Friday, November 21, 2014

Empty Nest Trifecta

     When I was single in my 20s, I dreaded the holiday trifecta: Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve.  The ordeal began on Thanksgiving, when my parents cross-examined me about my social life.  If I was dating anyone, they wanted to know if “the relationship was going anywhere.” If I didn’t have a boyfriend, they asked when, (where and how!) I hoped to find one. I was always thankful when Thanksgiving was over. Phew!

     Next in the holiday line up came Christmas. Honestly, I never felt all that merry, in spite of television ads that INCESSANTLY insisted that everyone must (merrily) join the frenzy of buying family gifts.  (Maybe I don’t get it because I’m Jewish?) Or call me Scrooge, but it STILL drives me crazy to be forced to listen to “White Christmas” and other holiday favorites over and over, on an infinite repeat loop, every time I enter a store.  (Last year it was inescapable on Madison Ave because someone had fiendishly arranged for piping Christmas carols onto the sidewalks OUTSIDE the stores.)  Going back to my single days, Christmas was a weird holiday for those of us too young to be children, but not yet parents. The wrong age and the wrong religion made Christmas a lonely holiday. If Christmas was bad, New Year’s Eve could be even worse. What if I didn’t have a boyfriend? What if I got stood up? One year my New Year’s Eve date never showed up because he was hit by a taxi.  I was left in lonely limbo and simmering with rage until after midnight when he finally called from the hospital to explain. Although I felt sorry for him, I’d already decided he wasn’t “the one” because only a week earlier he’d gotten drunk at his office Christmas party and really HAD stood me up.

     Once I got married and had a family of my own, I thought the holidays would finally be wonderful (or at least not dreadful.)  And –for the most part—the holidays did improve, passing in a happy-but-hectic way for many years. Once Henry and I were together, I didn’t have to worry about loneliness (or my parents making me feel like a failure for being single).  Then, after my twins were born—the day after Christmas—I felt a much more joyful about December.  I thought Max and Sarah would be my special holiday gifts forever. Or would they? For many years, our family lit the menorah, celebrated Hanukah together, and Howard and I enjoyed watching our kids open gifts. Often we went on winter vacation and watched our twins blow out their birthday candles on a tropical island. On New Year’s Eve, our family went to a hotel party; we watched midnight fireworks in the Cayman Islands, Barbados or Jamaica (if one or all of us didn’t fall asleep first).
     Even after Max and Sarah left for college, they still came home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.  Instead of dreading “the holiday trifecta,” I actually looked forward to refilling my empty nest. On Thanksgiving, my family ate turkey dinner together; for Christmas we favored Chinese food, (It’s a bona fide tradition!) and on New Year’s Eve, we ate steak.  On December 26th, we celebrated our twins’ birthday together as a family throughout their college years.  Of course Max and Sarah usually left Henry and me right after dinner to join friends or go to a party.  I was delighted that my kids had people to meet and places to go, especially Sarah, on the autistic spectrum, who’d been friendless for most of her childhood.  Seeing my twins over the holidays, catching up on their lives, and observing their maturation (or lack thereof), usually gave Henry and me plenty of smiles.  

     Now that both twins have graduated college, I can no longer count on holidays to be happy reunions or family celebrations. Last year Sarah decided to celebrate her 23rd birthday alone with her boyfriend, while Max unexpectedly joined a friend in Idaho to work on a television script. For the first time in my twins’ lives, Henry and I spent their birthday without them!  It was comforting to know THEY were both happy, but I still couldn’t help feeling sad.  Was their 23rd birthday the first of many family occasions we would celebrate apart or just a one-time disappointment?  Somehow I couldn’t help feeling my nest was on the slippery slope toward becoming fully empty all year round.

     It turns out I was right to worry. This year Thanksgiving—the non-religious, non-romantic, slam-dunk of family holidays—became a double question mark.  Would Max and Sarah prefer to spend Thanksgiving with their respective girlfriend’s and boyfriend’s families instead of with us?  Now that Max has fully moved out, and Sarah is busy every day and also spends half the week at her boyfriend’s house, it suddenly seemed important (at least to Momma bird) that we all come together for Thanksgiving dinner with my 87 year old mother. Unlike my parents, I don’t interrogate my kids about their respective romantic relationships.  (Usually, I learn more when I don’t ask). Anyway, in my family no news is usually the best news….
     This year, both kids are joining us for Thanksgiving. However, I’m not at all sure they would have participated if I hadn’t impressed upon them how important it is for us to be together now (at least for me).  Like many new empty nesters, Henry and I are living in an amorphous and peculiar transitional period.  Our twins are old enough to be in year-long, serious relationships, but also young enough not to be engaged or married. That means there are three separate families who each want their offspring home for Thanksgiving. All of us are willing to invite our kids’ significant others, but nobody is quite ready to include a second or (in our case) third extended family in their Thanksgiving dinner plans. (That’s an awful lot of turkey being shared by too many unrelated strangers who may, or may not, become family).

