An Empty Nest is for the Birds
An Empty Nest is For the Birds
by S. M. Calhoun
It was just a simple child’s book, its total vocabulary consisting of only five words. Yet, as I listened to a student read it on this particular day, I felt like weeping! What was wrong with me?
The story was about a young bird getting booted from the nest and gaining independence. As a mother, I had just begun to experience the reality of an "empty nest."
While the mother bird was cheerfully kicking her youngsters out, however, I had been holding onto mine for dear life! When the time came for me to relinquish my hold on them, I thought I had handled it very well. But when this little bird book threatened to drown me in tears, I knew it was time for me to come to grips with this unwelcome change.
I am sure that neither the author nor the illustrator ever dreamed that their simple words and drawings would evoke such strong feelings from a reader! It was just the timing in my life—the emptying of my own nest. On the first page, a mama bird was literally kicking her fledgling out of the nest!
The poor little creature plummeted out of the tree and fell toward the ground. He frantically flapped his wings up and down. It was the only movement he knew. He was in luck! The frenzied flapping halted his downward plunge and the wings stopped his fall.
The whole event had been observed by an enemy—a feline who was up to no good. She sneaked in for a closer look. Still a novice in flight science, the baby bird breathed a sigh of relief. Disaster, for the moment, had been averted. He rested his aching wings a moment. Big mistake! The downward plunge began anew—and this time, the hungry cat was waiting below, ready to take advantage of the little bird’s ignorance.
Perhaps he sensed the new threat to his well being, for once again, he beat his wings anxiously against the invisible air. At the last moment, just as he came within an inch of that outstretched claw, his life was saved. His panicked flight carried him upward toward the nest—and his heartless mother!
On this particular day, I was infuriated by the mother robin in the book; she did nothing but watch her innocent child’s perilous adventure. On this particular day, eyes hot with unshed tears, I was in no mood for reading about the hazards of bird life. In my mind, they too closely paralleled the dangers my children would be facing.
What kind of a mother is she? I thought, indignantly. Why is she not flying alongside her baby, lending a supportive wing—or strapping him into a parachute? Why has she not offered a demonstration in navigation, and warnings about Newton’s law or the cat’s paw before shoving him out into the world? Why is she not hopping up and down in a frenzy, screeching, "You’re in danger, Son! Flap harder!" And, finally, why isn’t that mother waging an all-out war against the mortal enemy who is drooling for an opportunity to devour her child?
Then the analogy hit me squarely in the heart, leaving me gasping for breath. Detachment. . . then anger . . . tearfulness . . . devastation . . . this was grief in its rawest form! So that’s all there is to it? I asked myself. I spend 18 years deeply involved in the lives of my children and suddenly, without warning, it’s over? Like the excruciating amputation of an arm—or the painful separation of death or divorce?
Suddenly, in the course of a day, life swings from one set of extremes to another. One day there is noise—boisterous laughter, angry arguments, constant conversation, water splashing in the shower, toilets flushing and loud ka-thumping music. Then . . . there is utter stillness—broken only by the cat crunching her Kit’n Kaboodles.
From busy-ness to aimlessness. From comfortable companionship to loneliness. From the peaceful sleep of knowing that everyone is tucked safely into bed, to feeling the hollowness—the arrested breathing—of an empty house. From worries about the kids getting safely across our busy street, to the sheer helplessness of being separated by 500 miles of interstate.
How was I to respond to this unwelcome upheaval that was supposed to be the normal way of things? Surely I wasn’t expected to stand aloof and pretend not to notice as life shoved me, unwillingly, into the next phase. Was I to pretend that my entire being hadn’t been focused on nurturing, loving, and protecting my children all these years?
Was I, like the mother robin, supposed to simply say, "You’re an adult, now. Go start a family of your own!" (Boot!) I don’t think so!
In the past, I had thoughtlessly accepted the analogy of the "empty nest" to that of children leaving home. It was a tidy way for psychologists to view life in stages—cramming every aspect of life into an orderly filing system of human development. But at this point in my life, I rebelled at those experts who would nod with knowing boredom at my predicament, toss the file containing my current crisis into the drawer marked "Empty Nest Syndrome" and, so casually, compare my situation to that of a bird!
