A woman, younger than me, has no children. So she asks: “What is empty nest syndrome?” The subtext is “why” because we all know the “what.”
I gave it a bit of thought. After all, my nest is empty except for two terriers and an adorable husband.
The empty nest is one in which the children have grown up and moved out. They have independent lives. These newly made adults have left the family nest and assumed the mantle of adult responsibility. Isn’t that what we wanted all along?
My mother’s life did not revolve around me, though I kept her pretty busy for a long time. She was a dutiful mother insofar as she did the right stuff. She fed us, though this was her least shining achievement. She clothed us … and to this day I wish I’d better appreciated the amazing clothing she made for me. I was just too young, awkward, and afraid someone might notice I was dressed “differently” from the others to see that this clothing was the finest I’d ever own. All other garments would subsequently pale in comparison.
She talked to me about adult things in an adult way. She gave me books, lots of books. Not the books my friends and schoolmates read, but grown-up stuff. Sometimes, I had to ask her what it meant because if anything, she overestimated my understanding of the larger world. When I was ready to go, she was proud of me for taking the leap.
It freed her to paint and sculpt and travel. To read, go to the theater, spend time with her sisters. Not cook and clean all the time. Make her own clothing instead of mine. She was glad my brother and I were independent and built lives of our own.
Nor did I. Of course, mine kept coming back alone and then with the entire family so I could only yearn for an emptier nest. Having finally achieved it, do I miss the patter of little feet? The thunder of big ones?
Should I? Is there something wrong with enjoying the company of ones adult children more than little kids? I love having real conversations with grownups who look eerily like me. Even if we disagree, I’m delighted they have opinions. That they are part of a bigger world and standing on their own feet.
Maybe the difference is that so many women seem to prefers babies and little kids to adults. They don’t want the kids to become independent. They need to be needed. They need to nurture.
Children need nurturing, but they don’t need it all the time or forever. They shouldn’t, anyhow. After a certain point in time, their drive for separateness should overtake their nurturing needs. The drive to be independent should become primary. I have always thought it’s our obligation as parents to help them achieve that. We won’t be here forever. They will need to walk on without us.
An empty nest is one in which you don’t need to do a load of laundry a day. A house in which the sink isn’t always full and you can park your car where you want it. A home where family dinners are a happy event when everyone is glad to see each other and has stuff to share.
Those extra rooms revert to your use, even if you use them as closets for all that stuff you seem to have collected. If you have a life of your own, interests of your own, there’s no such thing as an empty nest. It’s just the time when your kids grow up and all the work you did to raise them right pays off — for them and you.
Adult children are great. If you need to nurture, get pets. Adopt dogs and cats and ferrets and parrots. They will always need you.
If you did it right, your kids will always love you … but not always need you.