Author Michele Howe discusses the transition parents have to make to establish a new identity and parenting role when their children leave home.
John Fuller: I'm John Fuller and today on "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly, we'll take a look at a stage of life that every parent has to face at some point, the empty nest. And whether you're ready for it or not, it's coming. Maybe it's already here though and you can relate to how this couple is feeling.
Dad: Right, son, thanks for calling, good-bye.
Mom: How is he?
Dad: Oh, he sounds fine. Just moved in, went down to the college bookstore to get his texts. I think he's gonna do all right. You talk to Liz this morning?
Mom: Hm … baby's teethin' and keepin' everybody awake all night (Laughter), but sounded good. They're happy.
Dad: (Sigh) That's something, isn't it? John playing college student; Liz acting like a doting mother. (Mom Chuckling) They turned out all right, didn't they?
Mom: Yes, they did, in spite of all our worrying. They're good kids.
Dad: Yes, they are. Well …
Mom: Now that they're gone, what are we gonna do?
Dad: I don't know, dear. I don't know.
End of Teaser
Jim Daly: John, the empty nest years uh … they can catch some parents by surprise. Jean and I are already talkin' about it. Our boys are 16 and 14 now. Uh … but I know that day's coming and it's gonna be hard, because I like them in the home. I like bein' a dad to my boys and when they're heading off to college or whatever they're gonna do—vocational training, I'm not sure what they'll do—you know what, it's gonna be a hard moment for us. And we want to talk about that transition for parents, how we hopefully squeeze the best out of it and how we look at each other, unlike that couple and we actually know what we're gonna do and model it well. So, I'm excited to talk to our guest today.
John: Well, Michele Howe has joined us. She's a speaker and an author who addresses issues that women face very commonly and she's talked to a lot of other moms about the empty nest years.
Jim: Michele, welcome to "Focus on the Family."
Michele Howe: Thank you for having me.
Jim: Okay, this is really kind of a dicey topic um … because moms particularly, I can see this in Jean, she is so invested in the boys, rightfully. I mean, this is what she has done since really getting pregnant with them. She's nurtured them. She ate carefully to make `sure that uh … she did everything she could in the womb and now, as they're turning 18, 19, heading off uh … that can be a tremendous loss. Why?
Michele: Well, you know, well, you just said it. When moms invest 20-some years doing one thing primarily, which is raising their kids, their heart, their soul, their energy, their focus is generally their family. And when that suddenly stops, there's grief. And I think a lot of moms don't realize that when that kid walks out the door, whether it's the first kid or the third kid or the fourth kid, everybody's trigger is different. And for me, it was the third kid. I mean, I had two kids walk out, get married and I was fine. When my son left, it was a whole different story.
Jim: Were those two older ones girls? Interesting.
Michele: They sure were; they sure were. They were.
Jim: So, is there a dynamic there for fathers and daughters and mothers and sons? Is it different?
Michele: I think so, because I remember helping my oldest daughter plan for her wedding and I was fine with it. And then at the wedding, my husband kinda fell apart emotionally and cried. (Laughter) And I was truly surprised, be[cause] he … he's pretty stoic. Me, I was okay at the wedding, but I think I had processed it for all the months, you know, upcoming.
Same thing with my second daughter, it was really okay and I think it hit my husband hard. But when my son left, we dropped him off at college, which is only an hour away from our home—it's not across the country—but I got in the car and started sobbing. And my husband's patting me on the shoulder saying, "Honey, it'll be okay." But in my heart, I'm thinking, I don't know if it's gonna be okay. I've never felt this before." It was just grief.
Jim: You know, we talk generically sometimes about identity and men will derive their identity out of what they do and I … I think now in this modern culture, many women do, as well, because they're in the workplace and I understand that. But um … is it fair to say that, that loss of identity for husbands to feel perhaps what their wives are feeling, is their identity has been so wrapped up in being mom and then all of a sudden, they anticipate it's over. Is that … is that what's happening?
Michele: I think that's what's happening. Now I … I'm not going to diminish that my husband doesn't grieve in his own way. He does, but he's more "get up and go; go back to work, get busy." And he keeps going and I've been a stay-at-home mom, too, which also adds to the dynamic of the house during the day looks different when the kids start leaving. It's—
Michele: --quieter. The meals are smaller. There's less laundry. There's just …
John: It's not as messy.