Conducting an amateur counseling session with myself, I had to acknowledge the fact that I was grieving the end of family life as I had known it. I didn’t want my kids to grow up, leave home, and become independent! Well, SOMEday, sure. But not yet! I cried and patted my shoulder sympathetically in an attempt to come to grips with this new phase of my life.
Stepping back to take a more objective look at our years together, it was humbling to acknowledge all of the mistakes my husband and I had made along the path of parenting. Ours was not a soft, downy nest. It was hurriedly and crudely built, with more than its share of thorns.
Guilt warred with excuses as my thoughts continued down this painful path. What imperfect parents we had been! How many times had I caused my children to flinch at an unreasonable tongue-lashing from my lips? Yet, how many times did I walk away from their tears to cry into my own pillow, pleading for God to soothe the hurts we had inflicted?
And unlike the mama bird in the story, hadn’t I fanatically protected my children and loved them with a passion? Knowing from experience the dangers that lay in wait for them . . . knowing there were hidden enemies just waiting to find them unprotected and vulnerable to attack, I had introduced them to our Protector. So, now, why was my jaw gaping open in amazement to see God standing in the shadows of our past, gazing lovingly at our turbulent family life . . . unobtrusive, unobserved, often touching us in an attempt to draw our attention to Himself?
Angrily, I shook Him off, recalling each painful event that my children had endured at the hands of a teacher, a coach, or a youth leader. How many times were their talents ignored, passed over or shredded as they tried to serve Him? How many times did I cry out to God, begging Him to intervene so that their spirits would not be crushed? Where was He, then?
Taking a deep breath, I removed myself from the role as mother for a moment. Trying to view my children as the young adults they had become, I searched for the festering wounds I knew I would find in their character---scars inflicted by myself and by the world’s neglect. Instead, I found gentleness, compassion, patience, determination, confidence, self-control, and an inner strength!
I was in awe, recognizing God’s handiwork in the chiseling, shaping and sanding of my children’s character! They had long since cast aside those hurtful experiences that still haunted me. As young adults, they were pushing onward with integrity, eagerly anticipating what God had in store for their lives.
Hadn’t this been our goal while our kids were still toddling around, grasping onto furniture to keep from falling . . . to raise them to be young men and women dependent solely upon God? And despite our interference, it had happened!
"Get a grip," I told myself. "You can survive this separation. That’s what life is all about. Get used to it!" My husband saw my tears each night, and he knew the homesickness for my kids wouldn’t recede without some special care. He made some suggestions that were heaven-sent.
First, he suggested that our phone budget be adjusted to include a weekly, 20-minute phone call to each of our kids (sure, we had e-mail, but there’s something about actually hearing their voices. . .). And for my peace of mind, we allowed them freedom to call home if depression or any other emotional catastrophe hit them.
Then my husband suggested that we set aside several long weekends on our calendar (in big, red letters) to visit the kids. I found that going without a hug for 2 ½ months was my limit. Ironically, by experiencing the 500-mile trek at its worst (bumper-to-bumper traffic, overheated cars in a summer traffic jam, and icy mountain interstates), my fears of the unknown were lessened! I could visualize my kids driving home and predict where there were at any given moment.
We also found that 2 ½ months of separation changed their attitude toward us. . . they were actually excited to see us! Whenever we visited them, they included us in excursions with their friends. We went to their college classes, drove 10 miles to their favorite shopping haunts and restaurants, and got to know their friends. We experienced their famous "walking bridge" in the heart of Chattanooga. We waded in my son’s favorite mountain creek. We perched atop the windy heights of Lookout Mountain and gazed down at the glowing autumn colors. I felt God’s peace as we shared the beauty of His creation.
I cried as we left the mountains and our hearts behind, but the tears were gentler, now. "How can I continue to grieve," I asked myself, "knowing that my kids are in God’s will, 500 miles from home?"
From above, an invisible Protector continues to smooth out imperfections as He watches our relationship transform from that of mother and child, to a firm, forever friendship. What a blessing! What an honor!
As the sun sets in the evening sky, we see a young bird soaring confidently back to his nest. With a sense of exhilaration, he shouts to his watching mother, "I can fly!" He has been given his independence—and he has survived. Maybe there is something to this "empty nest" thing, after all.
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