The Not-So-Empty-Nester’s Guide

First things first, the term “empty-nesters” is about as far from my husband and I’s current  situation as you could possibly get.  We just brought our FOURTH baby home twelve short weeks ago, and our oldest is only in 1st grade. We have lots and lots and lots of years left with our kids at home, and for that I am very, very thankful.

However…as every one of us moms can tell you, time flies.  It truly feels like yesterday that I was bringing my FIRST baby home, and now we are a family of six.  In the blink of an eye, they will all be in school, and in another blink, they will all be leaving the nest.  This nest, that we have so lovingly prepared for them, where we have laughed and cried and grown up together, will someday be home to a family of just two.

Matt and I have been together since we were 16 years old.  That’s officially HALF of our lives!  We were high school sweethearts, got engaged just before I entered grad school, and welcomed our first baby just four months before I graduated.  It was a whirlwind, to say the least, and in the years since then, I’ve often reflected on the fact that we only lived together as husband and wife, just the two of us, for 11 short months.  So, when that day comes and our last “baby” has left the nest, it will truly be a brand new experience for us!  My hope is that we can arrive at that empty-nester status as two people who still love each other, who have enjoyed the journey so far, and who look forward to the new adventures as a party of two.  In order to do that, I’ve put together the following “Not-So-Empty-Nesters Guide”…

nest1. Take care of the nest while it’s still FULL. Let’s be honest, marriage is work.  It is wonderful, and fun, and life-giving, and lots of other warm and fuzzy things, but it is not any of those things without work, commitment, and effort.  And for those of us with children, this whole marriage thing may get lost in the day-to-day craziness of being mommy and daddy.  It’s only natural; if being married is work, then having kids is like having TWO jobs, and then some of us have “real” jobs to add in the mix!  In the chaos of these busy days, let’s try to take moments here and there to “whistle while we work”.  Send a nice text in the middle of the day (AKA one that doesn’t ask when your partner will be home from work, or if he/she can pick up some things from the grocery store).  Buy (or make) them a little gift for no reason, and leave it out for a surprise when they wake up the next morning.  If bedtime or bathtime are rough in your house, offer to do it on your own and tell him/her to go sit and relax.  As we are working through this marriage and parenting thing, it’s so important to stop along the way, and to remember how to build up that happy nest.  It’s amazing what these little changes can do.

2. Dream big.  Do you remember when you were little and everyone always asked “what do you want to be when you grow up”?  It’s so fun to hear kids respond to that question.  They have such big dreams, such high hopes for their futures.  And then, at some point, their answers start to become much more practical, more standard, more “boring”, if you ask me.  Take some time to ask your partner what they’d like to do “when they grow up”.  Maybe that means when the kids are gone, or when they’re all in school, or maybe it just means in the next year. Take some time to dream together, to make some fun goals and try to reach them together. I’d challenge you to throw some BIG dreams in there too, perhaps some that you may never accomplish, but that you can dream about together.  If you’d like to “travel the entire world together”, maybe that won’t ever happen, but maybe you WILL take 1 or 2 big trips in your lifetime, and that will be amazing.  Or maybe you will find ways to enjoy the whole world without going too far (like visiting China Town in New York, or the amazing little tastes of the world at Epcot Center).  Either way, it’s fun to dream, and it’s even more fun to dream together.

3. Dream Little.  Alongside those big hopes and dreams, make some room for smaller, more attainable goals. Ask your partner what dinner they’ve been craving, or if there’s a movie they are hoping to see. Ask if there’s anything special they’d like from the grocery store, or what THEY would like to do this weekend.  A friend in my small group told me that her mother in law had visited recently, and she had made tea every afternoon while she was there.  After she left, her husband told her how much he had enjoyed having tea every day.  She said she had no idea that he would like to have tea every day, so she has started making it and they are both loving it!  It’s funny how many things we think every day, but don’t share with our spouse. We then challenged all of the girls in our small group to ask their husbands “what do you like to do when you walk in the door from work?”.  I have to admit, when I asked Matt, I expected him to say that he liked a few minutes to himself, to change out of his work clothes and clean up before we all bombarded him with stories about our day.  Turns out, he said he loves the days when all five of us greet him at the door with hugs and kisses and we all talk about our days (and THEN he likes to have those couple minutes to himself). It was such an easy little thing to do, but such a fun way to know my husband better. Go out on a limb and start sharing more; you just never know what might come from it!
4. Start Saving for Retirement NOW.  Remember when we talked about marriage being work? Well if it’s work, then there better be some kind of reward at the end, right?  For all of these sleepless nights, these tear-stained pillows and crayon-stained walls, there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel, yes? I hope so!  I hope so for my husband and I, and I hope so for your household too!  That reward, that “retirement”, if you will, is coming someday.  But what joy is retirement if you never started saving for it?

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As I mentioned before, I pray that we don’t wish these years away, that we take moments to sit back and enjoy our little babies and how fast they are growing.  But I also hope that for our marriages.  Start saving those moments, those memories together, just the two of you, so that when the last kid steps out the door you don’t look at each other and say “who are you?”.  It sounds funny, but it’s the sad truth for many people.  Those “mommy” and “daddy” identities take over completely, and someday we look around and we are just roommates with a bunch of mutual children.  Don’t let that be you.  Take a minute to ask those important questions, to be silly together, to hug and kiss and snuggle and laugh.  Play a card game while the kids play.  Talk about those big dreams and little dreams while you push the strollers to the park.

People spend HOURS of their lives planning for the future, hammering out the details of their retirement plans, saving for college and mortgages and all other sorts of things.  In fact, they spend so much time planning these things, they even hire people to help them.  Think about what would happen if we looked at our marriages and considered them to be equally (if not more) important.  What good is a giant, beautiful house if you don’t like the person you’re living with?  Why are so many people working their lives away, only to come home to a stranger who used to be their best friend?  Let’s be the change we want to see in marriage.  Let’s invest in our partners, in the relationship that we promised to “have and to hold”.  Do whatever it takes to keep that spark alive, to keep both of you happy in your life together.  If that means a weekly date night, then make it happen.  If that’s impossible for you right now, then maybe your “date night” is just popcorn on the couch after the kids go to bed.  Heck, sometimes a good “girls night out” or “guys night out” can be just as good for a marriage; absence makes the heart grow fonder, doesn’t it?  If it’s been a while since your partner has had a night out with their friends, helping them have that can do wonders for both of you.
Every marriage is different, and every nest is different.  Perhaps your nest will be empty in a couple years; perhaps it will never truly be “empty”.  No matter what it looks like, I sure hope that your nest is a happy nest, and I hope that you remember to take time for you and your partner, even if it’s just ten or twenty minutes here and there.  Being mommy and daddy is a wonderful privilege, but if mommy and daddy ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy in that nest.
So build it well, work on it daily, and enjoy it. With lots of love, and plenty of belly laughs to go around.


Sara and her husband Matt (sweethearts since they were just 16) got married in 2007, and since then have welcomed four beautiful children (Sam in 2008, Cooper in 2010, Nora in 2012, and Adam James in December 2015). A born-and-raised Iowan, Sara received both her Bachelor's and Master's Degrees (in Spanish Literature) from the University of Iowa. She's still teaching Spanish wherever and whenever she can, but her true passion is owning Iowa City Moms and building this community alongside her amazing team. Sara is also the Community Engagement Coordinator for City Mom Collective, and the owner of Cowork Collective downtown Iowa City. Common denominator in all of these jobs: community, community, community.


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