Jim: Okay, now wait a minute!
Michele: It's not as messy.
Jim: Those are the things we (Laughter) complain about most of the time. So, why are we uh … now missing it when it causes so much pain?
Michele: Isn't it the humanity in us? (Laughter) We are always kind of looking forward to the next season of life, thinking the next season might be a little less challenging. But the truth is, every season has its own particular set of challenges--
Jim: Right, so you--
Michele:--at every stage.
Jim: --you grieve the loss of all the hard work, which sounds uh—
Michele: But also as you started out at the beginning of the show, you know, ki … we are … we're often told when our kids are small, "Well, you only have 'em for 18 years and after that, your job is over." And people would say that to me and it never rang true, because I thought, well, No. 1, am I gonna stop being a parent at 18? No. And No. 2, I always thought in my head, as soon as my kids become adults, they're gonna have adult-sized problems and they're gonna face the problems my husband and I face, which are big problems--little people, little problems, big people, big problems.
Jim: So, you thought about that, even as a mom of junior high, high school kids?
Michele: Absolutely. I was looking--
Jim: You put it …
Michele: --way ahead and so, I wasn't a mom who was blindsided by this. I was always the planner and looking ahead and saying, "What is our life gonna look like when the kids move out?"
So, again, the trigger for grief with me was a shock. I was surprised that I was so upset when my son left, because I thought, well, I have this all planned out. I know what's gonna happen.
Jim: You sound like a planner. I laughed at the title of your book, because it's Empty Nest, What's Next? And the subtitle, Parenting Adult Children Without Losing Your Mind. And I laughed because you can really put any phase of parenting in there. (Laughter)
Jim: You know, Parenting Preschoolers Without Losing Your Mind. I think many of us as parents and certainly, where I'm at, I'm hoping that uh … when they are in their 20's, it actually would get a little easier. You're tellin' me, it may not.
Michele: I think it gets harder as they get older and I'll tell you why. And I don't try to discourage parents of young children because when your kids are young, it's physically exhausting.
Michele: As they get older, it's emotionally exhausting. When they become young adults, you have kids who will call you and say, "Mom, I'm pregnant." "Mom, I'm getting a divorce." "Mom, I have uh … a bill I can't pay. I'm in debt. I have a gambling problem," a drug problem, an alcohol prob[lem]. I mean, their problems are what your peers are experiencing and you hope your kids will never experience. And those problems can't be fixed by moms and dads. You know, only the Lord can intervene and help them at the level that He intervenes and helps you.
Jim: Uh … Michele, so often um … in the Christian community particularly, we're hoping we did our job as parents, that you know, we gave our kids the fundamentals and they know the right thing to do. They know how to walk with the Lord. Yet, these things that you just described do happen. Um … how do we process that as parents of adult children? How do we not own it? How do we not feel the blame of what they're going through? And then, how do we provide the kind of advice they're gonna need and what form does that come in?
Michele: Uh-hm, well, I think it isn't necessarily a bad thing to own it partially because you … you do have to reflect carefully on your parenting. And I remember all through my parenting years saying, "God, make up the difference. God, make up the difference," because I knew my husband and I were not enough for our kids. We couldn't be as humans. We were gonna fail them and we did fail them.
Jim: Did you talk about that with your children?
Michele: Yeah and we're pretty transparent in our family. I mean, when we blow it, we go back and ask for forgiveness. And they've, I mean, your kids already see your failures and your sins.
Michele: You can't hide them, I mean, especially with your family. So, it … I think it makes a bigger and better strong bond between your children and as they grow up, too, I think they can come back to the mom and dad when they're in trouble, whey they're in trouble and know that they have parents who are gonna listen, parents who are gonna be real with them, not reject them for making mistakes, I mean, life-altering mistakes. And we've had that with our kids and I don't know, it's just a … it's a tricky dynamic, but you have to be reflective, I think, at times with your parenting. I mean, we need to do that.
