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Betsy Kneepkens: Learning from a year as empty nesters

The last few weeks of August had always included a flurry of activity. After a few months off from school, our family had several traditions that readied our children for the impending change of pace. I used the work of school preparation as an opportunity to spend individual time with each child, calling it our annual date day. As my kids advanced in school, they still looked forward to the “date,” but they would not let me call this particular time together “our date.” I guess that term embarrassed them. 

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

There were cheaper and more efficient ways to get school supplies, but that wasn’t the point of our activity together. I wanted them to have distinct memories of this time of their lives. We would do something special, eat lunch, and then do our school shopping. Each child was sworn to secrecy. Some went so far as to get doggy bags from other restaurants to fool their siblings. I never put limits on where they could go to eat. The kids inevitably selected lower-end fast food joints, because they gave a free toy or dessert. 

For several years I had six kids, six different school lists, and six different dates, all of which hold a memory dear to my heart. My two youngest were home for just a few days before returning to university, and each mentioned that they needed some things for school. I am holding on to the hope that they want that special individual time with me. 

This September marks the end of my husband’s and my first year without children in our house. The year had some challenging moments, provided significant growth, and a tremendous opportunity to rediscover parts of our relationship we put on the back burner as we submerged ourselves into parenting. Friends warned us that the first year as empty nesters would be challenging, so we were warned. We didn’t exactly understand what our friends meant. Having this alert was helpful, but not until we went through these past 12 months did I get what they were talking about. 

The first challenge we didn’t expect was the spare time. Our children choose various activities that kept us busy driving or watching their activities. We tried hard to be equally involved in the kids’ separate clubs and sports. You could say our strategy to manage our household was to divide and conquer. 

We learned some tricks over time, like switching events at half-time or taking turns with each child. We managed to encourage our children to try similar interests like sports and instruments so that we could be at one location and see several different age-level games. Having most children of the same gender, often watching baseball meant going to a T-ball, little league, and major league game all on the same night, just on different fields. 

I will say it was easier with the five boys. When our daughter was added to the mix, we had to juggle schedules more precisely. A good deal of our time together as husband and wife was spent strategizing who would go where, when, and how, always trying to be efficient with our time. We did manage to fill those non-work, non-sleep hours with activity. We did try to eat together as a family. However, that “being together” was sometimes fast food in the car. 

For years, the kids slept in the same room, so we did have an evening routine of winding down with bedtime stories, made-up songs, and bedtime prayers. Even though life was chaotic most of the time, we made a point of Mass as a family on weekends and all days of obligation. I remember being joyfully tired. I often was too busy to do anything about the exhaustion. 

The first three months without children were taxing. We went from being busy all the time to almost a dead stop. We kept waiting to be needed by our children, but they kept figuring things out without us. Admittedly, I found myself breaking down in tears often, like homesickness, but I had the house, and my home was what was missing. 

For the next three months, we tried to fill up our time. Because we had so much less to do, we fell into a disturbing pattern of checking each other’s work. We said things like, “Did you lock the doors?” Then the other would go and check to make sure it was locked. Or say, “Did you turn the hose off?” The other would go back and check the hose. Running with kids all the time, you had to trust that the other took care of what they said they took care of. When we had time to think, worry, and question, our need to trust dwindled. 

Before, we worked our Mass schedule around our children’s activities. Once the kids were gone, we discovered we could go to any weekend Mass. However, we learned quickly we had different preferences for Mass. I participate more fully in Masses that tend to be celebrated in a “large” way, with sacred music, incense, and a full, lively family atmosphere. On the other hand, my husband prefers the simplest form, with quiet reflection instead of song and praise between parts of the Mass. We debated for the first few months, or perhaps you could say we argued about which Mass we attended together. One bright morning, I came up with a solution. I told my husband, “How about if we switch preferences each week as best we can.” That seems to be working. 

Slowly but surely, our quiet home without children evolved. We realized that our children did chores, and now we had to do them. They were mowing the lawn, shoveling, doing laundry, and doing dishes, just to mention a few tasks. Now it was up to the two of us. Over time we divided up roles to get our housework done. We quickly discovered that we could easily give a gift to the other by simply doing their job when they did not expect it. It has been a beautiful and loving way to show each other how much we appreciate them. I know that was mostly missing when we were busy raising children. 

Later this year, we rediscovered that the things we enjoyed doing together before children we still enjoy now. We are working on seeking out those opportunities. You can forget what they were when you busy yourself with children. This year has been challenging. I think every stage of marriage, you must go through it to grow together, learn to appreciate each other, and even continue to get to know each other better. 

We promised many things on our wedding day and took those promises to heart. For better and for worse it was absolutely part of our choice to love each other. The richness of that promise is that when you work through the worst, you become better together. I wouldn’t want to go through this year again, but now that it is over, I feel blessed that we received the grace to grow in a stronger union because of these difficult moments. 

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six.