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The Never-Empty Nest

By on August 14, 2017

By Jeannie Prinsen

Images of retirement living appear everywhere: posters in the drugstore, “Golden Years” magazines, cruise ship commercials. They often feature senior couples in crisp white-and-tan clothing strolling on the beach, their matching silver coiffures ruffling in the breeze. One picture I saw shows a man giving a piggyback ride to his female companion – a perfect recipe for a fracture as far as I’m concerned.

We all know these pictures aren’t realistic. If you look closely, you’ll see that these people rarely wear sensible shoes…or use a cane or other assistive device, or even wear glasses.

And none of these couples in these idyllic retirement photos has an adult child with a disability accompanying them on the beach.

When I saw that the summer theme for The Perennial Gen would be “the empty nest,” I immediately thought, What about the nest that will likely never be empty?

My husband and I have two teenagers, both of them on the autism spectrum. Our daughter, 18, is high-functioning yet will likely need considerable support as she enters post-secondary study and works toward independent living. Our son, 14, has a seizure disorder and is developmentally quite far behind his age-level peers; his speech and intellectual abilities are closer to kindergarten level. With great school support, he’s made progress – but he will probably never be able to live independently.

We are currently healthy, active 53-year-olds. But it’s one thing to be 53 with a 14-year-old son who isn’t even as tall as us yet. It’s another to imagine ourselves at 70 with a 27-year-old … or at 80 with a 37-year old. When we ask ourselves how we’ll look after our kids as we – and they – age, it’s tempting to respond as Jane Eyre did when Mr. Brocklehurst asked her how she could avoid going to hell: “I must keep in good health, and not die.”

We don’t have the luxury of that kind of denial. Despite their special needs, both of our children are physically strong and healthy. They’re likely to outlive us, no matter how well we take care of ourselves.

So I know we need to think about the future and make plans, but so far we haven’t progressed beyond the occasional wake-in-the-middle-of-the-night, “Oh no, what are we in for??” moment. Right now, the daily challenges of parenting take all our energy. “Can I do this for another day?” is a manageable question, one I find I can always answer yes to. “Can I do this for 30 more years?” is a lot harder to get my mind and heart around.

And the question goes far beyond how my husband and I will manage; how will our kids manage? For my son in particular, Mom and Dad are the axis on which life spins. He talks about his routine a hundred times a day: about who will be putting him to bed tonight, making him his breakfast tomorrow, picking him up at camp. When I go out for the evening, he says “Nap … Mom!” to reassure himself that even if Mom’s gone now, she’ll be there when he gets up. He has no inkling that someday she might not be – that Mom or Dad might be too frail, physically or mentally, to look after him, and he might need to live with others who can take care of him. To be honest, I’m glad that isn’t on his radar. I almost envy him that oblivion.

On this subject, as with every other life challenge, I need to stop and ask myself: What is the axis on which my life spins? In the end, what I always come back to is God and his faithfulness. It’s my responsibility as a parent to do the best I can – but even if I plan for every eventuality, there is a limit to what I can control. Peace ultimately lies not in having everything organized for the future (which may end up looking totally different from what I thought anyway), but in knowing God is in charge.

So I don’t plan to waste my time lamenting that our kids will prevent us from taking long barefoot walks on the beach. That was never the future I had envisioned anyway (especially piggyback rides!). Sure, it’s wonderful to go on vacations and laugh and cavort; lots of people my age and older do that, and should. But those photographs don’t show the whole story.

Empty-nesters or full-nesters, we all have fears, illnesses, aches and pains, losses, and broken relationships. Many of us are sandwiched between the needs of elderly parents and the needs of children: young or old, disabled or otherwise. Many people will walk alone in their retirement picture. My husband’s and mine may have adult children in it. None of us lives the ideal stock-photo life.

When I planned this post, I intended to emphasize how totally different my future life is going to be from everybody else’s – and maybe then those who were lamenting the flight of their little birds would realize just how good they had it.

But then I remembered the first post I wrote for The Perennial Gen, which was about showing solidarity with others by focusing on what we have in common. I may not be able to relate to the empty-nest theme, but there’s a bigger, more over-arching theme that I can relate to. We all need to know that our future and our loved ones’ future is in God’s hands and that he is faithful through life’s change and disruption. Jesus assured us that that not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without the Father’s knowledge. Whether our family’s nest is empty, full, or somewhere in between, it’s in God’s care.

Does your empty nest look different than what most people experience? How does your faith shape the way you plan for it?

Jeannie Prinsen lives in Kingston, Ontario with her husband and two teenagers. She teaches an online course in essay-writing at Queen’s University, writes fiction and poetry, and blogs about family, faith, books, and whatever else interests her at Little house on the circle. She can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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