Jim: How do you uh … well, that kind of rescue parenting that you describe in your book, how do you pull back from doing that? 'Cause it's so … it's been part of your relationship. It's the nature of being a parent. You help fix problems that when they're small, they get into.
Jim: When they're teenagers, they get into. Now when they're 20-something, maybe 30-something, how do you pull back and what's a healthy boundary for a parent of adult children to establish those boundaries? What do you do?
Michele: I think you have to be very intentional to move from the frontlines to the sidelines. You're not …
Jim: Boy, that's tough.
Michele: It is tough. It's tough especially, I think, for moms who are so emotionally driven to take care of their kids and to meet their kids' needs. And if your kid calls you or texts you and says, "Um … I didn't expect this bill, mom and I don't have enough money and my credit card is already overdrawn."
I mean, I remember going to my husband and saying, "We need to help. Can we help now?" And he said, "Well, let's look at the budget." And I'd be standing there impatiently, anxiously saying, "We gotta help him. We gotta fix him. We gotta …" And my husband's like, "Let's pray about it. Let's talk about it," you know. And I think that's a good balance between spouses. Moms may want to rush in—
Jim: Or vice versa.
Michele: --and … or vice versa, It depends—
Jim: That's right.
Michele: --on the personality of the … of the people—
Michele: --involved, but again, you have to be really intentional and say, my job is not a frontline parent anymore. My job is a sideline parent and a sideline parent just as like on a football field, you kinda wait and you let your kids kinda try to figure it out themself [sic]
Jim: You know, when you look at life and the way it plays out, do you think that's how God looks at us as our heavenly Father?
Michele: I would say so. I would say so, but it … it can be a different dynamic. I don't know. I mean, He is our frontline Father all the time, but on the other hand, you know, the whole season of …
Jim: Well, we'll go through things is my point.
Michele: We're gonna grow. Yeah, we're—
Michele: --gonna grow … go through things and … and I remind myself when my kids are suffering that when did I grow most? It wasn't through the high times of life. I grew when I suffered and when my back was against the wall and the only thing I had was the Lord. And I only could bank on Him coming through for me. That's all I had. And you know what? My kids have to experience that, too, for them to have the strength in their relationship with Christ.
John: But you don't start, Michele, when they leave the home. You don't start letting them learn those lessons naturally at 18 or 19 when they leave the home, do you? I mean, you've gotta start before they leave so you can be prepared, as well, to kind of let those consequences fall as they do?
Michele: Oh, I say you start it in toddlerhood. I mean—
Michele: --you … you … there's gotta be cause and effect from early on in parenting. There has to be. I mean, they've gotta get ahold of the concept, there's a repercussion for good choices, as well as poor choices. And I think our generation tends to shield our children way too much.
Jim: Right, Michele, in your book, Empty Nest, What's Next? you talk about this emotional bank account. You know, that's … that metaphor is used in all kinds of ways. What were you driving toward in using that emotional bank account when it comes to parenting adult children?
Michele: You know, there's a day where you might have $100 in your bank account. There's another day you may get up and have five cents. And depending on what God's brings to you that day you have to be wise enough to know when a situation is brought to you as a parent, what do I have? What reserve do I have? Can I outlay 50 bucks when I only have $10? And most of the time, you … you don't. And most of the time you have to say, "Lord, I'm casting my care on You.
The burden's too great. I've already heard too much bad news today." Or there's been too many issues with this child and you keep relinquishing them back to Him.
Jim: Yeah, Michele, sometimes this can sound hypothetical or theoretical, but as you've alluded to, you did have challenges with your kids and how old are they today?
Michele: Uh … our kids are … we have four adult children—three girls and a boy and that they are 25 through 31.
Jim: And you know, to the level of your comfort, 'cause I don't want to press on that, but you've written about it, um … and your daughter particularly wants her story known because it brings glory to God. That puts a smile on my face when somebody has that kind of courage.
But she messed up. Um … how did you go through that, you and your husband? How did you process it? And what was it? Maybe it wasn't just one thing, I don't know enough of that story. But talk about experiencing it and really encouraging the listeners who are maybe going through it right now.
Michele: Yeah, our daughter, Corinne, who is my third daughter, third born, started really acting out in high school and we were oblivious to it. We were so preoccupied with caring for an elderly relative who was our neighbor for five years that I think we were consumed with him and didn't notice the signs that were happening in her life.
