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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review of Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates, "Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest"


Barbara Rainey and Susan Yates, Barbara and Susan's Guide to the Empty Nest.  Bloomington, MN:  Bethany House, 2017.

The "Empty Nest Syndrome" - many get it, and many also have difficulties dealing with it.  After having a child in the house for 18-plus years, it is quite an adjustment when one's son or daughter launches out into the big, bad, and unknown world.  Parents naturally worry about their kids, as well as missing their presence around the house.  This book, which I received as a review copy from the publisher, is a little different than the more weighty theological topics I normally review, but it is nonetheless an essential topic to address.  As is my practice when doing a review like this, I want to first know a little something about the authors as well as some of the sources they used to research their own material, so we'll start there.

Barbara Rainey, the first co-author of the book, was a founder along with her husband Dennis of a ministry called FamilyLife, which is a ministry that deals with deepening the marriage relationship. One of the ways they carry out their vocation in this ministry is with something called Weekends to Remember, a program in which retreats are provided for couples to enrich their own marriage relationships.   They do have a website (http://www.familylife.com) that provides more detailed information about what they do.  The other co-author, Susan Yates, is a popular Evangelical Christian speaker at marriage and parenting conferences and also has authored several other books.  She likewise has her own website (http://www.susanalexanderyates.com) that provides more information on what she does.  On the outset, these ladies provide a valuable service, as catechesis on the importance of the marriage covenant is a vital thing not only for the Evangelical audiences their material is geared to, but also to traditionalist and conservative Catholic audiences as well that share many of the same convictions.  However, the "proof in the pudding" is what sources they used for their writing, and I want to examine that next before I deal with the content of the book itself.

In looking at the "Notes" section in the back of the book, it appears that the authors use pretty standard marriage and family resources, both from psychological and from standard Evangelical Christian sources, which for me makes them pretty "safe."  It is important to examine the material that an author (even Christian authors) draws from these days, as unfortunately there are a lot of things out there that can be deceptive,  However, I do not see anything questionable in their source material, so it is now time to look at the book itself.

The chapters of the book deal with some practical issues that many people at some point face in regards to family relationships, and they relate specifically to the "empty nest" situation - the authors include chapters on loneliness, disappointment, how to relate to one's spouse, how to relate to adult children after they leave home and start families of their own, and how to deal with extended families, as well as a chapter I want to look at in more detail here shortly entitled "What Do I Do With Me?"  Other chapters in the second section deal with the reality of "moving forward," which entails chapters on learning how to "take a break," "celebrate," discovering new purpose in life, and finding ways to impact the world around oneself.  A series of inventories and exercises are also provided in the appendices which are designed to help the reader implement the information given in such a way as to make their own life more meaningful.  It is obvious that this book is geared toward a female audience, which makes it somewhat weird for me reading it, but at the same time there are some general things that can apply to either men or women, and therefore there are valuable and practical insights that can be taken away from the book by anyone who reads it.  There are a couple of chapters I want to focus more on now, and at this point I will begin to examine in detail two chapters of the book that piqued my own interest.

