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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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,
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.
Labels: 1950s, autism, breadwinners, caregivers, college grads, empty nest, gender roles, Little League, New York Times, Pace, parenting, rugby, special needs, Stay-Home Fathers, twins, Vassar, working mothers, young adults