Jim: What were they?
Michele: Well, she was lying to us, staying out super late, being very irresponsible and evasive. And she was my one kid that I thought could never lie to us effectively—
Michele: --because she was always a transparent kid. I thought, if she ever did anything wrong, we'd know it. Well, I was wrong. I was dead wrong.And she was out partying, drinking, you know, clubbing, doing terrible things, breaking the law, driving drunk, was arrested several times, ended up in jail a couple of times over a probably a five-year period and we were doing all the tough love.
I mean, we were saying, okay, you have to be in at this time. You have to do this. You have to tell us where you're at. You have to have your … your phone on at all times. And she was so sneaky and so … so determined to do her own thing that she found ingenious ways to get around our rules.
Michele: And then it all crashed down one night when we really didn't know if she was dead or alive. She didn't get home. Her cell phone was off. Her car was missing and we couldn't report it to the police for 24 hours. So, it was really late at night, 2 a.m. I remember sitting in my kitchen in pitch black, looking out at our field and thinking, am I gonna become one of those moms who's never gonna know what happened to their kid? Or is my kid gonna be dead in a ditch tomorrow? Because it was that scary. We didn't know what was gonna happen to her. And I remember the Lord just speaking to my spirit and saying, "Whatever happens, I'm with you."
Michele: And I thought, boy, I don't know how I'm gonna get through this, Lord. I don't know how. And I just kept sensing that, you don't need to know how because I'm with you through this.
Jim: Michele, it sounds easy, because you've gone through it but there are many people listening right now where their kids are in that spot.
Jim: And they woke up this morning wondering what's gonna happen. What can you do practically? I … I know that you felt that the Lord spoke that into your heart. Maybe they haven't heard that from the Lord.
Jim: What can they do to, A, connect with God first and foremost? I'm talkin' about that parent right now whose 21-, 22-year-old is so far outside of the boundary that they're afraid—
Jim: --that they've lost them, that they're not serving God, that they may be in danger physically, emotionally. What can they do practically to begin to um … sense there's some hope and some future for that child?
Michele: Well, I think you said it. I think you have to go deep with the Lord and you have to be willing enough to pray the hardest prayer, which is, "Lord, Thy will be done with this kid, whatever it takes." And that means whatever trial, whatever dangerous situation, whatever horror the Lord chooses to put her though to bring her back, you have to be willing to pray that scary prayer and I did. I did and my husband prayed the same thing. But I knew what I was praying. I …
Jim: How did that go? Give us an insight.
Michele: Well, it … He … He took my daughter down. I mean, He took her down. She had nothing left. She was picked up drunk driving and uh … it … and in … in the State of Michigan, you have to pay about five grand to … to pay all those bills and she paid 'em. And she wasn't gonna go anywhere without praying them and when she paid her lawyer bills. We made sure she really felt the cost of that.
Michele: And we created a contract for her, too. But to backtrack a little bit, the day that we found her, the next day we ended up calling the police. And a young wonderful police officer showed up at our house and looked at me and through my tears, he just said, "I see this way too often. Parents are trying to do everything they can for their kids and their kids are goin' just crazy and doin' illegal things." And he said, "You don't have to watch your daughter destroy herself."Now my husband had already been sayin' that to me. You know, we could've kicked her out and I wasn't ready.
Michele: But when he said that to me, this young guy, I thought God was just speaking to me and I thought, I don't. I can't go through this anymore—
Michele: --not knowing where she is, if she's dead or alive every other time she goes out and doesn't come home.
And that night, we … she did come home and when she came home, two things happened. She was belligerent and angry at us for being upset, which made me feel two ways—angry, grateful she was alive, but angry at her and thinking, how dare you do this to us as your parents, when you know we love you?
Michele: And then that evening is the evening my husband created the contract and … and she signed it and she knew if she broke any of the rules, she was out. And in fact, my husband took her down to Cherry Street Mission in Toledo which is where homeless people go and said, "This is your next stop, because your friends aren't your friends and they're not gonna take you in."
