The Never-Empty Nest

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.

15 thoughts on “The Never-Empty Nest

  1. Gwen Jorgensen says:

    This is soooooooo good. It is so needed, too. For certain, you as a couple, face many challenges, that the next couple won’t. But they wil face challenges, most likely, that are also unanticipated. There is no perfect control of life circumstances. They can always change, for better, or worse. You are right about those posters. They take no thought of a couple,such as yourselves. There are so many other scenarios, too, where that cannot happen.

    ‘He is faithful, through life’s change , and disruption’ This is pertinent. My own life, as well as many around me, has taken much change and disruption, over the last five years. It will change any’ poster pix’ we may have had. My life is totally different, than I thought an empty nest would look like. So, we can make sensible plans, but, many times, life does not fall into line with our plans. What does our life pivot on? Your question about the axis; yes, that is the question we need to review, because if we listen to the advertisers, or the fearmongers, we will miss that treasure of Christ always being with us, no matter how many times life takes another bend in the road. Thank you. I’m a little farther down the road in age, than you. I see many caught by surprise, with unanticipated needs of care for troubled young people, aging parents, health needs, or combinations of all three. But, I am learning that God provides, in ways I least expect, dispite suggested scripts I try to write for Him. Haha!

    Thanks for sharing such valuable words and insight.

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thanks so much for your comment and insights, Gwen. Yes, those scripts we try to write — we need to let go of those. They can make us resentful and reluctant to face reality. God meets us in what actually is, not in our what-ifs and might-have-beens.

  2. Tim says:

    Jeannie, you and Richard face a future few of us can imagine. You do it with grace by God’s grace, and you give me hope.

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thank you, Tim. I don’t always do it with grace; I am often impatient and less than gracious. But God is good and has more than enough grace to go around.

  3. Helen Parsons says:

    You’re right Jeannie, I’m so glad we don’t know what the future holds but we know Who holds the future. We didn’t anticipate we would retire while I still had a parent living with us and sometimes that’s tough, very tough. But, at least we know that won’t last forever unlike your situation. Sending love x

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thank you, Helen, for your kind words. We really never do know what is around the next corner.

  4. Sue-Anne says:

    You have a beautiful way with words and thoughts, Jeannie. You made me laugh and then made me teary. We all have struggles whether the nest is empty or full. When the last of my siblings got married, I remember telling my mother that she wouldn’t have anyone to worry about any more. She said to me, ” Now I have each of you AND your spouses AND your kids to worry about!” I’m so thankful that I have a God who cares for me and my future. Jeremiah 29:11

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Sue-Anne. Yeah, I know parents never stop worrying about their kids, no matter what age or stage of life. Nests may be empty but I don’t think parents’ hearts ever are. And of course God has us all in his hands, thankfully.

  5. Nancy says:

    Jeannie, so beautifully said. Unfortunately those of us who tend to have slightly “rose-tinted” glasses, or even those who are “glasses half full” kind of folks, can sometimes buy into the glossy images and figure “this is the way it should be”. When that doesn’t line up with what “is”, we are disappointed, slow to readjust, or maybe even wonder what we did wrong. Until, that is, the Lord reminds us He has been with us from the beginning and has higher, better things in mind for us than we could possibly imagine. It just doesn’t look like we thought it would. I’m so thankful for His wisdom, His patience, and the fact that He is all-knowing. And that He is Good. One of my favourite phrases in the Bible is “But God…”.

    Thank you for your insight, reminding us to consider (and pray with) those around us… their walk in life may be much different than our own; some more difficult, some easier, but that we may all call on His name and find His peace.

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughts, Nancy. So, so true. I remember our NCS reunion 3 years ago, how all the testimonies were “I went through this … but God was faithful.” “I suffered so much when that happened … but God was faithful.” Over and over again. “But God” IS an amazing phrase.

  6. Betsy de Cruz says:

    I want God to be my axis too. Thanks for this reminder that even with different challenges before us, we are all called to trust God day by day. Just today I was feeling featful anout my future, so this encouraged me.

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thanks so much, Betsy. I’m glad this spoke to you. I’m preaching to myself here too, of course.

  7. Linda Atwell says:

    I needed to read this today. I often wonder about the same things. Even though our daughter is high-functioning, she is independent to a certain extent.

    • Jeannie Prinsen says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Linda. I checked out your blog too; it’s wonderful to see you have a book coming out. It sounds really interesting.

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