     As this year’s trifecta gets under way, I’m thinking it’s probably best to take future holidays (including birthdays) one year at a time.  Last Wednesday my daughter performed in her teacher’s Sondheim recital, and the title of her song struck me as what’s most important for now:  “No One is Alone.”

 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Nest Lift

     Despite being 50-something, I’ve allowed time and gravity to take their toll on my face.  No eyelid surgery, no neck lift, no jawline lift, no Botox, no fillers, no nips or tucks of any kind for me—so far.  Instead, I’m giving our home a nest lift.  As many of my readers know, Henry and I are converting our son’s room into a den, including a new rug, a convertible sofa bed, and a flat screen TV.  I didn’t want to look at a sad and cluttered shrine to Max and his dog, complete with assorted carpet stains left by both of them. (Sparky, Max’s Norwich terrier, died earlier this year. See “For Sparky with Love,” 1/31/14). No, instead of wallowing in nostalgia for the past, I prefer to celebrate the next chapter of my life with Henry. Improving our home is a fun project we can share: re-feathering the empty nest.

     In addition to creating a den in Max’s old room, we decided to make some other long overdue improvements, such as purchasing a new dining table and chairs.  (Our current dining room set is falling apart after almost 25 years of hard service.)   After starting the re-feathering project, Henry and I stumbled upon new living room chairs that we both decided we had to have. Of course when all the elegant and colorful furniture finally arrives, we’ll need some new lighting.  Every lighting fixture in our apartment is a quarter century old; most of them have been repaired more than once. Uh-oh, the bills are starting to add up to the cost of a good plastic surgeon. . . but isn’t redecorating so much more FUN than a face lift? Besides, it’s a better investment. Unlike a face lift, our furniture will probably look sleek and lovely a lot longer than my post-menopausal skin. If “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” I’d rather be the one beholding, and enjoy the beauty around me instead of trying to live up to some impossible ideal of youth in an effort to please others.

     Not that nest refurbishing is all beauty and fun. No, the first and most necessary step in nest rehab is a paint job. UGH!!  To make the experience more palatable (and less inconvenient), we skip painting our bedroom and our daughter Sarah’s bedroom, allowing us to move art, furniture and assorted odds and ends from the rooms being painted to the “undisturbed” rooms. This decision spared me from hours of bubble wrapping our-beautiful-but-seemingly-endless-collection of family photos and packing them in cardboard boxes.  Also, we have a sanctuary from paint fumes and dust (at least while we sleep and shower). The worst part about the paint job is being exiled from my desk. How can I write my blog on my computer and handle the details of our family’s daily life?  It’s only temporary, I tell myself.  Three days of paint-spattered guys with pony tails invading my space is not the end of the world, right?   Refurbishing is kind of like diet and exercise—no pain, no gain.

     Of course, once the painting begins, there’s no turning back. My furniture is piled—some of it upside down—in the center of my living room. My walls are naked, stripped of art and photos.  Worst of all, my desk and bookcase are swathed in plastic.  Ditto the kitchen. Clearly, we are well past the point of no return. Everything has been shuffled around the nest, stowed in our storage bin, donated to the Salvation Army or thrown away.  I’m afraid I may never find half the stuff I tucked here and there. Damn, this paint job is turning into hide and seek. 

     “Where are you, phone charger?” I beseech the empty nest to cough up its treasures.

     No answer.

      I decide to leave before choking on paint dust or tripping over a drop cloth.

     A friend has offered me sanctuary for a few hours this afternoon, including the use of a laptop so I can finish my blog. (Thankfully, she also has a compatible phone charger, so I will not be left incommunicado). Is this a mini-taste of how Napoleon felt when he was exiled to Elba?  (One of the painters actually admitted that HE would prefer ME to leave!) Of course I don’t take it personally, (even if it is MY home).  I don’t want to get in their way (even if they‘re getting in mine).  Now that I’m closed out of most of my apartment, I wonder if this is how our beloved Sparky felt when we ate dinner and locked him in a bedroom, so he wouldn’t pester us for scraps.  Speaking of dinners, the good news is that Henry and I will have to eat at a restaurant at least one extra night this week. After hours organizing and moving paintings, furniture, and 23 years of this-and-that, I’m delighted that somebody else will serve me dinner and handle the clean-up afterwards.