And that night she had a breakdown and a breakthrough, I would say and they actually did a symbolic thing of breaking her phone to get rid of all her contacts, broke her computer. So, in a weak moment, she couldn't contact her friends anymore. She—
Michele: --doesn't know numbers and they couldn't contact her. But that was just the first step in a long step of healing.
Jim: Boy, that sounds so dramatic.
John: Yeah and unfortunately, Jim, we hear uh … from so many parents here at Focus on the Family who are struggling with deep issues like that. And if that's you, please call us. We've got caring counselors, resources and we can help you take some next steps. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY or online we're at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
John: And Michele, you've mentioned contracts a couple of times. There are some benefits to having a contract in place, even if your child isn't in trouble. Uh … we've gone through a cycle where kids are comin' in. They go out. They travel. They do work outside of the home and then they're back in. Contracts can kinda keep everybody sane um … in terms of the family dynamic when your adult kids move back in, be it a short season or a long season, can't they?
Michele: Yeah, absolutely and I would say if you have a … a child that's moving back after they graduate from college or let's say, they're moving back to your home state, whatever, a contract is just a friendly way of keeping everybody polite and—
Jim: What does that—
Jim: --look like, that kind of contract?
Michele: Well …
Jim: Let's say they're comin' back from college and they are not on their feet yet. Um … what would that contract contain?
Michele: Well, for … for us, it would mean something like, you're free to come and go as you please. You're adults, however, you're not gonna wake us up at 3 in the morning bangin' around in the kitchen because you're hungry. Um … if you're gonna go somewhere and you're gonna stay away overnight, be courteous enough to tell us where you're going. You know, um … don't leave the bathroom a mess and you know, if you're gonna be part of this family again, then you're gonna have chores like the rest of us do.
Now whether or not you choose to charge them for anything—groceries, rent, whatever—it all depends on your family and what they're going through. But it just kinda gives people a real sense of, you know, I'm an adult now. You're gonna be treated as an adult and let's say, you have a daughter that moves back with three of her kids.
You know, that is a real life change for everybody because the mom who has a neat house is suddenly gonna have a messy house by virtue of the fact that three kids are tearing through it all day, and you gotta really kinda work through that before it happens, because otherwise, you're gonna be resentful.
John: How do you come up with the terms of … of those kind of agreements?
Michele: You know, I think …
John: Do you … do you say, "Here it is?" Or do you work it through together?
Michele: I think you work it through together and that's where you kind of announce it maybe to your kids. Later today, we're gonna sit down and have a family meeting. I want to make sure we get along peaceably and both of you—the child and the parents—write down the things that are important to them. Sketch it out together and then you can come to an agreement. It doesn't have to be written in stone, but it does give you a real idea of what your child and you might anticipate struggling with.
Jim: Yeah, let me ask you this, Michele. So often we talk about the importance of the marriage bond, even as a parent. Uh … you've gotta concentrate on the kids, but your marriage is job one. Um … at this point of empty nest, so many marriages are breaking down today because as we talked about earlier, moms particularly, but some dads, too, they look at each other and say, "We … we don't know each other anymore. We're strangers to each other. We're roommates."
Jim: Um … what is some of the advice that you have for the married couple to make sure that they are doing the things they need to do, so when the transition comes and their house is quiet and the chores are done and the kids are done, that they still have an intact marriage?
Michele: Well, and I think that is a great point because there are a lot of marriages breaking up right after their kids move out, which is always a shock to me, because I think you've weathered all those circumstances and the hard years together. Why would you want to split after the bulk really is done?
But I also understand people end up as roommates. And you know, for my husband and I, we're both Type A, real independent people who get real involved in our own work and ministry. So we work at staying close. It doesn't come easy for us. And we just have to find activities and things we like to do together so we can bond during those quiet moments, you know?
Jim: You talk about investing in people. What … what did you mean by that?
Michele: Well, you know, you invest in your kids, but you can't not invest in your marriage. I mean, you were a couple before you had kids and I always like to remind myself that before my kids were even born, I was married to this man and chose to spend my life with him.
I certainly owe him and should want to put him first and make our relationship primary. However, it doesn't always work that way, because you get sidetracked with your kid who's sick or busy or troubled. And you know, there … it's okay to have seasons where the kids are the focus, but it just can't stay that way forever. You gotta regroup. You gotta keep coming back and again, it has to be intentional.
