In the past month my home was sucked dry of everyone in it – except me. In a three-day, monumental, life-altering convergence of departures, my sixteen year old daughter, Talia, went off to a semester school program in Vermont and my husband, Kent, and eighteen year old son, Leo, drove off in our 1999 Subaru wagon on a cross-country drive to California, where Leo was starting college.
Kent is staying in California for the semester to take a sabbatical from his job as a university professor and visit with his elderly father. Although I joined my husband and son for the last leg of their trip, including the college drop-off, the final result of this end-of-summer craziness is that my entire family has flown the coop.
I have a roof over my head, a job, a loving family (albeit absent) and good health but my house is barren. People talk about having an “empty nest” when their children go off to college, but what is it called when everyone, including the spousal partner, go off to various places all at the same time? Should I take it personally?
I got married and had children relatively late in life, but for the past twenty years I have lived every day as a member of a team – first with my husband, then with one child and then two. For the fifteen years we have lived in our New York City apartment, it has been crowded, noisy, host to nightly family dinners, full of clutter, chaos, laughter, crying, yelling, music, friends and food smells (good ones emanating from my husband’s delicious cooking, bad ones emanating from mounds of stinky teenage sports shoes and clothes); now – it is just quiet.
Three Part Strategy for Coping with an Empty Nest
A work colleague who preceded me in the empty nest process recently gave me some advice about how to cope with this season of life: it is a three-pronged strategy involving 1) gardening, 2) getting a dog and 3) doing yoga.
This plan seems totally rational and very doable, perhaps with minor adjustments. As I live in a thirty-story apartment building, I can’t have my own garden, but I can use the small “urban farm” recently planted behind my building. A beautiful variety of vegetables and herbs are growing only six floors away, wedged in between my building and Houston Street, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the City.
I am missing a green thumb, but since I’ll be sharing the gardening with many other members of my community, I’m sure I can learn. After all, how many of us get to “farm” in NYC, much less eat the product of that farming for dinner?
As for the second prong of this coping strategy (get a dog!), I must confess that neither my husband nor I are dog people, Sorry, no-can-do the dog thing…but I would love a kitten.
While cats are not considered to be as loyal and protective as dogs, in my mind, a cuddly feline critter would be the perfect roommate; it wouldn’t need much space or food, it would smell good and it wouldn’t need to be walked three times a day. Bonus – having this pet might encourage my kids to come home, as we had one when they were little and they lobbied for years for a replacement. Perhaps I can have adventures in the City with my cat…I’ve seen those cute little cat strollers around town … and they do have cat leashes as well. Mmm … cat lady stereotype, anyone?
As for the third prong of post-empty nest living – I was already positively engaged with yoga before everyone abandoned me, so I’ve got that one covered.
I haven’t yet learned to focus on my breathing, as one is supposed to do in good yogic practice, most likely because all of my brain cells (at least what remains of them after raising two kids) are laser-focused on trying to avoid toppling over in an embarrassing heap as I try to twist my more-than-middle-aged-body into poses that almost all of the mostly 24-30 year olds in the class seem to slip in and out of effortlessly and without dislodging even a single drop of sweat. I’m learning, but as a former high school and college athlete, my ego has definitely taken a bruising in there.
When I was sitting in my empty apartment recently I remembered a comedy routine by a really funny comedian,Tig Notaro, from a couple of years ago. She did an amazing and extremely popular bit about a series of tragic events that happened to her all at the same time. Now hold on – I’m not saying that my current circumstances are tragic, or in any way comparing having an empty nest to the catastrophic tsunami of having cancer, losing a parent, breaking up with a significant other or getting a serious bacterial infection and almost dying – all of which actually happened to Tig within a four-month period of time.
What I am saying, however, is that there should be and probably is a way for me to turn this circumstantial transformation–and all of this quiet-into a positive learning experience-and maybe even an adventure.
Karen Wolff is a reformed lawyer and a displaced Californian, having moved to New York City just after September 11th with her husband and two small children. She practiced law in California for a decade but then switched to Social Work, obtaining her MSW in 2006, which was the same year she began her job as a Social Worker at the Innocence Project, an independent non-profit, with a mission to free innocent people who remain incarcerated and to bring substantive reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.