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Family Life

The View From the Empty Nest is Not Half Bad (Now That I've Stopped Crying)

Marlene Kern Fischer

A few weeks ago I dropped my youngest son off at college. And although I am generally not a crier, I cried.

A lot.

I was still sniffling in the car as my husband and I drove home. I didn’t just cry because I left my baby to fend for himself on a college campus; I was also sad because that last child of mine is easy to have around and I really enjoy his company.

But it’s all good and life goes on, right?

After I got home, I received texts and emails from friends welcoming me to the empty nest club. (Apparently, I’m in a club now.) As one of the last among my friends to send their youngest child off to college I’ve had time to observe how the whole empty nest thing works. And my conclusion is…I have absolutely no idea how it’s supposed to work! Figuring out the empty nest seems to be a very individual thing. Which means my husband and I need to start working on a plan that’s right for us.

During the child-raising years, our life was largely predictable. We dedicated the bulk of our leisure time to kid-focused activities such as athletics, music, religious education, birthday parties and all things associated with school. It wasn’t always pretty, but we were definitely busy. My boys played a lot of sports, and since I am not the Sporty Spice type (in my opinion, baseball games are like watching paint dry, and don't get me started on the grossness of wrestling mats), I may have occasionally groused about spending an inordinate number of hours on muddy fields. Okay, maybe I groused more than occasionally. But I felt like it was what I was supposed to be doing so I did it. (Disclosure: I still don’t know what the off-side rule is in soccer.)

Less grocery shopping means more time for Fashion Week!

Seasons turned and little changed other than the boys moving up a grade. Every few years there was a ceremony which meant they were going to be at another school in a different part of our town. Bus times got earlier, homework got harder, but we (mostly) knew what to expect. There was routine and certainty — and yes, monotony — in the days, months and years. Until this last ceremony, my youngest son’s high school graduation, which marked the end of an era.

After graduation, my son left to work at a camp for the entire summer and I got a preview of what was to come. Being untethered is the best way I can describe it — like those huge hot air balloons with the baskets dangling underneath (although I’m afraid of heights and would never actually ride in one). There is definitely less structure to the days, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just takes getting some getting used to.

The view from my empty nest is up to me — mine to create and recreate, as often as I like.

In my circle, I’ve observed that having no kids at home means different things to different people. Friends have downsized within their town or moved to a nearby community that they always liked. Some have moved to the big city, where there is more to do and see and they no longer need to worry about a lengthy commute to work, shoveling, plowing, mowing, replacing roofs, painting and other headaches of home ownership. Others have purchased second homes, usually in warm locations, to escape winter on long weekends and holidays. One friend of mine built a home in a colder location because Florida isn’t her scene and she and her husband like being able to drive to their second place. A few friends have jetted off to interesting places like Portugal and Japan — my Instagram and Facebook feeds often resemble a travel brochure. When it comes to the next stage of life, one size definitely does not fit all.

Life before children is such a distant memory that it’s hard to apply those lessons to the here and now. When I see pictures of my husband and me when we were younger, I scarcely recognize those people. We have been married for 32 years — I can barely remember what I had for lunch earlier today, never mind how we filled our free time before the kids came along. I know that we spent more time with friends, which is definitely something we are starting to do again.

Bumped into Trey on the beach this summer and now we're Phish fans!

I thought perhaps I could get some ideas by noting what my grown sons do in their free time but that wasn’t all that helpful. My oldest son is busy building a career and when he’s not working he attends a lot of weddings and bachelor parties and Phish concerts. Those activities are definitely not going to be my future (though I do have tickets to see Phish with him in December).

After a summer of mostly unstructured weekends, I realized that if my husband and I don’t have concrete plans we are likely to spend the day saying to each other, “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” It’s not that there aren’t plenty of options, but if we don’t plan, we sit. I suggested making a list of museums we’d like to visit and Broadway shows we’d like to see — I hear To Kill A Mockingbird and Moulin Rouge are great. It’s a start.

In the evenings we’ve taken to binge-watching television shows. For years, I never knew what people were talking about when they discussed a hot new series. Now I’m proud to be able to join in the conversation. Some of our recent favorites are GLOW, Chernobyl (dark but riveting), Dead to Me, Schtissel, Schitt’s Creek and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Yes, I am aware that’s a lot of television.

I’m also spending a lot less time at the grocery store. I have food shopped so much over the years that I know the names of most of the people who work at the grocery store in my town. I am not kidding. Lately, my husband and I have been winging the evening meal — eating out, bringing in, whatever. I gotta admit, it’s liberating plus nice not to have people (i.e., my kids) complain about the dinner menu. When I do drop by the store, I re-bond with my favorite employees. It’s weird to breeze right past the things my kids love to eat without tossing them in the cart. Mac and cheese, tomato juice and almond milk are a few old staples I’m no longer purchasing (well, at least until the next holiday or school break).

I know that, little by little, I will adjust. The view from my empty nest is up to me — mine to create and recreate, as often as I like.

Follow Marlene on Facebook, and read more of her wonderful stories on her CollegiateParent author page and her blog, "Thoughts from Aisle Four."
Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother, food shopper extraordinaire, author and college essay editor. She has published two books: Trapped in My Sports Bra and Other Harrowing Tales and Gained a Daughter but Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic. Find her on Facebook at Thoughts From Aisle 4.
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