As a parent, and as a woman, it seems the most popular conversation initiated by family, friends, and neighbors is the status of my children. And why not? People are the most valued form of life; hence, our mutual interest. However, altruism aside, these conversations probably occur to avoid fumbling for another topic. Children are the go-to, like sports, for those inclined.
Now that my youngest is in college, I get the question – “How does it feel to be an empty nester?” Pre-pandemic, it was frequent. Lately, not so much because, one, I hardly see anyone, and two, because some of us have lost our empty nest status due to children shuttling in and out of our homes because of job losses, lease decisions, and distance learning.
One morning I’m walking through the neighborhood when I feel a vehicle edging up beside me. Because of the pandemic and the lucky people who can work from home, there’s little traffic at 7:40-ish. My neighbor pulls closer, lowers the window, and begins the chat. The empty nest question is almost immediate. I explain to him that pre-pandemic, yes, I was an empty nester, but now have a boomerang occupant due to a job loss. He then tells me about his daughters. The oldest is away at college, and his youngest is home and in her last year of high school.
Then he proceeds to console me for not having my kids around. (He’s already forgotten about boomerang child being home.) “I guess you need to figure out things to do,” adding, “An empty nest home is kinda like a divorce.” I presume he’s envisioning sad feelings and adjustments.
As I see where this is going (because I’ve been there numerous times), I curtail the impending pity party with my list of reasons why I was okay to be an empty nester and will be again when it happens. And it’s not the cliché response of traveling with my spouse or heading back into honeymoon phase as everyone smiles and suggests (though we did some awesome traveling). It’s selfishly about me. Like right now, I’m writing. I didn’t have to get up before children awakened or wait until children went to school. (By the way, all day flexible time is a myth because the business of running a house, being in the sandwich generation of life, and charitable duties take a good chunk of time, even when you’re not employed.) However, I prepped for this stage. Before the kids were out of the house, I felt the call of focusing on myself. In different years, I joined a book club, took horseback riding lessons, and tennis lessons. I exercised in the mornings on a parking lot with girlfriends. I took a few sessions of art classes at the library. And the biggie – two semesters of Spanish at the local community college, which meant homework!
And I created Postcards & Authors! I learned Instagram, Twitter, and how to set up a Facebook page (which is different from a personal account) – all for Postcards & Authors. So when said children were eventually away in their various pursuits, this empty-nester was on a roll.
The neighbor? I don’t think he believes my contentment. He’s struggling with his upcoming empty nest status, which is normal. Most parents do. However, when I mention some of my hobbies, he asks how I knew to prepare.
Both he and I were late parents. Most of our same-aged friends’ children were deep into elementary school when my kids were born, and his, too. I tell him that I watched my trailblazer friends and knew the possible upcoming emotions and lifestyle changes. But, I didn’t presume I would feel exactly like anyone else in particular, as much as each friend would insist that I would. My instincts told me I’d be fine. I wasn’t worried.
Somewhere in the chat, I go into therapist mode. I mention personality types and emotions, trying to communicate that tradition doesn’t dictate our feelings, but instead, our identities’ natural makeup. In other words, it’s okay to be sad when our children leave home, to be happy, or anything in between. I lean toward feeling good about my entire family pursuing dreams and goals, changing and maturing, and being where they need to be. Plus, we all have cell phones, FaceTime and WhatsApp. Right?!
Tiny gnats begin to bite my sweaty body, so we end the chat. My last statement to him is “When I see you again, I’ll want to know what your new hobbies are.”
Did I convince him that I’m okay? Hmmm… I don’t know.