     By the time I post this blog, hopefully the worst of the paint job will be behind me and some—if not all—of my worldly possessions will be retrieved and returned to their original locations. (OK, I can always hope, can’t I?) Honestly, I’m SO looking forward to enjoying the clean, fresh “skin” on my apartment walls.  Already, I’m in LOVE with my “key lime green” bathroom.  The painter confessed that he “hated the color” when he opened the can, but “loves it now that he sees it on the walls.” (My walls!)  “It really DOES brighten things up,” he acknowledged.

     What the painter doesn’t know is that I wanted to keep the bathroom green because it’s Sarah’s favorite color, and I know she will love the cheerful shade.  When the paint dries, I’ll explain that key lime pie is a delicious dessert. That will definitely make my daughter smile, which will then make me smile…. 

     “Thank you.” I grin at the painter, showing him all my teeth.  He’ll be gone soon, hopefully tomorrow or the next day. And then it’s time to shop for new towels. Lavender, maybe?  Or perhaps melon?  Color is an anti-depressant and key to my strategy in empty nest lifting.  Will I enjoy the results as much I had hoped? Stay tuned . . .

  
 
 
 
 


  

Friday, November 7, 2014

Election Dejection

     Growing up in the ‘60s, I believed being born American was like winning the world lottery.  Our country was the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth! (Wasn’t it?) Other nations—particularly democratic ones—respected and envied our freedom, our prosperity, and our way of life.   I remember when the rags-to-riches “American Dream” was something many of us were taught to take for granted (especially white males).  If you were born in my generation, you probably know many people who started out in modest circumstances, graduated from colleges, and became more successful than their own parents.  And how many of you baby boomers remember the days when playground arguments were punctuated with the proud all-American declaration: “It’s a free country?” 

     Sadly, the USA is no longer regarded as number one among industrialized nations—at least not in areas where we can take pride.  Yes, we are 1st in the number of billionaires, but we are last in the gap between rich and poor.  We spend more than any other country on health, yet we are 16th in maternal mortality rates, 27th in infant mortality rates, and last in relative child poverty, according to the Research Library for “How America Ranks Among Industrialized Countries.”  Upward mobility can no longer be taken for granted as a birthright for all Americans. We are not a meritocracy, and even those who are well-educated and work hard may not reap the rewards we were promised growing up as children in the booming economy of the 1960s.  Just look at the depressing unemployment (and under-employment) rates of American millennials since the turn of the century. And how “free” is our country when minorities continue to be disproportionately arrested, when Roe vs. Wade is under perpetual attack, and women still earn less money than men for the same work (77 cents vs. $1.00)? Not surprisingly, the phrase “It’s a free country,” is one that I NEVER hear uttered by children or adults anymore.

     Statistics about where America ranks among industrialized countries are as depressing as they are surprising. Among 74 nations, Wikipedia ranks the US in education as 31st in math, 23rd in science and 17th in reading.  If our children are the future, what do these statistics predict for our once great nation?  In Wikipedia’s “Where to be Born Index,” America is number 17 for life expectancy, material well-being, job security, political freedoms and gender equality!  It’s time to move to Switzerland (#1) or Australia (#2).   In spite of long dark winters, lots of rain and freezing temperatures, all Scandinavian countries are currently rated better places to be born than here in the US of A.
     The good news (relatively speaking) is that we have only fallen to 3rd place in “global competitiveness,” after Sweden and Singapore, according to Wikipedia.  The bad news?  We are 23rd out of 74 nations in infrastructure. Even worse, Mark Rice’s “Ranking America” blog has reported that America is 17th in the world for our level of confidence in Obama (tied with Uganda)!  No wonder so few people bother to go the polls these days—especially for the ho-hum midterm elections. Apparently, political cynicism is as much of an epidemic in America today as Ebola is in Liberia.  After years of political gridlock in Washington, the GOP finally achieved a majority in the senate. Now, instead of nothing happening or a government shutdown, the Republican controlled senate can pass legislation and probably overcome an Obama veto. Is anyone out there excited? (I’m not). It’s possible that the newly elected governors and senators will actually show up for work and fulfill their responsibility to the citizens who elected them.  (Some people still believe in the tooth fairy too).  Yes, finally, we might see some much-needed changes. But will those changes improve the lives of all of us, or just some of us?  Hint: if you’re in the middle class, don’t hold your breath.

     Statistics and numbers don’t lie.  Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for our government officials, especially AFTER they have been elected.


