Friday, April 25, 2014

Reflections on the Empty Nest

As M. and I near the end of the first year of being empty nesters, I thought this might be a good time to take stock of what it has been like.

We were premature empty nesters. Our daughter, H., is two years younger than her brother J., but in the 8th grade she became interested in attending boarding school and ended up being selected for a full scholarship at an academically rigorous school in Rhode Island. Letting her go away so young was tough, but she was ready for the challenge and we knew that this opportunity was a very special one for her. She is about to finish her junior year there and has been thriving. J., on the other hand, stayed here in Austin to finish high school, and last August headed to Lancaster, PA for his freshman year. So in September, when H. left for school, everyone wanted to know one thing:

"What do you think about having an empty nest?"

For a month or so, my answer was, "It's quiet." The entire house seemed much more still without the kids around. I noticed this at dinner time especially. With three or four people, there was always something for someone to say. I would ask the kids how school had gone, or check in with them about some upcoming assignment or event. We would coordinate schedules and figure out logistics. Sometimes we talked about grades or tests, other times about the kids in their class or their teachers. We weren't always chatty, but someone usually had something to say.

But with just M. and me, things seemed very quiet, especially at first. I started to worry that we just didn't have much to say to each other any more, but it turned out I just wasn't used to the patterns of silence that arise when both people in a conversation are eating. Before the kids left, the only time we really got to eat alone together was on date nights, and you don't notice silence much in a busy, crowded restaurant. Once I recognized this, I relaxed and realized that not every moment together needs to be filled with conversation.

I've also noticed how much easier it is to keep the house relatively tidy. I'm not the neatest person around, but I have a lower threshold for disarray than others in my family, so I usually end up being the one who picks up the dirty socks from the floor or stacks up the papers scattered across the table so we can sit down to dinner. The sock count is down to almost zero now, and we tend to pile the papers at the kids' ends of the table now so I don't spend nearly so much time straightening up.

I go to the store a lot less often now. On Saturday mornings, I make a meal plan for the week and then do the grocery shopping for it, so on weeknights I don't have to stop on my way home to get ingredients or pick up a rotisserie chicken. And we almost never run out of milk these days. Related to this, M. and I don't eat out as often as we used to. This is partly to save money (college is expensive) and partly just because having a meal plan takes away the excuse that there's nothing for dinner in the house.

I like how much more time I seem to have now.  This comes from having fewer extracurricular responsibilities - I'm not helping at regattas or putting together team dinners. Sometimes I feel at loose ends with so much time, but we've started working out at the Y more regularly as a result, and I've also found I have time to read and to think more than I used to. This blog is evidence of that - in the past, I would think of things I wanted to write, but rarely took the time to put the words into a more coherent form. I'm gardening a little more too - for the first time in years, I actually got all the dead stuff cut back before the spring growth started. It's satisfying.

Having more couple time has allowed me and M. to talk through lots of ideas and scenarios about what we want our future together to look like. I wrote about this a few weeks ago - we are mulling whether we want to stay in this house or move someplace else. This conversation is much easier to have when it is just the two of us. Of course our housing choices impact the children a lot, but ultimately we two must make this decision, and talking through the options is much easier without the kids around.

Some things have really helped in this empty nest transition. I think having pets has been a good thing. When there's not much else to say, we can talk about (or to) the dog and the cat, and having a furry friend around when you're otherwise alone in the house is pleasant. Also, Facetime has been invaluable for keeping in touch. This is one place where technology has completely transformed what it means to be apart from your children. I love being able to see J.'s and H.'s faces when we talk to them on Sunday afternoons - I have a much better sense of how they are doing than I would if we just spoke on the phone. Facebook messaging has also been helpful for communicating in the moment - if I need a quick answer from one of them, this is usually the best way to get it. 

Finally, lots of folks who asked how I liked my empty nest would do so in a sort of nudge-nudge-wink-wink way - so on that topic, I will just say that it's nice having the house to yourselves sometimes. Know what I mean, know what I mean? Say no more!

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