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Empty Nest Syndrome Is A Thing. How Do We Cope?Marybeth Bock, MPH
I recently converted my children’s old “playroom,” really just a spare upstairs bedroom, into my home office.
After sorting and bagging a childhood’s worth of toys, books, dolls and games, I was left with clean white emptiness, a vast fresh canvas on which to create my vision.
I purchased a colorful rug to add warmth to the room. And a modern desk and funky brass lamp so I’d have a well-lit place to do my writing. A pretty ladder bookshelf and big comfy chair were my next additions.
The room was coming together, and I proudly texted my son, who is hundreds of miles away in university housing, a picture of the progress I’d made. His response — “You need a few more plants, a small end table and some string lights.”
He can take a small white box of a college apartment and turn it into a twinkling wonderland. He spends hours stringing lights across the ceiling, hanging shelves and pictures at just the right heights on the walls, and setting up a work station that is functional, comfortable and visually appealing.
My mom likes to say he’s just like us. And by “us” she means the generations of women in our family who had and have a knack for turning a house into a home.
It was a long-running joke that if you moved a single one of my grandmas tchotchkes (and she had hundreds), she could pinpoint exactly which trinket had been deviously displaced. It was never a question of if she’d discern the offense had occurred. It was only a matter of how long it would take for her to finger the culprit. We used to time her on our Swatch watches. And she was one of those rare challengers who got faster with age.
My mother and I never could, nor had any opportunity to, pluck a chicken like grandma did for holiday dinners. And although we tried in earnest, we have yet to duplicate her delicious homemade chicken soup with matzah balls.
But mom and I are both at heart balabustas, the Yiddish term for homemakers. We plan and cook most of the meals, keep our homes clean and tidy, and derive pleasure from filling our houses with beautiful things that have meaning and history. We consider ourselves homemakers even though we have both sought work and income outside the home. We proudly call ourselves homemakers even though our paid work is held in higher regard than the unpaid work we do in our respective houses.
So for us, the fact that my son can prepare a delicious dinner and set a beautiful table is a source of great pride. I’m overjoyed that he knows how to make his guests feel welcomed. I find it delightful that he always knows when he needs to have a vegetarian or gluten-free alternative at the ready.
Yet my college son comes from a long line of men who eschewed these types of domestic endeavors, men who were and are bound by the constraints of outmoded stereotypes and old fashioned concepts of labor.
It seems the more things change the more they stay the same. According to recent Labor Department data, women outnumber men in the U.S. paid workforce. Yet a 2019 Gallup poll shows that women still fulfill the majority of homemaking duties. Some of these chores include laundry, cleaning the house, preparing meals, grocery shopping and washing dishes.
Women have long known that caring for a home and for the people in it is valuable work. What if more men knew this too? In a world where men are often defined by the titles they earn and measured by the money they make, I hope my college-aged son will continue to open his heart to a more nuanced life path. I hope he always finds joy in loving a home and making it beautiful. I hope he derives pleasure from preparing a meal and serving it to the people he cherishes. I believe these things will enrich him as a man.
Like my daughter, he knows his options are endless, the choices are his to make. And right now he chooses to curate a beautiful and comfortable college apartment, his home, where he graciously hosts the friends who mean the world to him.
My son is at heart a balebus, the male equivalent of a balabusta. And I couldn’t be more proud.
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