               

Friday, October 31, 2014

Empty Nest Halloween

     Just because your kids leave for college doesn’t mean you have to stop celebrating Halloween. You can still put a pumpkin outside and decorate your door with cottony spider-webs or a cardboard skeleton.  Greeting trick-or-treaters can still be fun long after your own children have outgrown dressing up to collect candy.  When my twins were young enough for Henry and me to accompany them door to door in our apartment building, I always enjoyed seeing other adorable kids in costume and the delight on their faces as they grabbed as much candy as their parents would allow. For me, it was always interesting to see my neighbor’s kids grow and change. What costume would they choose this year? Was it home-made or store bought?  Cute or silly, scary or sexy, I wondered how each child (or parent) selected a costume.

      Of course, welcoming trick-or-treaters means buying those big, Halloween-sized bags of candy and paying a higher grocery bill.  Hmm…I wonder how much I’ll need this year.  What should I buy: Tootsie Pops, Milky Ways, Snickers, M & Ms or Skittles?  I find myself choosing my twins’ favorites—Milky Ways for Max and Skittles for Sarah.  At the last minute, I throw Tootsie Pops (one of my own childhood favorites) into my shopping cart.  Was I buying too much?  Now that my children are no longer at home to happily gobble leftovers, maybe I was going overboard.  Like many other calorie-counting moms who LOVE chocolate, I didn’t want a bowl full of sweets left over for ME to consume during November.  It’s bad enough (and fun enough) that I’ll probably nibble one of those Milky Ways on Halloween night. (Don’t we all?)  But after that, no post-menopausal woman in her right mind wants to be tempted to snack on candy, especially if she wants to fit into her skinny jeans.  According to my arthritic knee, I already take more than enough dance classes at Equinox.

     Speaking of dance classes, our lovable instructor Matthew Johnson incorporated Halloween into the music and choreography of his class this past week.  Much to the delight of his students, (many of us empty nesters), we danced to the Adams Family Theme and songs from the Rocky Horror Show, including: “Toucha Toucha Touch Me,” “Monster Mash” and “Time Warp.”  As a baby boomer, listening to the music from that cult movie brought back happy memories of dressing up in black make-up and getting wasted in the movie theatre during my college years.  Dancing “the monster mash” as a 50-something the week before Halloween has been almost as much fun as the old Rocky Horror days.  Best of all was Matthew’s Halloween class finale.  As “Thriller” played, our dance teacher slipped on a pair of dark sunglasses and a silver sequined glove— transforming himself into a convincing Michael Jackson, moonwalk and all!  So much FUN.

     Halloween brings back so many memories.  As a seven year old, I remember dressing up as Morticia Addams from the Addams Family (easy to do with my naturally, ghost-white skin and dark hair). (Maybe you were Uncle Fester or Gomez)?  When I got a little older, my parents dressed me as a flamenco dancer in a red and white polka dotted outfit, holding a fan, with my hair piled into a bun. (My mom still has that black and white Halloween picture in her long-empty nest).  I also remember creating what I believed would be the winning Halloween costume for a contest in my elementary school.  After hours of meticulously cutting, pasting and stapling construction paper and tinfoil onto oak tag, I became an Ever Ready battery. The logo with the nine came out perfectly! Unfortunately, I didn’t win the contest and don’t remember who did, but I was very proud of myself for that costume. 
     If you’re a recent empty nester and Halloween makes you sad, just forget about it.   Lock the door and go out for a sushi dinner with your spouse or partner. If you’re a pet lover, another alternative is to dress up with your pooch in matching outfits.  A middle-aged woman I know is planning to dress her Maltese in a “bad girl” costume to match her own.  But beware, cat owners! No self-respecting feline will submit to a Halloween costume without biting and trying to scratch your eyes out before you can say “meow.”  I tried to slip a costume on Pumpkin once, (my childhood calico kitty), and ended up with a bloody arm.

