Empty Nests Clear Way for Big Changes

By Rebecca R. Kahlenberg
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Phyllis and Ronnie Zweig loved the six-bedroom Bethesda house where they lived for 23 years and raised three children, now ages 25, 24 and 22.

"We thought we'd never move," Phyllis said.

But recently, with the kids out of college, the house became too much. "We were only using three rooms: the kitchen, family room and bedroom," Phyllis said. "Every year that passed I realized that the kids weren't going to come home and that I was just keeping this house up for grandchildren who may or may not come in 10 years."

Moreover, Ronnie, who loved to garden when the children were growing up, "would now rather play golf than work in the yard," Phyllis said.

In August, the Zweigs sold their house and moved to a Rockville townhouse with a tiny yard. "We're at a different stage," Phyllis said.

That stage, when the nest is empty because the youngest child has left for college or work, can be an emotional time for mothers and fathers. It also can be a time when people make big changes in their living styles.

Some, such as the Zweigs, downsize. Others, such as Ann and Chuck Cochran of Cabin John, upgrade.

Just before the youngest of four children in their blended family graduated from high school, the Cochrans decided they wanted a larger kitchen. But because of strict zoning laws, they chose to move to a larger house rather than renovate.

Alternatively, many decide to stay in the same house where they lived with their children and remodel or redecorate the rooms where kids slept or played into more adult-friendly spaces. Bethesda resident Barbara Omholt is planning to turn the bedroom of her son Tommy, 25, into "an all-purpose room" where she can sew, watch TV and "have a place to escape," now that he has moved out. Omholt will bid goodbye to Tommy's sports posters and blue paint, and replace those with "a vibrant color like rose" on the walls.

For some empty nesters, the transition to a new house or decor is easy. "They are glad to have their own space," said Natalie Caine, founder of Empty Nest Support Services, a California company that offers a range of services. "They will love their children forever but had a tough last year with them home and are saying, 'Thank God they're gone.' "

But others grieve as they move from the home where they raised their children or as they renovate the spaces where their children frolicked. "Parents are closing a chapter on the life they had and starting a new one," said Lauren Shaffer, co-author of "133 Ways to Avoid Going Cuckoo When the Kids Fly the Nest" (Three Rivers Press, 2001). "It's exciting but letting go can be difficult."

One question for many parents is when to change their living space. For Utah resident Valerie Banta, the answer was 11 years after the younger of her two children moved out. With the kids now 29 and 33 and living in different states, Banta has decided to turn her daughter's bedroom into a beige den with a computer, TV and aquarium.

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