Becoming An ‘Empty Nester’ Doesn’t Mean You Must Morph Into A Matron

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Until I became pregnant with my first, I didn’t realize how visceral the connection between mother and child is. I would ponder how my little one was completely dependent on me in utero, completely connected to me. Then, when she was born, slightly less so. But still, she was fed exclusively at my breast for six months before getting any other food. Each development she made — sitting up, rolling over, moving to solid foods, weaning — both excited me and made me a bit melancholy. The whole point of successful parenting is to kick that bird out of the nest at some point — but it actually hurts.

So I just loved this Wall Street Journal article about how modern moms aren’t dealing with the same empty nest issues that their ancestors did. “Women on the Verge of an Empty Nest” by Jennifer Moses notes that children leaving home doesn’t mean that you have to morph into a matron or community leader.

“As far as I can tell, my own generation of mothers doesn’t really do the empty nest thing, no matter how large the hole left behind and no matter how pressing the grief. Unlike our mothers, we generally don’t go back to school to finally launch careers or, like our grandmothers, embrace the newly won status of matron and then grandmother. Unlike past generations, today’s middle-agers typically started their careers before marriage and motherhood. As for our wardrobe choices, my own concession to aging mainly involves wearing low-heeled shoes, but otherwise, like practically every woman I know, I continue to dress like I did in my student days. You know the uniform: jeans and a T-shirt or blouse, with clogs or sneakers or sandals.

There are other reasons we don’t stop to realize that we’re fretting over our empty nests. With the endless options for instant communications, we’re able to check in with the kids, or vice versa, on an embarrassingly regular basis. When my eldest went off to college four years ago, a friend of mine who was a year ahead of me in the kid-launching game reassured me. Don’t worry, he said: His wife and their college-age son “text at least once a day.” Another friend, whose eldest is studying abroad, told me that she regularly talks to him. “I can Skype daily without any big buildup or pressure that this is the big, expensive, long-distance call,” she said. “It’s easy to communicate, and it doesn’t cost anything.”

It’s true. I speak with my parents several times a week. But, Moses asks, is this a good thing? Do instant communications mean that these middle-age moms are in denial about the tremendous change from raising children to less active parenting?

So yes, among women of my generation, there is anxiety over our suddenly kid-free homes and our marriages, the loss of our daily routines, the vast new stretches of potentially empty—and boring—time, the prospect of loneliness. There is also the sudden vision of becoming grandparents, which tends to segue rather rapidly into becoming elderly.

What’s missing is any culturally shared notion of “aging gracefully.” Instead we throw ourselves more deliberately into our careers and our exercise routines. There is nothing wrong with this, of course, but it’s hardly conducive to accepting loss—of one’s youth, of having children at home—as a normal part of life.

And here’s where I think she’s off. The fact is that the modern situation — with children close by, potentially still living with you into adulthood — is actually more similar to the way families operated for millennia than the more recent past. It seems to me that gentle transitions don’t have to mean denial or failure to accept loss so much as an acceptance and embrace of whatever your station in life is. Sometimes that involves children in the home. Sometimes it doesn’t. It goes back and forth over time. There’s no reason to put it in terms of loss, is there?