     Living without pets and children on Halloween isn’t so bad. It’s true that the days of cute costumes –and snapping adorable pictures of my children wearing them—are over.  But so too are the heated arguments with my twins over how much candy can be eaten in a single evening. No more waiting for our slow, overcrowded elevators on Halloween night, or sweating on stairways because we’re in too big a hurry.  If you don’t believe me, just check out my essay, “Halloween Hell,” published this week on-line at Halloween Hell | Wild Violet online literary magazine and you’ll see why being an empty nester on this holiday can be a pleasure. Although I will always miss Sparky (our Norwich Terrier who died earlier this year), I have fond memories of helping Max dress him as Wonder Dog one Halloween.  This year I will enjoy the steady parade of children and parents ringing my doorbell without worrying that Sparky might nose his way into a closet or cabinet to devour toxic amounts of chocolate and end up at an Animal Hospital (which happened twice).  I’m curious to see how many boys in my building are dressed as Ninjas and how many girls chose to be Elsa from “Frozen.”  According to Ricky’s on East 75th Street near me, these were the best-selling Halloween costumes in 2014.   (No, the Hazmat suits were not big hits, despite the arrival of Ebola in the Big Apple.)  Tonight I’m hoping to empty my candy container in less than two hours.  If I’m too tired to answer the door after that, I’ll just abandon the bowl outside, knowing that the contents will magically disappear by morning.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Newsworthy Nest



     How did one mommy blogger get plucked from the many to go on TV and talk about empty nests?  I got lucky when Fox 5 news reporter Jennifer Lahmers googled “empty nest blogs,” and voila! “The Never-Empty Nest” popped up on her screen.  In true 21st century style, Ms. Lahmers reached out to me on Twitter and asked for an interview.  I tweeted back “yes” (media savvy Mom that I am) and gave her my phone number.  It was a Friday morning, and in a matter of minutes I agreed to a Monday interview at my apartment.  It was as simple (and delightfully random) as that.

     But wait a minute—was this really happening to me?

     In my pre-mommy days, I’d worked in public relations.  Many moons before the Internet--I’m sure you remember that bygone era even if your kids don’t—I wrote press releases, arranged meetings, prepared media kits and followed up with phone calls.  I labored to get the attention of the press for my clients. Doggedly persistent (without becoming a stalker) I had to convince reporters and editors to shine their spotlights on my clients.  After weeks (or months) of effort (always practicing to perfect my pitch), I’d eventually succeed in securing a “media placement.”  I imagine PR firms today continue many of these labor-intensive activities— albeit with the help and speed of the Internet, Skype, Twitter, etc.

     Or maybe I’m wrong about what PR firms are doing these days. Come to think of it, I have NO IDEA how the media decides who and what will make the best story.   For 18 years I was a stay-at-home mom raising an unusual set of twins.  Even after they left for college, I was still busier than expected, helping them manage their complicated lives (especially Sarah, who’s on the autistic spectrum).  When I realized that my kids were still unexpectedly present in my life (even while physically far from home) I decided to blog about my “Never-Empty Nest.” 
     Of course, I had to overcome technological challenges and my lack of 21st century media know-how.  Five years ago, if someone had asked me: “What’s a blog?” I’d have stumbled over my answer. I remember thinking “blog” sounded uncomplimentary, a derisive term used to describe the work of people who dumped their ideas and words onto the internet without much skill or editing.  (Okay, so I wasn’t entirely wrong).  After all, “blog” rhymes with “bog,” “fog” and “slog,” so how could the  prose be any good?  My husband, Henry, who is old school, prefers to call my blog, a “weekly column.”  (Thank you, Henry).

     When I started “The Never-Empty Nest” 1 ½ years ago, I hired a “social media advisor.” Midway through 77 blogs, I decided to add pictures.  First I learned to use the camera on my iPhone. (Yes, I’m pretty late in that game). Next I mastered sending the pictures from my cell to my email, and then tackled  uploading  my photos  so they  didn’t appear sideways or upside down.  In addition to posting links to my blog entries on Facebook, LinkedIn and 8 LinkedIn sub-groups, I also compiled an email list.  But even that wasn’t enough social media.  Everyone told me Twitter was a MUST.  Try to tweet every day, I was advised.   
     Until last week, I wasn’t a big Twitter fan, I must confess. Who has the time and energy to compress their thoughts into a 120 character tweet? (I know, I know, many people LOVE basking in this semi-anonymous attention.) Also I’m also supposed to “follow” (Does that mean read?) other people’s tweets and hope that some of them follow me.  The goal is to acquire thousands of followers, (I have 50) with the hopes of building a “social media platform”—supposedly de rigueur in preparation for publishing my book, Picture Perfect Family, in 2015. Dutifully, I went through the motions of setting up my Twitter account (yawn), but I never understood how it could help me until last week when I got the notification from Jennifer Lahmers at Fox 5 News.  

     Now, I haven’t been on television since I was a toddler on Romper Room, and that was eons ago. Back then I couldn’t bear to watch myself on the small screen, and as soon as I appeared on my family’s black and white Zenith, I ran out of the room.

