“Are you going to homeschool through high school?” a curious church member asked when she learned that my husband and I had decided to homeschool our five-year-old.

“High school?” I responded incredulously, “I’m not even sure we’ll make it through kindergarten!”

That was 19 years ago, and not only did we make it through kindergarten by God’s grace, we made it through elementary school, middle school, and high school. Twice. When my eldest daughter graduated from high school and began attending the local university in town, not much changed. She lived at home and commuted to school. Because she was home in the evenings for meals and homework, I only had to adjust to her absence around the dining room table during school hours, and life continued in much the same vein.

When my youngest daughter chose to attend a college three states away the same year my eldest daughter accepted a job in Washington, I faced the empty nest syndrome in earnest. And although my goal for the past 17 years had been to educate my children through high school and into college, I realized I had given little thought to what I would do when that day finally came. I had spent years praying, teaching, and training our daughters in preparation for life after high school, but I hadn’t thought to prepare myself for this new stage of life. I didn’t anticipate the wide range of emotions I would experience when my daughters left home. I wasn’t ready for the changes that would occur in my household, my social life, and my marriage.

In an empty nest, you dust more than you clean. You throw away leftovers instead of never having enough. You turn the radio on for noise instead of turning it down for quiet. You still buy a gallon of milk at a time, but find yourself giving half to the neighbors before it spoils. You frequent Facebook for a glimpse of your college student instead of telling her that she shouldn’t spend so much time posting pictures. You pray more than you work, and find that prayer is the hardest work of all.

It is a different season of life. Not all good, not all bad, just different.

Looking back, I realize that the transition from full-time homeschooling mother to empty nester would have been easier if I had prepared as carefully for my graduation from homeschooling as I did for my daughters’.

One of the first changes that often catches a homeschooling mother by surprise is the wide range of emotions she feels when her children leave home. Many women experience a profound sense of sadness. Although we’ve worked toward this goal for years, the reality of sending a child away to college often produces a depth of emotion very much like the grief we experience when we lose a loved one. And in a sense, we have. Although our children will come home for breaks and summer vacations, we realize that the dynamics of our relationship and lifestyle will never be quite the same again.

Veteran homeschooling mother of three and author of Seven Tools for Cultivating Your Child’s Potential, Zan Tyler was surprised at the intensity of her emotions when each of her children left for college. “There was a deep, deep mourning,” she says. “I can’t explain it, because you’re raising them to launch them. It’s not that you want to hold them back; you’re just grieving your own loss.” When her youngest daughter left home, Tyler admits, “I cried and I cried.” She didn’t just cry for a day, or five days, she says, “I cried for six weeks. And it was the kind of crying that some days I would make it to the couch, and some days I wouldn’t.”

She explains how her husband Joe helped her deal with her emotions. He said, “Okay, today you’re only allowed to cry for 30 minutes.” And then he set the timer. His wisdom and humor helped her grieve in a healthy way. After all, she says, “I’d been doing this for 21 years. I wasn’t just giving up my day job. As a homeschooling mother, everything about my life was changing.”

Other women experience relief that their children are finally graduated and their homeschooling work is done. They may even feel guilty for not feeling sad. With relief often comes joy at accomplishing what the Lord has called them to do. Still other women experience guilt and remorse, especially if a child leaves the home without graduating, or under strained or less than ideal circumstances. Most homeschooling moms experience a combination of feelings as they adjust to the empty nest.

In addition to the emotional changes the empty nest brings, there are changes that occur in your household, your social life, and your marriage. Because you are used to cooking and shopping for a larger family, it may take a while to adjust to cooking smaller meals, shopping for smaller quantities, and sometimes not cooking at all. For many months after my daughters left home, my neighbors were the happy recipients of quantities of extra groceries I had purchased out of habit, and portions of soup, stews, and casserole recipes I hadn’t thought to cut in half. You may lose your motivation to cook if it’s just the two of you, or you may delight in the freedom to eat a bowl of cereal (or a bowl of ice cream) for lunch because there’s no one else to cook for.

Many times as an empty nester you will also find you have transitioned out of the group of friends that has surrounded you for so long. Because you don’t have children to educate, you may find that the friends you would normally socialize with in connection with a field trip, co-op or carpool are no longer available when you are. Your paths don’t naturally cross anymore, so getting together with homeschooling friends requires more intentional and structured efforts and is less spontaneous.

The empty nest often has mixed effects on a homeschooling couple’s marriage. If their home has been child-centered, a husband and wife may find themselves with no common interests apart from the children. If all of their outings revolved around children’s sporting events, recitals, and debate tournaments, they will find themselves with nothing to do and little to talk about. For this reason, it is important to develop the habit of dating each other. Find at least one activity you enjoy doing together. If you are short of ideas, think about what you liked to do before the children came along. Maybe you bowled together, served as ushers at the local theatre so you could watch the plays for free, or went hiking or bicycling. Revisit those interests as you adjust to being childless again.

Tyler recommends building habits like these into your marriage before the children are gone. This will strengthen your relationship so it can weather the changes an empty nest brings. She discovered that if she took just five or ten minutes each day to pray for, focus on, and think about her husband, it helped them stay connected. “One day,” she says, “your kids will be gone, and you’ll be clanging around in a big house, and you’ll look at your husband and think, ‘It’s a good thing we still like each other.’”

Unrestricted by the presence of teenagers in your home, you can also be spontaneous and uninhibited in the romantic areas of your relationship. The empty nest years can be a time to rediscover the excitement of those early days of marriage. A friend of mine shared his thoughts on the empty nest by saying, “I like it. We’re back to the original two again, and I’ve always liked the original two.”

Once the responsibilities of homeschooling are over, many women find themselves at a loss for how to spend their time. Tyler remembers wise advice she received from a radio program featuring Jay Kessler, founder of Youth for Christ. Kessler encouraged stay-at-home moms to maintain some outside interests and activities while raising their children. “One day they will leave,” he cautioned, “and you’re going to need to pick up life.”

“That just stuck in my soul,” Tyler says. It was a reminder not to become so consumed with her children that she forgot the world around her. It made her focus more on hospitality, church involvement, political involvement, and things they could do as a family. “It kept reminding me that there was a bigger world out there, and we needed to be part of it.” Kessler’s words made her realize that “this season of life will come to an end, and it’s not fair to my husband or my grown kids for me to fall apart.” Having outside interests “makes you a more interesting person for you husband, too,” she says with a grin.

Tyler’s outside interests paved the way for a job with a publishing house when her last child was in high school. She worked for Broadman & Holman Publishing Group as an acquisition editor, a job which then opened the door to her current position as the director of Apologia Press. There she has helped develop the publishing arm of the company, acquiring and publishing new material for homeschooling families. “My work helps others and has a redemptive value to me as well,” Tyler says, “as I recognize that God still has a purpose for me.”

While the empty nest years can be a time of sadness, grief, and loss, they can also be a time of fun, joy, and fulfillment. If we plan and prepare for the end of one season of life and the beginning of another, we can enter the empty nest time without fear. Instead of these years becoming the end of life as we know it, they can be the beginning of a whole new era of growth, ministry, and usefulness.

Lori Hatcher is an author, blogger, and women’s ministry speaker. She shares an empty nest in Columbia, South Carolina, with her marriage and ministry partner, David, and her freckle-faced, four-footed boy, Winston. A homeschool mom for 17 years, she’s the author of the devotional book, Joy in the Journey – Encouragement for Homeschooling Moms. You’ll find her pondering the marvelous and the mundane on her blog, Hungry for God...Starving for Time.

Publication date: July 24, 2013