It was at a college night meeting of high school parents when I realized that how I felt about having an Empty Nest was not the majority view.
September of our son’s senior year in his small high school, the college counseling office held a meeting for parents. Noting that for some of us, it would be our last kid off to college, the counselor asked us how we felt about becoming empty nesters the next fall.
I was the first to respond; not a good idea in retrospect.
“Frankly I can’t wait, I’m looking forward to having time alone with my husband again.”
The other parents looked at me aghast, you would have thought I had just vividly detailed the various new sexual positions we planned to try on the first night after our son left for college. A ripple of dismay filled the room.
One by one each of the other Moms chimed in, “Really? I don’t feel that way at all. Oh, I will miss my daughters so much.” and “I am just dreading having an Empty Nest.” and “It will be so awful not having them come home from school every day.”
And the Dads spoke up, too. “Who will I watch baseball with? I’m really going to miss my son.” and “Our family has lots of fun together on weekends. I don’t want that to change.”
I slunk a bit lower in my seat. My husband, embarrassed by my typical over-sharing, patted my hand feebly.
It has been almost a decade since that college night meeting and you would think that by now I would have gotten less defensive about my stance on the Empty Nest – but I haven’t.
This fall there’s been the usual flurry of articles offering advice on how to adjust to life in the Empty Nest. Wisdom for parents whose kids were now off to college, you will miss them like crazy, you will be sad that they don’t need you as much, your role as a Mom or Dad has changed. You and your spouse may sit in silence at night wondering what to say to each other. The articles encourage you to develop new hobbies, new interests, take up running, learn to knit, join a book club, anything to take your mind off of the dreadfully quiet house, the empty rooms, the loss of your children.
Ummm, that wasn’t my experience.
After 18 years of 24/7 parenting, I was more than ready to for some well-deserved (IMHO) time off. And I wanted to get back to the reason I married my husband in the first place. Because I loved him, he’s smart, funny and clever; I wanted to spend more time with him. Just with him. How we used to be, before kids, if I could recall what that felt like.
I love my kids very much, just as you love yours (there goes the defensiveness again!). I loved being a Mom, all of it, from that early exhaustion of toddlers and nap time, to school days, lunch packing, spelling tests, to high school with homework stress, talking about drinking and sex, and wondering if they were listening, and worrying over college applications.
But children do fill up all of your mind space, so much so that there is little room leftover for whatever interesting conversations you may have once had with your spouse on a non-child-related subject. Who will take David to Tae Kwan Do? Do you have time this Saturday to get Dana new sneakers? Don’t forget that next Wednesday, or maybe it is Thursday, let me check, is Back to School night? I forgot to send in the permission slip for that field trip, aaargh. Did you bring home the posterboard for the science project? And David could use another hair cut…
At least that is how it was with us. My husband was a very involved Dad. He didn’t miss a school play, coached soccer and basketball and helped with algebra. (the latter most important since my math knowledge stopped at fractions.) We spent lots of time together as a family, going on outings to museums, concerts and fairs. My husband and son went camping, my daughter and I bonded at Nordstroms. While my husband and I did spend as much time as we could as a couple, we would often find that we spent our precious hours out of the house talking about, you guessed it, the kids. One night at dinner we tried to see how long we could go in a conversation without one of us mentioning one of our kids or something kid-related. I don’t recall who won that contest. But it was over in less than three minutes.
Back to senior year in high school when I looked forward to finding out if my husband and I could be alone as a couple again. Sure, I was worried that we wouldn’t manage so well. We didn’t have, and still don’t have, a marriage that to the outside world appears harmonious. At our wedding reception 36 years ago, many of the guests, I was later told, took bets on how long our marriage would last. Lots of yin and yang in our relationship. We squabble, we bicker, we disagree.
Once our teen daughter spent a weekend with a friend at their family’s vacation house. I asked her when she returned how the weekend went – “Oh, Mom”, she said, “It was fine, Jessica’s parents fight just as much as you and Dad do.”
So it was with both anticipation and trepidation that I approached the Empty Nest. Of course, I missed the kids after they left for college. I was always happy to hear from them, worried when they got sick, thrilled when they visited, even content doing their mountains of laundry and dealing with the messy rooms they inevitably left behind. But I knew that they would be fine. We had prepared them as well as we could. They were off to lead their lives, as it should be.
The Empty Nest meant that we were given a chance to lead our own lives again – as husband and wife. Yes, we’d be parents forever, but just being a couple, no guarantee. I’d seen plenty of my friends’ marriages struggle once the kids, the glue between Mom and Dad, were no longer in the house.
Thankfully our marriage thrived. It didn’t take us long to adjust to the Empty Nest. At first it felt like we were playing hookey from school. We both worked downtown, and after work one night, it occurred to us that we didn’t have to rush home. We could go out to dinner. Downtown. On a weeknight. Imagine that. Without checking in with anyone. Just us. So we went to a restaurant that neither of our kids particularly liked. And we talked about subjects that they didn’t particularly care about. And we didn’t discuss either of them, at least not for the first 10 minutes. The Empty Nest, it turned out, was as I had thought it would be at that college night meeting, well worth waiting for. And hardly empty either. The two of us have filled it up just fine.