It's almost 10 years since Gail Sheehy wrote "Passages," which was meant to help us all understand "the predictable crises of adult life." Like if we lusted after our neighbor's spouse when we turned 40, we shouldn't regard such feelings as bizarre.
One of these predictable crises, according to Sheehy, is faced by millions of us at just about this time of year: when the last child leaves the "nest" for college.
Because several of my neighbors, along with my husband and me, have reached that supposedly traumatic passage in the past year or two, I decided to take a very unscientific survey. Had they felt depressed, unneeded, lonely as they drove away from dropping that last 6-foot "little one" at some faraway, huge, impersonal campus? How about their feelings during the transitional weeks and months afterward?
Granted, things have changed in the 10 years since Sheehy's book came out. With increasingly larger numbers of families where both parents work, the result is that THEY often leave the nest long before their children do. But even I was surprised that not one person in my survey group expressed anything but unallowed pleasure at being "childless" after perhaps 25 years.
Although an occasional lump in the throat at the final parting at the dormitory door was reported, the only really hard tears were shed by the parents who had two kids in Ivy League schools and would have to make out checks approaching $30,000 within the next few months.
If you have just begun your trip through this "where-have-all-the-children-gone" crisis, the following checklist of--as I see it--the five major advantages of your new state could chase away any feelings of depression that may sneak in.
No more "picking up" after the darlings or doing their laundry. Or if you are parents who have stressed family responsibilities and require that they do their own laundry, no more nagging them to do it.
There's no more point in feeling useless after shelving this burden than there would have been at feeling useless the day you no longer had to change their diapers.
For the first time in years you and your spouse can eat what and when you want. Since it's pretty hard to threaten anyone over the age of 7 with no dessert if they don't eat their spinach, you have probably ended up either a) providing a salad bar every night, or b) offering only green beans, the sole vegetable all five members of your family will eat.
And those psychologists who say that the dinner hour should be set at a time when all family members are available to sit down together and discuss the happenings of the day, both personal and political, certainly didn't do their research in any household we know. Due to the schedules imposed by such things as soccer practice, part-time jobs and social lives, we manage to be together at dinner about once a week.
And when we DO manage it, the national deficit is not the prime topic of discussion. Coordinating schedules and responsibilities for the days ahead is. As in, "What do you mean, it's my turn to grocery shop on Tuesday; Mimi hasn't gone for the last two weeks."
You can watch "MacNeil-Lehrer" instead of "The Family Feud" or the sixth rerun of "M*A*S*H"--or at least not argue about which one gets watched on the living-room color TV set. And you don't have to leave that living room to avoid the three showings of "The Guiding Light" on the Betamax, which are required because of the divergent schedules of those interested in Nola and Justin's latest traumas.
Advance planning for who gets the family car at a given hour no longer will assume the proportions of the logistics for the invasion of Normandy. (Although admittedly, our family is probably somewhat unique in having five licensed drivers and only one car and has even considered submitting this accomplishment to the "Guinness Book of World Records.") But possible celebrity status aside, it does mean that the daily "car schedule"--even when supplemented by both the use of one's feet and public transportation--has looked something like this:
7-10 a.m.: Mimi drives to and from work so that at
10 a.m.: Dan drives Ruth to library and goes to the dentist so that at
11 a.m.: Beth does grocery shopping and at
1 p.m.: Beth drives Mimi to work, picks up Ruth at library and Ruth drives Beth to work . . .
The house will frequently be TOTALLY quiet. No stereos, loud cracking of knuckles and belching, mysterious clumpings up and down stairs at odd hours of the night--the "normal" sounds of a house containing children under 18.
Sure, there are some negative aspects of not having children underfoot. You'll have to admit that YOU want to go to places like Disney World or ice shows because YOU enjoy them and not simply "for the children."
There will be no more appearances of that "mysterious stranger" who could be conveniently blamed for such things that no one would take responsibility for--like letting the dog out or eating the last chocolate cupcake.
There will be no one to thank you for the little things that you would never presume to advise adults on, like how to lick a triple-decker ice-cream cone on a 90-degree day without dripping a drop.
But it is important to remember that being glad to have your children out of the nest is somewhat like being glad the day you drove your last car pool--the latter event didn't mean that you loved them any less and neither does the former. It just means, practically speaking, that parents are free to have spinach every night, either at home at the hour of their choice or at a restaurant to which they have driven in a car that was free for that purpose. They can watch--or not watch--TV, talk or just sit there enjoying the silence.
Like all other "passages," this too will end. After a few months, you will look forward to the college vacations, which bring home the noisy, messy, fussy, demanding horde. With, one hopes, a little less of all of the above, because their new world has taught them to appreciate their old one a tad more.