We emptied the nest in stages beginning about four years ago. As our middle child prepared to start her freshman year in college, we were packing up for a move ourselves. My husband had always wanted to build a house, and we thought the timing was perfect. We could "downsize" and we wouldn't even have to leave the neighborhood, since we could subdivide our very large lot and build the new house right next door to our old one.
But as the new college girl boxed up her new laundry basket and her old alarm clock, she commented, “I’ll never come home again.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, mystified.
“Well,” she said, “I won’t be coming back to my own room in my real house. It’ll be your house, but not mine.” She Who Was Never at Home Anyway was not happy about the move.
That was like a kick in the gut. But she was right. That first Christmas in the new house didn’t feel right. I couldn’t find the “good” spot for the Christmas tree, among other irritations. While the new home was as perfect as a dwelling with level floors and new appliances can be, the next spring I looked out the window at “my” old house and saw “my” old daffodils blooming in the new neighbor’s yard. I wanted to cry.
A few years later, I’d found the right place for the tree and finally rid myself of old-house angst, but then our oldest daughter decided to get married, and the youngest, a boy, started college shopping. The year after that, the middle “homeless” child graduated from college and moved to Iowa to take a new job. Her brother chose a college two hours from home. The new house’s patina finally had dulled, and it was very, very quiet there. The nest was, indeed, empty. It practically echoed. Not since the fall of 1978 had we experienced that kind of quiet.
According to studies of “empty nesters” such as us, we should want a condo in the urban core or an RV to serve as home base for mooching off our adult children. We should want to ditch the yard work in favor of amenity-laden association housing. We should want to take “ecotours” and engage in “adventure travel.” We should want to clean out the clutter and eat out instead of packing up leftovers whenever the “pantry shoppers” arrive for a visit. We should want to write cookbooks for two and collect antiques and other breakable objects.
But we don’t want any of that. For now, my husband and I are content to live in a big, quiet house that stays clean all the time. Nobody moves stuff or makes off with it. Nobody criticizes the food we eat. There’s always soda in the fridge and ice cream whenever we crave it. Sometimes we eat dinner while we watch the 10 p.m. news. We read novels, pipe classical music throughout the house, turn off lights when we leave the room. The house smells better without sweaty athletic gear cluttering the hallways. We work late without guilt. We get up before dawn and slam cupboards with reckless abandon. We don’t do laundry much anymore. We go to bed at nine if we feel like it.
We’re somewhat relieved. A Brandeis University psychologist recently found that children were the second most-cited source of stress, after jobs, among adults ages 25-39. And there are now 31 million U.S. kids in the 12-to-19 age group. Demographers predict that by 2010 there will be 35 million teens, a population bulge bigger than even the Baby Boom at its peak. In just a few more years, teenagers could be in a position to take over the world again. Clearly, we dodged a bullet.
We love being parents, and we love our kids. We especially love when they visit. And we know, as do they, that the emptiness of this nest may be illusion. After all, 40 percent of young adults who leave their parents’ homes come back. The sociologists call that “circular migration” rather than a one-way street. But for now, we’re in the sane lane, and after 25 years of parenting, it’s rather pleasant, thank you.
Pat Sirek ’00 M.A. is a Katie who married a Tommie (Michael Sirek ’77) and gave birth to another (Nicole Sirek Watson ’01). She’s also mom to a St. Ben’s grad and a St. Scholastica student. Sirek is associate director of the St. Thomas News Service.