With the time I had remaining before we left on our trip I thought a lot about a way to bridge the nearly 20 years we had begun to lose one another. “How do you reboot a relationship?” I thought to myself. The answer came in the form of simple questions.
I spent time formulating questions and writing them down on slips of paper. The idea was to pull the questions out one-by-one as we drove the Oregon/California Coast, and answer them honestly to each other. And so… each day we would hop into my convertible and start our drive. Questions would be pulled, we’d take some time to think about them, and then each one of us would share our thoughts on the questions. The questions I had come up with delved way back into our childhoods. Here are a few of the ones I had come up with:
- “What were your 3 most favorite things to do as a child?”
- “What bothered you most about yourself as you were growing up?”
- “What things interest you most today?”
- “What are 3 things that have hurt you most in our relationship?”
- “What are the 5 best moments you have had as we have lived life together?”
Interestingly enough, as we drove and spent time sightseeing, talking, spending time at nice hotels, and eating well, we began to talk more and more and more. Some of the talks were hard – some made us cry – and many made us smile and laugh and together we began to remember one another – know one another again. It was an amazing trip! The Oregon/California Coast is an amazing part of the world – but what made the trip amazing was how Kathy and I rekindled our relationship and our love for one another. How we re-found ourselves after years of unknowingly losing one another.
The idea that our children bring us closer together is not necessarily true. As I say that I want to be clear that I am not blaming our kids for the distance that grew between Kathy and I. Our lives got very busy – with kids and work – and somehow we just did not do the best job we could of staying connected, really connected, with one another’s changing thoughts and needs and goals. If I could encourage couples who are traveling down the parenting road, I would encourage you to make sure you carve time out of your busy lives to just be with your partner – and I mean BE WITH THEM. Make some rules for yourselves that you’re not going to talk about your kids during those times, but instead focus on one another. Focus on conversations about one another’s thoughts and feelings and goals and aspirations. Talk and listen to one another – about one another. If you do, I think you’ll find that your love and admiration for one another will stay in tact. It will likely grow and grow. And in the end, when your empty nester time rolls round, you’ll be stronger for the journey and ready to take on the next step of your life better than Kathy and I were when empty nesterhood happened to us.