     For my second ever TV appearance, I wanted to look good enough not to flee from the screen when the show aired. “Are you getting your hair and make-up done?” My friends wanted to know. But I  had no time for movie star prep.  I just managed to shower and change (after my dance class at the Equinox) in time to meet Jennifer Lahmers and her cameraman.  Viewers of Fox 5 News with Ernie Anastos would have to see me with gray roots and self-applied make-up.  Of course, I felt even older and dowdier when the lovely Ms. Lahmers, (perfectly groomed and without a hint of gray in her lustrous, dark locks) entered my apartment.

     While looping the mike under my shirt and clipping it to my waist, I admitted to being horribly nervous.


  “Don’t worry,” the cameraman assured me.  “I make everyone look good.”

     The 45 minute interview flew by. I  spoke about becoming an instant empty nester when  both twins  left for college and tried to offer some upbeat advice to parents who are recent—or soon to be—empty nesters.  I also gave a short guided tour through the remnants of Max’s bedroom: family photos, sports trophies, the father/son soldier collection, and a forlorn and battered suitcase.  I explained that my son’s recently vacated room was transitioning into a den.

     Had I talked too much? I wondered when the interview was over. Had I yammered on about stuff I was going to regret later?

     “Not at all.”  Ms. Lahmers smiled warmly.  “You did just fine. It will all be edited down to a few minutes and should be on at the very beginning of the 6 PM show on Friday, unless there’s breaking news.”

     We were about to shake hands goodbye, but somehow we ended up in a hug.  Ms. Lahmers was every bit as friendly and kind as she was beautiful.  Dazed and floating, I returned to lunch in my dining room and ordinary life.  Could this interview be the beginning of my 15 minutes of fame as promised by Andy Warhol?  If you missed my interview live, you can still check it out at http://www.myfoxny.com/clip/10714492/the-empty-nest. Is it too much to hope that the Huffington Post will notice me and pick up my blog as a “weekly column?”  Fingers crossed. Who says lightning can’t strike twice?

  

 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Empty Nest Newbies

      Saying goodbye to your kids when they leave the family nest for college is a deeply emotional experience for most parents.  If your son or daughter is a freshman this year, you’re probably still trying to adjust to your new life as an empty nester.  All of your guidance (aka worrying, nagging) and encouragement throughout the gauntlet of college applications has made the dream come true. No more SAT prep. No more agonizing over whether it’s better to take AP courses or go for the higher GPA in regular courses.  Gone is the pressure to find the perfect assortment of extra-curricular activities, summer internships and community service in order to write an outstanding college essay. What a relief, THAT’s over and yet, how can you NOT miss the baby you’ve loved and nurtured for 18 years? The adorable toddler you dropped off at nursery school has emerged from adolescence (hopefully) and is on his/her way to adulthood.

     Many newbie empty nesters might be wondering whether their son or daughter is happy at college. Is he making new friends?  Is she getting along with her new room-mate?  How are his classes? Is she studying enough? Partying too much? Maybe you’re sad because your son doesn’t call unless he’s in trouble or needs money.  Or worse, maybe your child is calling home too often, lonely, anxious or unhappy.  Going away to college is a BIG transition as well as a milestone for the whole family. It’s natural to grieve, but how can parents move on?

     There are many ways to adjust to an empty nest if you focus on the freedom and opportunities a child’s departure provides.  If you’re a single parent, maybe it’s time to start dating.  A stay-at-home parent can go back to an old career or start a new one.  Married parents can enjoy greater intimacy as a couple (or separate if they’ve stayed together just for the sake of the kids).  Weekends no longer revolve around children’s activities.  Parents are free to go to museums, plays, movies or a walk in the park on the spur of the moment.  And instead of policing homework, TV time, and video games during the week nights, Mom and Dad can go out for a romantic evening or meet friends on a Wednesday—now that it’s no longer a “school night.”
      Although my twins Max and Sarah left for college five years ago (and have since graduated), I remember what it felt like to be a newbie empty nester as if it happened five minutes ago. With both twins leaving for their respective colleges only a day apart, I experienced instant empty nest.  The first night Henry and I sat down to dinner with only half a family, our dining area felt like a mausoleum.    

      Deadly quiet, isn’t it?” Henry remarked sadly.

      “Yes,” I sighed, “but somehow we’ll have to get used to it.”
      “I guess that means we’ll have to talk to each other.”  He smiled.

        And I smiled back.

