On the Receiving End

I dislike the term “empty nester.” I understand the idea—I just don’t like referring to the space I’ve raised my family as a “nest,” which inherently makes me some kind of “momma bird.” In my mind, tacking a cutesy name on something sacred minimizes the significance. There is nothing cutesy about the transition from a home filled with life and activity to the quiet that permeates everything when our family returns to just two people.

At times, that quiet feels heavy and full of grief. Yet, there’s something I’ve come to love about sitting with the silence in a contemplative way, remembering and feeling the significant moments, wondering about what’s next in this season of change.

It was in one of these quiet moments of reflection, after our kids’ post-holiday return to their regular lives, when I realized one of the biggest shifts in my relationship with our kids: I’m the one on the receiving end these days. After years of pouring myself into leading them well, they are each, in their unique ways, inviting me into their worlds.

They are the ones leading the way, not me.

Tim, our oldest son, invited Chris and I to travel with him and his wife, Anna, to a basketball tournament for his freshman boys team. We sat in the bleachers and watched him interact with the players, watched as he and Anna handed out the snacks and Gatorades they provide for the team—a luxury his urban school cannot afford. I recognize the encouraging demeanor that I’ve always seen in him; the banter back and forth with his students, evidence of his intentionality in building relationships.

Later that weekend, I was the beneficiary of Tim’s encouragement and intentionality as he noticed me struggling to find my place in a large gathering at our home. He made a point of drawing me into the conversation. At the time, I wondered if he had noticed something was up, or if it was just happenstance. As he continued to reach out, I realized he knew and was leading the way in bringing much needed connection for the part of me that was feeling vulnerable and a little lost.

Our son, Matt, is also a connector, and couples his willingness to interact with just about anyone with a welcoming hospitality. I like to think he learned some of it from me, as I love to provide a welcoming place for people in our home. But the truth is, he is a natural; I believe hospitality is in his DNA. He baked and shared so many apple pies while living in his college dorm that he earned the nickname “Mom.” For my Christmas gift, Matt considered my love of writing, something he has always encouraged me to do more of. He invited me to his apartment up north for an extended “writing retreat,” with a promise to provide good food, drink, and comfortable space. I am already anticipating how good it will be to just rest and enjoy him caring for me, instead of the other way around.

Our daughter, Katie, is currently living in Spain, doing a study abroad semester to complete a Spanish minor. As I watched her head through airport security, ready to travel thousands of miles on her own, I marveled at the courage and strength she possesses that I didn’t have access to when I was her age. She was excited when we told her we were planning to visit her there, and requested that we wait for her to be fluent by the time we come. Knowing Katie, I anticipate she will have a detailed itinerary planned, and will have no problem as she helps us navigate the foreign language and unfamiliar culture.

I am a little more than excited about following my kids as they take the lead. The changes taking place in my family are far more complex than the term “empty nest.” While there’s a sense of emptiness in the loss of their presence, there is also fullness and life in the possibilities they’re inviting us into. I don’t have a catchy term for that, but I plan on enjoying it.


Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.