The first chapter I want to examine more closely is Chapter 8, which is entitled "What Do I Do With Me?"  The chapter begins on page 131, and it opens with a series of interesting questions - "What have I become? Does anyone need me? What is my purpose now that my kids are gone? How do I know what to do next? What am I good at? Where do I start?"   The author talks about dealing with a post-40ish "identity milestone," to use her term,  and the scenario is when the initial shock of the "empty nest" hits a person.  At that point, one is faced with identity questions about oneself, and the questions posed at the beginning of the chapter have a lot to do with this.  One faces a feeling of being lost, wandering, and it is a normative and healthy reaction.  One statement that stands out in regard to the female audience this book is addressing is on page 132 - "We were made for more than motherhood."  I could say, as a man, that the same is also true - men are more than fathers.  Another very vital point at the end of the same page is the importance of defining our identity in relation to God and His purposes for one's life, and that He is in control of our destiny.  Although this can be viewed by some as an Evangelical fix-all answer, it nonetheless is a truth - the challenge for the reader is to come to terms with it and begin to utilize it.  The authors themselves rightly acknowledge on page 133 that the task of keeping our "affections" aligned properly with God's will is a difficult task, and you don't necessarily have to be a mother of adult children to understand that.  Each of the authors then gives a personal testimony on pages 134-136 of their own struggles, and this is actually a masterful device in that it shows the reader (especially a reader who may be dealing with a similar situation) that these are not mere Evangelical platitudes, but indeed the authors themselves faced these issues as well.  It is always good when a writer can open up with their own experience to connect to the reader, in that it shows the reader that someone else has blazed the "unknown trail" already, and it gives a path in the wilderness so to speak.  That is an endearing strength of a book like this also.  On pages 136 through 138, the authors have a subsection of the chapter entitled "Second Chances."  In this section, what I got out of it personally is that oftentimes we are given a "second chance" to detour back to the original path we should have been on in the first place, and the "empty nest" period is a good time to seek that road out.  It is a veering off the original course that makes the questions that were stated at the beginning of the chapter relevant to us as individuals, and this time is a perfect season to explore those questions and take them to heart.  Once we are on the path, as noted on page 138, the answers reveal themselves to us, but they also have a starting place, and that is God.  This is pretty common-sense stuff which anyone can relate to, although often it sounds more easy in retrospection than it does at the time the situation is being faced.  At the end of the chapter, a section encouraging prayer for direction is provided, including sample prayers that can be prayed as well as guidelines for writing one's own prayer,  At the end of the chapter, a form is also provided for the reader to write out their own story.  Again, this is very practical material, and it also is challenging.  Sometimes the best and most effective advice comes from someone who can write from practical experience rather than the extensive tomes of verbose theologians and Bible scholars, and this book is just that - a practical series of guidelines of two ladies who themselves have experienced what they talk about.

I now want to deal more in-depth with Chapter 12, which is entitled "Changing Your World," and begins on page 199.  "Changing the world" is a broad term which can have a lot of meanings, and the essence of reading this chapter is to ascertain what the authors are talking about.  On page 200, an important point is made when the authors affirm that changing the world doesn't necessarily entail traveling the world.  Excellent point to start, but what do they mean by all that?  The authors give a variety of things - very service-oriented vocations such as fostering children, caring for the elderly, etc. - as one interpretation of what it means to "change the world."  This hearkens back to the questions in Chapter 8, in that God's will and direction is the obvious starting place for one's own quest to "change the world."  If I were to add anything personally to this chapter, I think it would be important to mention that the key to "changing the world" on a personal level is assessment of what one has to work with.  Many of us, of course, have gifts, talents, and skills that provide the raw material of some great endeavor, but we also need to learn how to refine and use those too.  I don't think the authors would have an argument with that idea as well, but maybe they were under the assumption that this aspect was implied - in the case of my reading of the text, it certainly was.  I was also drawn to the end of the chapter as well, beginning on page 123 with a section entitled "Take the Next Step."  These sections seem to be found at the end of many of the chapters, and in essence the authors seem to be providing a step-by-step process for the reader to implement what they are writing about.  The idea of a personal mission statement is a good one actually, and it is also challenging - fortunately, the authors provide a good template based on material from Chapter 11 to work with, and here is where they deal with personal application of assessing one's assets, documenting them, and then determine where using them would be most worth the investment of time and energy.  A series of traits and themes worth incorporating into such a statement are also included - attitude, service of others, and a section called "Finishing Well" which focuses on proper stewardship of health, vibrancy, being well-read, and both living and dying with dignity ("living well" and "dying well").  From a Catholic perspective, it is an excellent incorporation of eschatological emphasis on a personal level.  Again, this doesn't have to be just utilized by female "empty nesters" either, as anyone in any situation (I would add even negative situations, such as losing a job or having one's spouse pass away) can do something with this material, as it is actually some excellent guidance.  If I were to have added one thing though, I would also recommend journaling, as you can release so much and also sort out a lot of issues by doing that as well.

Although it could be argued that the "self-help" aspect of this book makes it one among many that one can buy for a dime a dozen at any Goodwill store, it is also a very practical and Christian-based program for those going through similar situations, and thus it can be a valuable resource.  It also may prove valuable to Christian counselors and "life coaches" as well, not to mention it can be a handy resource for the clergy.  Personal experience is sometimes a master teacher, and the ladies who authored this book exemplify it well.