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Opinion

Reader essay: Empty nest without kids, but a full life

A parent and child at the beach.

A parent and child at the beach. Credit: iStock

In late August, my husband and I became empty-nesters. We sent our second son off to college (our first is a college senior).

I looked up the term “empty nest” at dictionary.com and was surprised to see this: “For parents, the empty nest sometimes results in midlife anxiety.” I can’t recall ever reading a definition that includes a warning about feelings.

I was excited and optimistic about sending one son off to his final year of college and the other to a smooth, solid beginning. At the same time, I felt nostalgic, sad and anxious about what I might feel in my new life. Yet my anxiety fizzled as I tried new things and learned unexpected lessons:

n Hobbies aren’t a panacea. I wanted to become a more experienced cook, so I signed up for a do-it-yourself meal service that delivers fresh ingredients and recipes to your doorstep every Sunday. After a few tries, my head spun from all the dirty dishes, and the time needed to prep the meals was excessive. I plan to sample beginners yoga classes once I get a wave of motivation to try a new hobby.

n Exercise isn’t a magic solution, either. Hoping to fill my time with new pursuits, I bravely began a swimming routine in July at the Friedberg Jewish Community Center in Oceanside. I’d always wanted to be able to call myself a cross-trainer rather than someone who simply walks her dogs several miles each day. Yet, by my third week of swimming, I wanted to drown anyone who had the nerve to share my lane, slowing me down and causing me to spend a few extra minutes in this community bathtub. No offense to all you swimmers out there; I wish I’d liked it, but I gave it up after a month and I’m back to simply walking my dogs.

n It’s a chance to rediscover the spouse. It is eye-opening to realize that as much as you love and enjoy your kids, the daily giving, listening, etc., use up much of the patience you’d otherwise have available for your marriage.

Once I was no longer amused by my son’s hysterical accounts of everyday experiences, I began to find my husband’s habits either happily endearing or easier to ignore. We both work in our home, so we frequently occupy nearby space. With no need to pick up after kids and worry over their whereabouts, I have more patience for the piles of paper he leaves around and insists I not throw away, and for the pretzel bags and cereal boxes he leaves out and open after snacking.

n The best plans can be no plans. I’d forgotten the feeling of an entirely unplanned weekend, devoid of “have to” or “need to” activities based on soccer games, college meetings and tours, and more. Once the boys were launched and the dust cleared, I found more time for my spouse and close friends, the luxury of reading for pleasure, and curling up with two dogs who adore me.

So what happens when the kids return home for a school break? In a funny way, it’s as if they never left. The first few days of their winter break, I wondered how I managed without the daily hubbub of friends, activity and one kid asking for my car keys while the other wanted to be picked up at 2 a.m. after a night out.

However, as the five weeks drew to a close, I counted the minutes until our home was peaceful again.

Reader Heidi Berr lives in Oceanside.

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