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Family Life

The myth of the empty nest

Connie Lissner

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I’m one of those people who really, really likes to be alone. Really. And let's be honest — I have not had true alone time since I was single and living on my own.

I adore my family, but even when my kids were old enough to be appalled by the idea of joining me in the bathroom they had no qualms about talking to me through the bathroom door. Every. Time. And my husband? Bless his heart, he likes to hear my opinions. He worked from home for ten years and always wanted to run things by me.

Is it any surprise I was looking forward to an empty nest??

Sure, I felt a flutter of panic when my youngest was poised to start senior year in high school. Who was I if not “Mom,” the resident chauffeur, cook, housekeeper for our family? But once I settled into the idea — really wrapped my head around the vision of a quiet house after years of tumult and noise, piles of shoes at the front door, and a sink perpetually full of dirty ice cream bowls — I welcomed the change to come.

One could even say I was giddy with anticipation.

Things started to come together like clockwork. Just weeks after my younger son started his final year of high school, I found a job writing for a travel company — something I’d dreamed of for a while. Shortly after that, my husband was offered a great opportunity to work for a company in a different state, so every week from Sunday through Thursday he commuted to the east coast. And our older son was now a college senior, headed toward a full-time job and financial independence.

I should have remembered my cousin’s words of wisdom: once you have children you always have children — even when they are not physically near you, and no matter their age.

Diving into the “next stage of our lives” thing, I started remodeling the house with an eye toward selling it and fleeing the suburbs in the next couple of years. I was ready!

And then…

Just as we were moving our youngest into his first-year residence hall this past August, our new college grad decided to move back home to save money while he looked for a better job. A couple months later, my husband left his job because the “great opportunity” turned out not to be worth the commute.

Thankfully, I still have my travel writing gig (and, by the way, our house looks great). But my empty nest? Not so much. The dream of quiet days typing away on my laptop, and casual, solo meals consisting of peanut butter out of the jar and microwaved baked potatoes (a throwback to when I lived alone during law school), has been replaced by competing voices as everyone tries to work from home and a kitchen constantly in use.

My story isn't unique. I have two friends whose youngest children left for college in August only to return by October. Another friend’s husband lost his job so she had to scrap her retirement plan and go back to work full time; yet another friend has taken in her ailing mother. And don’t even get me started on the scores of neighbors and friends whose recent college graduates have returned to the nest either to launch a job search or save money while they work in an entry-level position. Clearly the empty nest is just an urban legend.

Or maybe the problem is my definition of “empty.”

I was looking forward to an actual empty home which I expected to somehow liberate me from all parenting concerns. I’m not heartless. I love having my boys around and after they left for college I didn’t plan to change the locks and say, “see ya!” But after 22 years of being everything to everyone, I was ready for my family to need me just a little less.

I should have remembered my cousin’s words of wisdom: once you have children you always have children — even when they are not physically near you, and no matter their age. Half of my brain will always be focused on my kids — either memories of them or worry (probably both). I don’t know any parents who launched their offspring into the world and stopped worrying about them. My mother and my in-laws still worry about my husband and me, and would take us all into their homes, without hesitation, if we needed somewhere to go.

The reality is this stage of my life is just like every other stage before it — rife with uncertainty. If there is one thing parenting has taught me it’s that nothing goes as planned. The minute I think I have some control over my circumstances, something comes along to throw me off course. I’m sure the minute I get used to the current situation my older son will move out, my husband will find a new job that sends him traveling for weeks at a time, and my youngest will announce that he isn’t coming home for the summer.

And I will adjust, as always.


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Connie Lissner is a writer, lawyer, wife and more importantly, the mother of two sons — one in college and the other a recent graduate. She was once told that a child’s job is to constantly push a parent’s limits and her boys do their job very well. She, in turn, is trying to do her job of not totally screwing them up. She navigates the slippery slope of motherhood one mistake at a time. Connie’s parenting failures have been featured on The Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, Grown and Flown, Scary Mommy, LifeAfter50, Club Mid, BlogHer and in the book, Not Your Mother’s Book…on Parenting.
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