Before my kids left for camp for their first summer away from home, I thought a lot about how I was going to manage without them. Now that they are at camp, and having such an awesome time, I am recognizing something else interesting about having an empty nest.
When the kids are gone, a bright light is shone on the state of your marriage.
I am happy to say that my marriage is alive and well. But, I can see how the state of one's marriage can become a bit of a mystery if you don't take the time to shine that light on it. In our almost 11 years of parenthood, we have been away (together) for a grand total of eight nights. Yes, we go on date nights somewhat regularly, and yes, there are a few nights a year when the kids sleep over at their grandparents when we are somewhere else in the same city, but for the most part we are with them ALL THE TIME. There is a real danger of losing one's relationship when all focus is on the family as a whole.
When the kids are gone, there is a lot of space to fill. Their little voices aren't constantly chattering (or interrupting, bickering, demanding). There aren't a million places to be for soccer and swimming and chorus practice and educational outings. This space feels most salient for parents who don't work outside the home. When the work of kids is not there, the days can seem quite empty and lonely. Parents might feel at a loss as to how to fill their time.
In the 10 days I have been home without kids, I have thought of some helpful insights for parents --
-Don't wait till the kids leave home (for summer camp, or college, or even the endless nights out that teens tend to have) to work on your marriage. There has to be some connection between spouses besides just children. Make sure to keep up the spark and the back and forth conversation with regular date nights (even in your own home once kids go to sleep). Getting a good sitter and heading out without kids is not selfish -- it is an investment in the happiness of your whole family.
-Think about finding a shared interest with your spouse that does not involve the children. How about regular golf or tennis games? Seeing awesome music concerts? Reading and discussing books of interest to both of you? Volunteering together for the candidate you are supporting in the upcoming election? Even if these interests mean some time away from children, the benefit to your relationship will be worth it.
-Feel okay with having conversations that don't involve the kids even when the kids are present. We tend to let the kids dominate our dinner table conversation (and their daily news is so much more interesting than ours!). It is okay to say "this is a mommy/daddy conversation" and to encourage our kids to learn to talk amongst themselves or even to sit quietly. Similarly, as kids get older and stay up later, it is okay to carve out parent time. Kids do not need to be constantly entertained and in fact, manage much better in life if they are comfortable filling alone time.
-The moral of this story is that the greatest gift we can give our kids is to grow up in a loving home. We also want to model for them what it looks like to be a happy adult -- and this probably means being in a strong relationship; having trusting friends; having interests and passions; and having a job or volunteer role that you enjoy. All of these things take commitment and time -- not for a month in the summer, but regularly, all year long. Be sure to invest some time in a stronger and more healthy family!
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I am a licensed psychologist working with kids, teens, and adults with anxiety disorders.