The Kids Are Gone, And So Are the Friends

The last of Colleen and Mark Van Putten's three kids left home in August. The couple has lost touch with people they'd met through their kids' activities, such as son Tyler's swimming.
The last of Colleen and Mark Van Putten's three kids left home in August. The couple has lost touch with people they'd met through their kids' activities, such as son Tyler's swimming. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 22, 2006

So it's 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning and you awake in a panic thinking about all the things you've got to pack in order to get to your kid's soccer game before 11.

Then you remember: Your son is more likely at this moment to be sleeping one off in the dorm than pulling on soccer cleats. He's a college freshman -- and you're an empty-nester. Not only will you not see him today, but you won't see his friend's dad, the one who always brought the orange slices, or the mom down the street, who brought extra blankets for those blasts of wind that forced parents to huddle together on the sidelines like knots of cattle on a Kansas plain.

It's a little-discussed yet keenly felt result of children moving out of the house: The adult connections parents make through their sons and daughters vanish. The nest has emptied and it's not just the kids who are no longer around.

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, calls these associations a "contingent community." Almost everyone has them, including people who don't have kids. There's the baritone in the church choir whom you sing next to on Sunday but have no idea what town he lives in, or the clerk in the office where you work who knows nothing about your kid other than what she has seen in the photos on your desk.

They're not your best friends. You may or may not agree with them politically, and you probably don't return their phone calls right away. But they provide, at least, continuity to your life, as well as a certain level of caring, and what you do with them gives some form to your otherwise frenzied weeks. When the baritone moves out of the area or the clerk gets promoted to another department, the loss can be palpable.

Losing acquaintances formed through your children can be especially poignant, because there's a good chance that as you scrambled your way up from bank teller to head of securities, those other parents you saw on game days were really the only community you had.

An odd thing happens to middle-class managers, lawyers, consultants and other professionals who organize their children's social lives with the same diligence they apply to their jobs. They are convinced they are the quarterback when in fact it's the kids who, by the time they're in middle school at least, are calling the plays. Parents used to organize their children's social lives. Now children organize their parents' social lives.

* * *

Mark Van Putten's last child, Tyler, left last month for Virginia Tech. From the time Tyler was 10 he swam for a competitive summer league in Reston, where the family lives. At weekend meets Mark, 53, would chat with other parents poolside. Occasionally he would also run into one of these parents at the grocery store or post office. He didn't become close friends with any of them, but "they gave me a sense of place," he recalls.

He didn't think much about this until Tyler, at 17, took a job this past summer to earn money for college, and stopped swimming. "I realized my summer Saturdays were missing something," Mark says. His wife, Colleen, 51, president of the swim team association, had sunk deep roots into Reston since the family moved there 10 years earlier; he had not. As president of the National Wildlife Federation, Mark was always working -- 70 and 80 hours a week. Now an environmental consultant based at home, he recently joined the boards of two associations in order to form new ties.

It's not uncommon for careers to consume people in Washington, and some of them devote themselves to pushing their children into similar lives of scheduled, credentialed achievement. For members of that contingent community, the only things in common are real estate prices and their children's training to be competitors like themselves.

The children may change with each custody battle or remarriage, and the communities created by the children change, too: when a kid leaves preschool for elementary school, then middle school, then high school; when a son announces that he no longer wants to go to Hebrew school or a daughter starts driving, and carpooling with other parents is no longer necessary.

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