John: Michele, do you and your husband ever have um … let's call them "disagreements" about the adult kids, about either boundaries or directions or interventions and … or maybe a lack thereof?
Michele: Oh, yeah, we really did and I will tell you, if you have a child who is in trouble, it takes a tremendous toll on a marriage, because we would look at the … the situation with Corinne and we both had very different ways of wanting to handle it. And we had blow-out fights at times over it, where we had to really cool down, walk away and not even address it for a few days because we were so passionate about trying to save our daughter, but didn't look that way on paper. I looked like he wanted it one way and I wanted to do another and those two ways weren't gonna meet.
Jim: You talked about those hard times. Where is your daughter at today? 'Cause we need to close that part of the story.
Michele: She's doing very well. In fact, everything she learned from going off and going to strip clubs and … and you know, and drinking and driving and just using people for what they could give her, she has turned around and she's part of a ministry called Covered in Toledo, where they go in and minister to all the women who work at strip clubs. So, she's turned the darkest part of her life into a saving ministry of all these young women. And they're getting women out of this industry, loving them, setting them on the paths of the Lord.
And she's a completely different person. She is absolutely renewed, but what she would want me to tell everybody is, it wasn't just one step of faith that did that. It was a thousand right choices after five thousand poor choices—
Michele: --that got her back on track. And I think we forget. You don't get 50 pounds overweight in a day. You get there in a year of poor choices. And it's the same thing when you're sinning and sinning and sinning. It took day after day after day of saying, "Yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord" and no to the flesh, no to the flesh, no to the flesh, before you become healthy again.
Jim: Ah, Michele, you have said it well. Again, your subtitle says it all, Empty Nest, What's Next? Parenting Adult Children Without Losing Your Mind. And I can only imagine you and Jim during those dark years. I don't know if it took years or months for your daughter to turn around, but that had to be a very challenging moment. I appreciate your vulnerability to share that kind of a story with all of us and the listeners.
Um … I am sure there are people listening that need help, John and we are here for you. We have those caring counselors who can help you uh … you know, think through the moment that you're in, put a resource or two in your hands and I hope you will call us.
John: And our number is 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459 and we also have resources and helps, including Michele Howe's book, Empty Nest, What's Next? at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: And there will be people who can't afford to reimburse us for the cost of that. So, if you're in a place where you can support the work of Focus on the Family to help a couple get through those dark moments in their parenting, in their marriage, we would appreciate that support. Um … that is how it works here. We're donor funded and Michele, let me again say thank you so much for writing Empty Nest, What's Next? and for being hope to those folks. What the Lord has done through your family and through your relationship with your daughter and your other kids is a testimony to the power of Christ in our lives. Thanks for bein' here.
Michele: Well, thank you for letting me share our story. It's been an honor.
John: And we hope you were encouraged by the conversation today and that you'll help us rescue and strengthen many more families with your gift today. Donate online at www.focusonthefamily.com/radioor when you call 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY. And if you're able to donate a gift of any amount today, allow us to say thank you by sending a complimentary copy of Michelle's book.
Now coming up next time on "Focus on the Family," one woman's powerful story of re-examining her past in order to walk more closely with Jesus.
Lisa Harper: In light of Jesus, how can we not risk everything to share the Gospel? And that book um … it was so timely for me, because God was freeing me from stuff that had held me captive for decades. I … I started really delving into the book of Acts and I was like, my goodness. There's actually a template for freedom.
End of Excerpt
John: That's Bible teacher Lisa Harper and you'll hear more of her story next time on "Focus on the Family," as we once again, help you and your family thrive.
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Michele HoweView Bio
Michele Howe is a reviewer for Publishers Weekly, FaithfulReader.com, Foreword Magazine and numerous other publications. She has published more than 2500 reviews and articles and has been featured on numerous radio programs across the country, speaking on topics like parenting and women’s health issues. Michele has authored 17 books for women including Going It Alone, Pilgrim Prayers for Single Mothers and Successful Single Moms. Learn more about Michele by visiting her blog.