My children left home for school a few months ago. My wife and I dropped our son off first, followed by our daughter a week later. We hugged them both, reminded them to stay in touch and told them we loved them. The confusion and sadness that overtook us on that second ride home was palpable and painful until about two minutes after we arrived at the house. We walked in, looked around, high-fived each other and rejoiced in the words, “Empty Nest!” You might view that jubilation as bad parenting or the height of selfishness, but I encourage you to climb back into your helicopter and finish your kid’s homework because we’re Empty Nesters and loving every minute of it!
Days into this new arrangement I realized every conversation I’ve had with an adult since can be described in one of two ways. Either you’re the Sad Comforter or the Giggler. Most are of the first stripe – they feel really bad about your sad, lonely house and assume you’re miserable, offering comments like, “Will you ever stop crying?” and “So how ARE you? No really – how are you DOING with this? Big changes . . .” as they stare off into a future landscape where their ungrateful offspring forget to call home on major birthdays and holy days of obligation. The Gigglers, on the other hand, express interest in your new-found freedoms by adopting the persona of that kid you knew in middle school who was the only one who actually saw Porky’s. “Wow! I can’t even imagine that!” and, “What’s THAT like?” as they snort, chortle or let loose an outright guffaw. “I mean, pretty awesome, right? Har har har!” When they stare off into the distance, I’m pretty sure skipped phone calls on Assumption Thursday are not what they’re thinking about.
It’s true empty nesting comes with a twinge of melancholy. On the first school day of September, as I sipped my coffee in the kitchen, I figured this was the first morning in almost eighteen years I hadn’t packed a lunch or snack of some sort. That sadness dissipated by the time I had my second cup, recalling how each fall I’d start with the best nutritional intentions, packing a balanced mix of grains, dairy, protein, vegetables and sugar-free fluids for my cherubs. By mid-November, it was a different story as I tried to pass off a can of 7UP, a slightly expired strawberry Go-Gurt, five loose Triscuits and the Special Dark candy bars left in the bottom of the Halloween bowl as not only a fun lunch but also a pragmatically creative and spontaneous one as well.
My favorite thing about empty nesting – after the deep, abiding love I feel for my children, the two greatest things in my life etc. etc. – is having the freedom to listen to my own music. Now I choose the radio station in the car, and if I want to play my records, I’ll go right ahead and do it to my tuition check-writing heart’s content. Side A of Rubber Soul and then flip to side 3 of London Calling? Done. Bob Dylan and Joe Jackson back to back? Perfect. Lately, I’ve had The Who’s double album, The Kids are Alright, on heavy rotation. There are few moments more liberating as an empty nester than air guitar with Pete Townsend followed by an explosive air drum solo tribute to Keith Moon in all his white jump-suited hedonistic glory. I wonder if I had children and then sent them away just to better appreciate my vinyl record collection.
A few Sundays ago, we visited a local orchard for cider and donuts, arriving as it opened. Just then a minivan pulled in next to us, and parents emerged with toddlers in tow. The adults didn’t say much but didn’t need to – their faces told their stories. The dad wore a look of, “I’ve been up since 4, read nine picture books, changed three diapers, watched enough Doc McStuffins to scar me permanently, and I’m gonna hire that apple picker over there to babysit while I get some rest.” His wife’s body language told a different story. “Are you seriously talking about lattes versus café au laits and how long your bike ride will be later today? Take me with you. Please, I beg you.” We chose lattes, and our bike ride lasted over two hours, if you must know. And we didn’t invite her to join us.
Keep in mind this Empty Nest thing isn’t all sleep-ins, espresso drinks and rock and roll. If only there were an adage I could find in needlepoint, suitable for framing with the words, “Empty Nest, Full Pockets.” Alas, no such maxim exists because the opposite is true. Maybe I could instead coin the phrase, “Empty Nest, Full Glass!” but I’m sure there’d be objections.