The image of a bird’s nest being carefully built, filled with fledglings, and then emptied is a helpful metaphor for the parenting journey. Those who’ve been through it know that this season of letting go isn’t merely a phase of life—it’s an entirely new chapter. While some parents look forward to this transition with great anticipation, many find it emotionally disorienting, feeling a deep sense of loss, anxiety, or guilt. Wherever you find yourself on the spectrum, the empty nest requires personal, parental, and marital adjustments. Thankfully, the gospel gives us the courage to take these next steps.
For starters, the empty nest season provides parents with the opportunity to realign their hearts to their true and ultimate identity in Jesus, especially if they’ve found themselves defining themselves by their role as mom or dad. Oh, how we need this heart recalibration, especially for those like me who have a long list called “Things I Wish I’d Done Differently.” Second Corinthians 5:21 (NASB) helps us deal appropriately with feelings of parental failure, stating emphatically, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
Because of the cross, where Jesus took our guilt upon himself, parenting failures do not define us. Neither do our successes. The believing parent is defined by the imputed, gift-righteousness of Christ. Whether your child receives an Ivy League scholarship, is struggling to find their way, is leading Bible studies, or deconstructing their faith, your true identity in Jesus is secure and unalterable.
This shift in perspective allows us to find our status not in what we have done for our kids and who they are, but in what Jesus has done for us and who we are in him as fully forgiven, perfectly accepted, dearly loved sons and daughters of God.
As we abide in Christ as our perfect righteousness, we remember that we’re not in controlof our children’s future any more than we’re in control of our own. But God is. He’s the author of history, weaving every strand with purpose. And yet there are so many strands we wouldn’t write into the script. They’re just too painful.
In the same way, the apostles wouldn’t have written the execution of Jesus into the script. However, the pain of the cross was ordained as the plan of God to rescue us from condemnation by reconciling us to himself (Acts 2:22–24). If the Lord can turn evil into good and death into life, he can do the same with the hardest parts of our children’s stories. This enables us to trust his story.
This is easier said than done, which is why, in addition to recalibrating our identity and trusting God’s story, a third personal adjustment is for parents toembrace our role as children of a sovereign Father, lest we revert to feeling responsible for the lives of our adult children (Romans 8:15–17). For some, responsibility feels like the need to control, as if God expects us to be omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent. This mental distortion of reality accumulates into an emotional burden the Father never meant for us to carry (Matthew 11:28–30).
As a remedy, Proverbs 3:5–6 urges us to wholeheartedly trust in the Lord’s wisdom—the wisdom of the One who invites us to know him as Abba, Father. When we lean into our role as dependents, we begin to experience greater peace, confident that our Abba is orchestrating all events for our good, even when the river’s twists may be difficult to understand or too painful to bear (Romans 8:28).
Transitioning to the empty nest season also invites us to consider parental adjustments. For example, abiding in a recalibrated identity in Christ, we’re able to engage our children with genuine humility, confessing our flaws and faults because we’re not the heroes of our children’s stories–Jesus is! This depth of honesty may seem like a huge risk, but nothing will have a greater relational impact on your adult children than making the grace of the cross the defining truth of your life (1 Timothy 1:15–17).
With Jesus as their hero and sovereign story writer, we’re set free to care deeply about our children’s lives without feeling the need to control the outcomes. This means we’ll stay in touch regularly, but not excessively. We’ll offer advice when they seek it, but without demanding they follow it. Caring without controlling will result in praying for them often, asking the Father to draw their hearts to rest in his grace, and to guide them in a way we cannot.
And let’s remember to play the long game. This perspective is similar to investing in the market. Despite the ups and downs, it has trended upward over time. This is why financial professionals advise clients not to freak out over day-to-day fluctuations. That’s good advice for parents, too. Keep the big picture in mind when you notice something in your child’s life that isn’t what you would hope for. God is not finished writing their story.
After all, the Lord’s redemptive long-term picture for us and our children continues far beyond age eighteen. As the story unfolds, we can ride the river of his providence, trusting God’s story by seeing everything that takes place in view of God’s sovereign, cross-confirmed love.
Parenting demands immense focus and energy, potentially limiting the time couples have to nurture their relationship. As a consequence, the marriage can gradually resemble a neglected garden overrun with weeds. This is why a third adjustment during the empty next season is to recultivate your marriage.
One way to begin the process is to intentionally set aside time to actively listen to your spouse’s perspective, feelings, hopes, and dreams for this season of transition. If a pattern of open communication has not already been established or nurtured between the two of you, this step may expose difficult emotions or past hurts to face honestly. This is why it is important to double down on grace, where each partner acknowledges and takes responsibility for the weeds that have grown while extending forgiveness to the other. Sometimes, couples need assistance in this new season of relating to one another. Seeking help from a professional counselor can be a wise, proactive, and positive part of the recultivation process.
An easy cultivation practice is to spend time together. Being intentional about marital proximity is basic but so important. To this end, consider what it might look like to have coffee in the morning to discuss the day and offer a simple prayer for your adult kids, to enjoy regular date nights, and to pursue mutual interests like cooking, hiking, painting, etc.
A particularly nutrient-rich soil for marital nurture is physical touch. Just like we see the power of touch in Jesus’s healing ministry, simple gestures like holding hands or putting an arm around a spouse has an unexpected and underestimated healing power to make a marriage bloom. Like a picture is worth a thousand words, so are simple expressions of physical touch.
While there is much more to say on this topic, I hope you will embrace the empty nest not only as a time of emotional and relational challenge but also as a chapter filled with new opportunities.
Your relationship with adult children can mature into something beautifully rewarding. The same thing can be true for your marriage and your relationship with Jesus.
In view of the sovereignty, goodness, wisdom, grace, love, and kindness of God, the nest may be empty, but the heart can be full.