Autumn of the empty nest

September is known for its Indian summers. Just as the schools go back, the sun comes out for one last lazy lap of the land before autumn leaves wrap it up and cool it down. We were sat in the garden, two faded deck chairs, paving stones for coasters, taking a deep breath in, as Friday shouted its way into Tuesday, making itself known, unavoidable, formidable. And the end of the week, she would be moving her last child into a new university life in London. And the thought of it filled the mother’s eyes up with tears and prayers.

The empty nest is a real thing.

In all our chats about preparation for university, all our online introductions of students to churches with ‘Student Linkup’, all of the praying and vision-casting for a student life of faith-filled fun, I now sat with a parent friend and realised, there is another side to freshers...

Empty bedrooms, less washing, a quiet house, quiet car, quiet weekend, quiet life.

Front and centre your marriage comes into focus, if you’re still together by the time what feels like your life’s work leaves home. With boxed-up saucepans and far too many bags of clothes you suddenly look back and realise you just drove your family into a new life-phase you were entirely unprepared for. 

When you have a baby, there are antenatal groups to go to, friends to be made as you journey the same thing at the same time. But similar to having a baby, there’s not really a manual for how to do this new season. Spring is here, new life, no sleep, utterly depended upon, identity shift, pangs of pain and privilege racing through your blood as you slowly learn how to be followed, to be a role model for the ones you’re raising. 

The hours of prayers whispered in the dark when they’re still not home, when they get picked on at school, when they go through a phase of begrudging church things, when their first house party invite arrives. All you can do is the best you know how, to show them faith, to introduce them to Jesus, to keep the family walking forwards as they make choices you don’t understand or bring home friends you’re not sure of.

You celebrate their steps, from prayers to baptism, inviting school friends to church, to playing the guitar on Sunday, and you hope the Holy Spirit fills in the gaping holes you’re sure you must have left over the years.

But Father God is parenting you too.

With each new moment of independence, as they stretch their teenaged wings in the summers of secondary school, you learn to trust again and again in His hand on your family, His parenting of your kids. You learn to see them as God sees them, full of potential and gifting, handmade on purpose, not just a product of your inheritance (thank-goodness!) and you believe for more.

And then they leave for university. You feel sick to the stomach. Will they cope? Will we cope? Suddenly you’re plunged back into that baby fog of their utter vulnerability and dependence on you but this time they have chosen their path and you are not needed in the close-at-hand cradling way you once were. And their dad will be feeling it but doesn’t say it the same way. Yet you’re both glancing into the rear view mirror on your drive home from the halls of residence and the back seats are empty and without a word you turn up the radio because the silence is deafening.

Social media becomes the enemy as comparison kills your joy. Parent’s statuses of how exciting this new season is whisper to you that everyone else must be doing fine. Unhelpful comments about enjoying ‘all that free time’ you’ve now got echo in your head as you walk back through your front door with a few less shoes on the mat.

But you’re not left without hope or comfort.

The very existence of Fusion and Student Linkup anchors your emotions in the sure knowledge that local churches in every university location are ready and waiting to welcome your kids home into their new city. You know a couple of student workers from near by churches have already messaged your child to say hello. You remind yourself that the Holy Spirit is not afraid of survival but that the promise of eternity is living in the hearts of your family. And God remains in the halls of residence and campuses of our country, as well as in your house, your marriage and your future.

The season has changed. There is pain and loss and new life and growth. God is a God of creation and rejuvenation, and God is still faithful through the autumn of the empty nest.

Students

I pray you read this and take a moment to pray for your parents. Thank God for them and remember to call from time to time to encourage them that you’ve not neglected the journey you were taken on as a family, until you left home. 

Parents

I pray you read this and know you are not alone. Just as my friend, who’s words inspired this piece, shared her comforts and fears with me and hoped others like her would feel brave enough to share the struggle of this season change, I hope you share this and talk about it in your community too. 

And to the whole family, be encouraged. The story of student mission in the universities is one of hope, faith, love and a growing sense of movement. The story of the local churches across the land is one of potential and increasing unity. The story that is possible today is one of honesty and action, authentic expression and genuine support.

Please know that the empty nest is real but the fullness of the presence of God and his peace is even more real still. 

Miriam Swanson

Global Student Mission Leader

Miriam helps equip the church for student mission internationally. She's based in the USA and hungry to see young adults follow Jesus with all of who they are. 

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