By the time our last child was halfway through his first semester at college, I had blogged about the empty nest experience 11 times. On a trip into Boston one afternoon, I told my husband that even I was tired of hearing the term. He looked at me and said:
“You never see people write about what men go through. Why is that? ”
He’s right. We don’t write about that. We mothers write about us, it’s our syndrome. We conquered it and stuck our little flags in it. We talk about it before it happens, share our experiences with our empty-nest comrades while it’s going on, and finally, we look back on it.
“Having kids at home forces you to remain energetic,” my husband said that day. “Somebody’s got to throw that ball in the yard. When they leave, part of your youth goes with them. You’re not ready for it,” he said.
A friend talked the readiness gap in her own house this way: “I’ve been getting ready for this for 18 years. Until a couple of weeks ago, my husband was behaving like it happens to other people.”
It did not surprise me to know how much my husband missed kids in the house. He’d said as much, but casually, the way someone says something as they’re flipping through mail or searching the refrigerator for a snack. What surprised me was that in all our talking about the changes we would encounter, we talked so little about our individual reactions. I don’t know why we didn’t. But the fact is I’d spent April thinking about August. He’d spent April being in April.
My friend was right. Women anticipate and men participate. But there is not just a readiness gap. There is an everything gap.
To generalize, mothers prepare for the empty nest differently, and articulate the “event” of it just as differently. We articulate it at all. We have invested the best parts and years of ourselves in attachments to our children. We are insightful and intuitive and know them better than anyone. And, we have been enjoying the return on this investment in their emotional attachment to us, our funny banter, our eventual camaraderie as adults. No wonder we grieve when they leave. No wonder whole articles and essays and posts and books are devoted to the subject of lost purpose, habit, direction, identity.
We mothers also cope differently. We turn to the mother-friends we met on the playground who will listen and validate and help file the edges of emotion that comes with saying goodbye. On that Monday after the college drop off, fathers go to work. Mothers go to Facebook.
Ask a man how it’s been since the last child left and he’ll say: “Well, it’s quiet.”
But for the men I have spoken to about this adjustment, including my husband, it’s more than quiet. Apparently, it’s syndrome-quiet.
Whether athletic mentor, or guidance counselor, or financial advisor, or career consultant, father roles have evolved to permeate a child’s life from the beginning. They are unique, and when those roles end, they end suddenly.
Now you give them money for gas, now you don’t.
For fathers, like for mothers, there is the feeling of a job done, of a need met. They wonder who will appreciate them now. And, because fathers have become more involved with the care of their children as infants, they, like we do, feel the pain of detaching. Like we do, they lose the playful companions our children have become. It’s too late to edit the pages that have been turned, but like we do, they scrutinize them anyway for “would haves” and “could haves.” The last chapters – grandparenting, retirement, travel, hobbies – are ahead, but they don’t seem that interesting or fun compared to the roller coaster ride that’s just chugged to an end.
Now that we are just us again, my husband and I have been talking about maybe. Maybe travel, maybe a move to the city. Maybe a boat. After the yes and no years of raising children — yes to this friend, no to that one, yes to Facebook-where-I-can-see-you, no to video games rated M — maybe is a liberating word, and a hopeful one.
We mothers begin our journeys toward empty nest with the last push. Fathers deserve a chance to catch up, and when it happens to them, we owe them the support, friendship, patience and encouragement that we have come to expect, and probably, have received from them.
It’s only fair.
It’s their nest too.