When our second son left for college, a friend told us not to think of our newfound freedom as an empty nest, but an open field.
EARLIER this month, I dropped off our younger son in New York City to begin his freshman year at New York University. My older son had already started his junior year at Babson College near Boston. And with that, both our children had fledged and left our Seattle-area home.
Naturally enough, my wife and I have been parrying questions about our “empty nest” — most frequent, some variation of, “How does it feel?” That one is easy to answer: It’s too soon to tell.
However, we have been surprised that our initial reaction is not predominantly sadness or abandonment, as is often implied in the asking. We’re not happy they’re gone, but we are relieved and grateful that they are in good schools and that they seem well prepared for this next step. Family life, we’re confident, will continue during school breaks, holidays and our visits to them.
Share your ‘empty nest’ story
What was it like for you or your family when your son or daughter went off to college? Was it a time of celebration or sadness? What advice can you offer other parents? Email a letter of no more than 200 words to letters @seattletimes.com with your full name and address and we will publish some replies next week.
We are also seeking a different way of looking at this transition. The empty fridge and empty wallet came to mind at first. I can confirm that the house is emptier, cleaner and quieter. Their bedrooms lie dormant and preternaturally tidy as if on display for a real-estate open house. Our 13-year-old dog, Griffin, who has always slept in our bedroom, has taken to sleeping in the boys’ rooms, sometimes switching from one to the other during the night.
As it does for millions of other American families, their departures have evoked a jumble of feelings. We are proud of what they’ve accomplished and marvel at their intellectual and emotional maturity. The milestone events that marked the passage — high-school graduation and the start of college — prompted vertiginous flights of nostalgia for the countless idiosyncratic moments of their childhood. We remembered when they spent an afternoon in our backyard decked out in swim caps and goggles, wielding fly swatters in some hilarious escapade. Or the times all four of us would sit on the couch reading silently together.
Yet both boys, when they reached 18, were absolutely ready to leave home — and they let us know in various ways. This was the “soiling the nest” we’d heard about from other parents. Starting in their midteens, each of the boys began separating themselves from us, one through persistent, sophisticated arguing and the other through stony silence and closed doors.
(Of course they were communicating with the outside world on a frequent and prolific basis through Snapchat, Twitter and other social media beyond our reach and understanding.)
A breakdown of house rules ensued. It was increasingly hard to get them to pick up their rooms, which looked recently bombed and pillaged, or clean the car they had littered with Gatorade bottles and fast-food detritus, or do other household chores. We were reaching our limit of cajoling, nagging and threatening.
I would also make the case that we, parents in our 50s, are developmentally prepared for change. We were a couple for 14 years before having kids, and now after 20 years of parenting two sons, we are ready for our next phase. While we enjoyed almost every hour of youth sports from T-ball to high-school track and soccer, we are also eager to revive our weekends to spend the time as we choose. Think of that!
Yes, we will miss them terribly. But a dear friend of ours suggested another outlook that resonated with us. Think of it not as an empty nest, she said, but an open field. On a recent road trip to the Oregon Coast, we started a list of everything we wanted to do (house and yard work didn’t count). Hikes. Book readings. Dinner parties. Trips to wineries. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The field outside our home is wide open, and it is beckoning.