      Actually, we made the transition pretty quickly.  That first year as empty nesters my husband and I went to more rock concerts than any other time in our marriage.  We saw the Rolling Stones, Elton John, Paul McCartney and Rod Stewart.  I started to feel more like a teenage groupie than a middle-aged mom.  We went out for dinner sometimes during the week and went shopping for ourselves on the weekends.
      Henry missed the whirlwind weekends with the kids more than I did as a stay-at-home Mom who saw them 24/7.   He loved coaching Max’s Little League baseball and football games on Saturdays. And he cherished his father/daughter brunches with Sarah when he taught her French and then took her for swimming lessons.  At the same time, he worried about me losing my identity and falling apart.  What would a stay-at-home mother of twins do in my newly empty nest? 

      Plenty, as it turns out.  I went back to writing—my first love.  I decided to write a memoir about raising my unusual twins—a daughter on the autistic spectrum and a son with mild ADHD who needed open-heart surgery at age three.  During my kids’ college years, I wrote (and rewrote) Picture Perfect Family in Monday night workshops with Jacob Miller, attended writers’ conferences and started my blog, The Never-Empty Nest, in 2012. (Check out my interview about Empty Nesters today on Fox 5 News with Ernie Anastos at 6 PM or on myfoxny.com).  Apparently there are lots of fellow empty-nesters writing blogs and memoirs, according to “The Empty-Nest Book Hatchery” in The New York Times 10/12/14 Sunday “Styles Section.” Better jump on board before the trend turns into a cliché.

     In some ways, having kids in college gives parents the best of both worlds.  You still see them during vacations without having the day-to-day responsibilities.  Plus with today’s technology, it’s easy to stay in touch via text, email and Skype.  Most baby boomer parents will remember that during their own college days, communication with Mom and Dad meant using a telephone—maybe even one of those obsolete phone BOOTHS that our kids don’t even remember. If you’re lucky—as Henry and I have been—your kids will invite you up to visit after Freshman Parents’ Weekend.  Max joined Vassar’s rugby team, so Henry, Sparky (our now-deceased Norwich terrier) and I were all able to watch our son’s home games.  It was a lot of fun (except when Max was carried off the field with a twisted ankle).  Even more fun (for me) was watching Max perform in his sketch comedy group, laughing AND feeling proud when the rest of the audience howled at his jokes.
      We didn’t see Sarah as much because Landmark College in Putney, VT was 4 ½ hours away from New York City as compared with the much easier 2 hour drive to Vassar. Still, we went to see her perform in a play and listened to her sing in her choral group.  In between, she sent us long emails and talked to us on the phone more often than Max did.  Little by little, we all got used to new rhythms in the days and months that followed, as all four of us moved forward with our lives.

       And before you know it, your children are graduating!  Some of them will have jobs and move out of the nest for good.  Others (including mine) boomerang back into their childhood rooms while they look for jobs and spend more and more time sleeping at boyfriend’s and girlfriend’s apartments. College is only the beginning of an empty nest, a four year transition.  But don’t worry.  By the time they graduate from college, separation may feel more comfortable for EVERYONE than a return to full-time togetherness. My best advice to empty nest newbies: Enjoy your children’s college years—their freedom and yours—as you watch them spread their wings.

 
 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Empty Nest Dads

     When kids leave home, do fathers feel worse than mothers these days?  That was the question explored by “Sad Dads in the Empty Nest” in Sunday’s New York Times (9/21/14).  According to the article, the empty nest transition for dads has become harder than ever because fathers play a more important role in family life than they once did. No longer the sole breadwinners (as they were in the 1950s), fathers spend more time with their children and thus (perhaps) feel a greater loss at separation.  At the same time, the definitions of masculinity have evolved to allow men to admit to greater feelings of sadness.

     During the 1950’s, 66% of kids under 15 lived in two-parent families with the father providing all the financial support.  In today’s world, that number has dwindled to 22%, according to a study released by the Council on Contemporary Families.  Furthermore, the Pew Research Center reported that the number of stay-at-home fathers almost doubled from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2 million in 2012, and 48% of dads would stay home if they could afford it.  Men’s identities have broadened and deepened to include being caregivers: feeding, bathing and ferrying their kids to playdates and sporting events. If fathers are forming more intimate bonds with their offspring, is it fair to wonder whether an empty nest is harder on fathers than mothers, as Liza Mundy, author of the Times article, suggests?
     Yes and no.  I agree with the author that the empty nest provides mothers greater respite from the exhaustion of child-rearing than fathers.  It’s unnecessary to consult statistics to know that most women who work full-time, still do most of the household chores and have less time for leisure activities.  Essentially, the majority of women work a double shift; they work full-time and yet also prepare more meals, clean the house more often, and still spend as much or more time with their kids than 60’s moms.  No longer simply bereft housewives of the 50’s and 60’s, today’s moms experience freedom as well as sadness when children grow up and move out. Dads, on the other hand, have the same amount of work, but miss the presence of their children, coaching Little League, and other shared hobbies. 

