My wife and I were sitting at dinner the other night when I noticed an annoying sound coming from the next room. Click . . . click . . . click. Like water dripping, or maybe something sparking. So I went to investigate.
It was the clock ticking.
This is a sound we haven’t heard in our house for almost 24 years. Oh, it’s been there all along, ticking away, lurking behind louder sounds: babies crying, Barney singing, little boys fighting, basketballs bouncing, little girls giggling, Power Rangers morphing, school buses honking, music shaking the walls, teens playing video games, hair dryers blowing, cell phones beeping and buzzing. Far more suddenly than we were ready for, all of that noise stopped. We always approached parenting teens with the idea that we were trying to work ourselves out of a job. To our surprise, that’s exactly what happened.
I’ll quickly acknowledge we haven’t been world-champion parents, though I suppose the jury’s still out. We did the best we knew how. The past several years have presented their share of heartaches as well as joys, as we’ve tried to help guide our teens into young adulthood. Despite what book publishers may tell you, there’s no fail-safe instruction manual. Even for those parents who do everything right, sometimes kids still make bad choices. (Just ask God.)
Our kids may not always have seen the world’s greatest parents, but they saw a healthy, happy, God-honoring marriage. They saw Mom and Dad go out on date nights so often that we didn’t even need to call them that. They saw a house filled with laughter, dinners filled with conversation, mornings punctuated by the two of us praying together.
So here we are, still in our 40s, and the nest is empty. Tick . . . tick . . . tick. Now what? Among our group of friends whom we’ve known all of our married life, we are the pioneers in this empty nest phase. They all want to know what it’s like, as if we’ve reached the shore of some undiscovered country. Certainly there’s a sadness that accompanies this transition, but it’s alternately exciting, surprising, and revealing.
Here’s some of what we’ve observed so far:
We have way more space than we really need. We live in a modest, three-bedroom ranch house, and there are a couple of rooms that are completely unused. After years of not being able to see the floors in the kids’ rooms, everything looks too orderly now.
There is no more help for mowing the lawn, shoveling snow, carrying softener salt to the basement, loading the dishwasher, and cleaning up dog messes in the backyard. All that free time we envisioned having? We’re spending some of it doing things we used to pay the kids an allowance to do.
We can go to bed at 7 pm if we want, and still not go to sleep until 11. Though, this would have been easier to accomplish when we were 25 and had a lot more energy. Life can be unfair that way.
The house is colder in winter. We’re setting the thermostat higher. We used to make fun of our parents for this.
I can walk naked through the living room late at night if I’ve forgotten to turn a lamp off. This really, really scares the dog, so I’ve stopped doing it.
Speaking of the dog, I spend a lot more time talking to him now. And all those times the kids blamed the dog for nuclear-strength flatulation? Well, it turns out they weren’t lying after all.
The pizza oven has time to cool off between uses. Cookies and chips can last for weeks in the cupboard. We’ve had to adjust our grocery shopping after discarding food that’s gone past its expiration date.
That Ken Burns National Parks series I recorded on the DVR has not been bumped off by 19 episodes of teen-oriented shows.
Christmas takes a lot more planning and coordination of schedules. You start to understand why family get-togethers are so important to your mom.
Most important: all of that investment in our marriage over 24 years of parenting is paying big dividends now. This new season has been a time of finding new things to do together. We joined a gym and we’ve become part of a small group planting a church. These are things we would not have had time for before.
We’re free agents. We’re talking and dreaming together about what direction life may go, and it’s exciting.
And then about the time we settled into this new life and started to think, You know, this is pretty nice, our youngest moved back home.
That’s pretty nice too. An unexpected gift. We’ve enjoyed a taste of life after kids, and now we get to stand for a while with one foot in both worlds.
Tick . . . tick . . . tick.
Jim Killam lives in northern Illinois. He and his wife, Lauren, have been married more than 25 years.