“The guys want to hang out,” said our 26-year-old son after breakfast Christmas morning. “So, do you need me around for any . . .” he looked at me as he annunciated, “traditions?”
Rob and I exchanged looks. We exchanged more looks than presents that Christmas. Of course, we expected the children to begin pulling away as they grew up, but we were still caught off guard when the holidays rolled around that year.
“Sure, son,” my husband said. “Have a good time.”
Because, really, what else could we say? It’s the bittersweet truth that we raise our children so they will leave. But that Christmas Rob and I found ourselves sitting in stunned silence, flipping channels, and napping.
After that, I was more prepared. It’s a learning curve. Every year is different as the kids find their own way. So we have to find a way, too. As the nest empties, we have to learn what to hold on to and what to let go of. To make the holidays pass with meaning and not melancholy, I try to keep in mind the following.
Let go of the kids. Try not to take it personally if they would rather spend the holidays with the families of friends or significant others. This is natural. We certainly hope they will prefer being with us at holiday time, building new traditions as they outgrow old ones. But in these early adult years, they are taking what you have taught them and applying it to the world. Believe me when I say they will notice and appreciate your generous release of them. If they have a cheerful, inviting place to return to, they will be more likely to embrace your ideas for new, grown-up traditions.
Hold on to your spouse. Find new purpose in one another. Holidays are a great time to reconnect in simple, romantic ways. Take a thermos of hot chocolate and a favorite Christmas CD, and drive around town together enjoying the decorations. Plan a quiet dinner or a cozy evening at home with a glass of eggnog. Don’t spend all the time reminiscing about past Christmases with the kids. Instead, talk about future Christmases with each other. Above all, share the birth of Christ with one another. Bond through prayer, Scripture, and Mass. The beginning of a new liturgical year is a perfect time to take your love for each other to a deeper spiritual level.
Let go of the feast. I know, it’s nearly blasphemous to suggest ditching Christmas dinner. Even Tiny Tim’s poor family cooked up a goose! But as the kids grow, holidays will pull them in many different directions. Not expecting them to come for a big meal might be the best gift you can give. On Christmas Day, we set out platters of cold cuts, cheeses, special breads, and our favorite snack foods. This way, kids can come whenever they want, and food is ready without hassle. Remember, Christmas doesn’t really end until the Sunday after Epiphany. If you still want that big meal with all the family around the table, try having it another day. It will relieve the pressure on everyone and give you something to look forward to.
Hold on to the least. Jesus commands us to tend to the needs of “the least of these brothers of mine” (Mt 25:40). There’s no shortage of need during the holidays. Ask at your parish for opportunities to help at soup kitchens or shelters, or organize a group of carolers to visit nursing homes and hospitals. Maybe you know other empty nesters who would appreciate a visit. You will be amazed how such simple gestures will stir up your own Christmas spirit, and you may even be moved to continue these good works well beyond the holidays. As a fringe benefit, I can’t help thinking that it’s also a good lesson for those young adults of mine when they realize they are not the only ones I can be a servant to!
Let go of the hype. Simplify. Scale back on decorating, shopping, and baking. Resist the urge to go completely dark, as some do when the kids leave, but you don’t have to compete with the Griswolds. Your home can be joyful and inviting—a crèche, a simple tree, some thoughtful gifts, and a few sweets. As for me, I know that if I exhaust myself over dozens of cookies and Martha Stewart’s holiday tips, I’m sure to find myself binging on the leftovers and drained in January when it’s time to pack it all away.
Finally, hold on to the hope. The coming of Christ is really the point of it all. Find ways to celebrate the truth of Christmas. Look for special events of the season that will draw you closer to Jesus. Don’t abandon the Advent wreath just because the kids aren’t around to light it. Go caroling or attend an Advent Mass. Offer your talents for music, art, sewing, or chaperoning to the parish Christmas program. Is there a living Nativity in town? Go see it, or organize one at your own parish. Spending time at Eucharistic adoration or meditating in front of a manger scene is a great way to allow your heart to be filled with the coming of Christ.
An empty nest doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Saint John Paul II reminded us mature Catholics that “this period provides real possibilities for better evaluating the past, for knowing and living more deeply the paschal mystery, for becoming an example in the Church for the whole People of God.” Just because the kids are grown and gone doesn’t mean we stop being an example for them.
Prayerfully discern how God wants you to live the paschal mystery in this season of life. Your nest may be empty of children, but it’s still full of purpose. Allow your adult children to see you thriving as a child of God, growing in your faith, and relishing the liturgical seasons, even after they are no longer living under your roof.