     An empty nest offers women an opportunity to take better care of themselves and a chance to reinvent themselves: start a new career or put more time into current work. But have the sexes really traded places emotionally? I don’t think so. 

     Family arrangements are so varied and complicated today, that it’s impossible to say that one  gender parent feels sadder than the other when children move out of the family nest.  How does the increasing number of single parents (both male and female) feel? What about gay parents? Or the parents of children with special needs?  And shouldn’t we consider the feelings of parents from different parts of the world, with their varied cultures, values, and religious beliefs?  Surely—and sadly—socio-economic status plays a role in how parents feel when their kids become independent.  Wealthier parents who have been assisted by nannies, housekeepers and chauffeurs might well feel differently  from their single, poorer counterparts who work 24/7 as breadwinners and caretakers.  I’m betting there’s a sliding scale of ambivalence—a mixture of sadness, pride, relief and anxiety—about an empty nest that will be affected by all of the above factors and many others.
     What about the maturity level of the children who depart? How do moms and dads feel about where their kids are going to college?  My guess is that parents who believe their kids are solidly competent, responsible and attending an elite school, will feel differently from those of us with children who are still struggling with school work and life skills.  Many so-called professionals had told me that my daughter Sarah, on the autistic spectrum, would never be able to go to college, so when I watched Sarah graduate from Pace last spring, I’m pretty sure I felt greater joy (and relief) than most parents with neurotypical children.  Of course I missed my daughter when she was living at college, and I worried (with good reason) about whether she would succeed academically and socially.  But, in some ways I think Henry felt worse. It had taken him longer to bond with our difficult daughter, so he cherished the time he’d spent alone with her on Sundays, teaching her French at brunch and taking her for swimming lessons afterwards.  I’m the one who’d spent endless hours taking Sarah to doctors and therapists and overseeing her treatment, so I probably felt greater relief when Sarah left us with a big smile.  (Nevertheless, Henry and I both shed tears on the way home, though perhaps for different reasons).  However, Henry’s biggest concern was about me: with both twins leaving the nest at the same time, he  worried, I would lose my mind, or my purpose in life. Would I be bereft when my nest emptied?

   
  Hardly! Max left for college a day before Sarah.  After they were both gone, I began writing and never stopped. But before writing had come the mad scramble to get both kids ready for college, plus the nearly impossible task of getting my son to pack.  Max’s high school girlfriend was crying hysterically as she helped fold his clothing and practically held onto the wheels of our car as we departed.  I cried too.  I’d mistakenly allowed her to stay until the last minute, and ended up feeling deprived of those final moments to say my own special goodbye.  Since Max was going to Vassar—also my alma mater—I felt proud and excited that my son and I would share that college bond. Henry was thrilled with the idea of Max joining the rugby team.  Those at-home games supplied the perfect excuse for frequent college visits because, of course, we’d have to watch him play. For so many years, my husband had loved watching and coaching Max’s little league baseball, football and basketball games.  Vassar’s rugby games allowed Henry and me to hang onto those team sports days a little longer, mitigating our loss.

     By contrast, my neighbors— both working parents— whose only daughter is a junior at a Mid-western college, seem to have adjusted equally well to her departure.  I asked David, the father, how he felt having an empty nest.  Initial answer?  “Phenomenal.”  Quickly, he added: “Of course when we first hugged her goodbye, I missed her terribly.  I knew life would never be the same. But now we don’t have to go to soccer games in two leagues every weekend.  We ‘re free to go to museums, relax…it’s an evolution.”  Beside him, his wife nodded and smiled her agreement.

     Emptying the nest—whether for college or after graduation—also has a big impact on marriages.  Like other significant transitions (retirement and illness),  an empty nest offers couples more time alone together, which can then lead to greater intimacy or divorce.  According to the New York Times, the divorce rate for Americans over 50 has more than doubled since 1990, with many remarrying for the second or third time.  These multiple marriages tend to be fragile because of the extra strain of extended family relationships,
     The question of whether dads grieve more than moms over an empty nest is impossible to answer.  Depends on who you ask, what their relationships are like with each other and their kids, among many other factors. Much has (and probably will be) written on the subject. (See my book review of Emptying the Nest in “Nest Negotiations, 8/15/14).  For over a year, I’ve written 75 posts for The Never-Empty Nest but sometimes I feel like I’m just getting started.