Like a Piñata, an Empty Nest is Full of Surprises
This fall I joined the in-transition tribe of aging American parents commonly known as empty nesters.
My fraternal twin sons went off in college, a two-hour plane ride away—not exactly the distance of an arctic expedition, but far enough away to ensure that our home will be much quieter, with just my wife and me. And two cats.
Admittedly, I’ve been known to bridle at our culture’s psycho-industrial complex that seems to classify every life change as a phenomenon requiring counseling and coping strategies. There’s a difference between raw tragedy and challenging transitions. Hey, life moves on; get over it.
Still, it would be foolish to deny the impact of such things. The metaphor of a bird’s nest appeals to me, especially if you’ve ever watched a pair of birds raising their brood. The eggs hatch; the parents spend every waking hour feeding their insatiable fledglings for weeks; then they spend a few days teaching them how to fly. And they’re off!
Wait a minute. What the hell just happened here? One minute my sons were born. The next minute—actually, 18 years later—they’re gone.
But for now, the presence of their absence is undeniable. Our kids are no longer under our roof; while we hope they are safe, their lives are mostly out of our control. By the end of their last pre-college summer, our sons had become virtually independent, but it was still a comfort when they came by our bedroom to say goodnight. All along, my wife and I have been pretty clear about the importance of maintaining our coupled rituals and routines, sans sons. And yet, I catch myself in moments of melancholy, missing the daily opportunities to be part of my children’s lives. I’d grown accustomed to their faces.
Not surprisingly, a routine Internet search yields a plethora of advice for nouveau empty nestersᡃand there’s actually some pretty pithy stuff. Here are 7 thoughts that resonated with me:
- Hit the pause button. Many experts point out that empty nesters probably haven’t gotten much rest since their kids were born. Accordingly, the first thing they advise after parents make it through college send-offs is to do nothing at all. Relax. Reward yourself for all the work you put into raising your child. So for the first year after my sons’ departure I’m going to ease my way into whatever our new lifestyle becomes.
- It’s not just about you. If you have other children remaining in the house, it can be hard on them, too. In my case, these “siblings” include—don’t laugh—our cats. Our male cat, Prowler, became especially close to my sons; he was virtually part of their posse, hanging out with them and their friends, sleeping in their beds, lying beside them and annoyingly on top of their computers as they studied. I may not speak “cat,” but I certainly feel his loneliness. (The boys really miss him, too.) It’s taken some adjustment for me, as Prowler now sits annoyingly on my computer and sleeps on top of my bed.
- Keep in touch, but not too much. Most people agree that the best way to keep in contact with your kids is through a regular schedule of communication—in my case, a separate phone call Sunday evenings to each son. That way, we can be close, without being anxious about when we’re going to hear from them. We ask questions, but try to let them lead the conversation, rather than merely respond to parental probing. And texting has been an unexpected gift, enabling us to weave in and out with our children’s lives with informal, quick-hit interactions that might otherwise feel too intrusive.
- Appreciate the little things. While not diminishing the importance of the transition, it doesn’t hurt to acknowledge that there are some practical daily benefits to empty nesthood. For instance, the refrigerator doesn’t need to be stocked as nearly often as it did for two teenage sons. There’s less time spent shopping and cooking. There’s less garbage, less cleaning and way less weekly laundry. And, some cheeky experts suggest another potential benefit: “You can walk around naked again.”
- Take better care… of yourself. I admit that it’s time to focus more attention on exercise and diet. I haven’t been bad; I just can be better. I work out twice a week but should add in a lot more stretching and flexibility exercises. I can also pass up that second glass of wine and curb the temptation to sneak in extra snacks while watching TV. With the kids gone, family “busyness” is no longer a rationale for erratic eating.
- Rediscover the relationships in your life. So my wife and I began thinking about our goals together for the next five, ten, 15 years. What were we planning for? Mainly, the time and space to return to being a couple—and making the most of it. I’d always enjoyed getting massages; now we could have couples massages.We also decided to make a greater commitment to close friends. Like many parents, our social interactions were often shaped by our kids’ school activities and the parents of their friends. Being an empty nester was a relationship-clarifying process: It prompted us to distinguish pleasant acquaintances from those whose friendships we believed would continue to deepen in coming years.
- Re-imagine your future. We all have things that we say we’ll do someday. When you become an empty nester, it becomes much clearer that “someday” should be now. That said, kids leaving home is the surest sign that time is passing, that you need to focus on eliminating things that don’t really matter. Pursue interests you believe will enrich your life—and even if they ultimately don’t, the adventure will be worth it.
While I am venturing into all these endeavors, that does not mean that I intend to leave my children behind. Our house remains their base, for whenever they need or want to return home. The empty nest remains full of our memories.
The other day my wife was putting some clean laundry in one of my drawers when she spotted some blue hospital scrubs. She asked me what they were. I laughed, and told her they were the clothes I had worn in the delivery room when our sons were born on that warm, drizzly October evening years ago. I had forgotten I still had them, and someday, of course, I will toss them out.
But not yet.