Friday, March 9, 2012

Empty Nest or Flying the Coop

Marriage, raising a family, taking care of a home and all that these encompass is not unlike a race. One day runs into the next. You tuck them into bed one night and a hundred thousand loads of laundry later the same adorable faces that once looked up with innocent trust into your eyes now show the scorn of defiance. There is no slowing down at this point; rather you gather all of your strength to make it successfully across the finishing line of raising children. The line that once appeared clear in your mind is suddenly foggy. Grown children are moving into apartments, off to college, into marriages, out of the house and back in again.  That day when you become an empty nester is less formidable and slightly more appealing.

Eventually it arrives; usually with a sigh of relief that your darlings did, after all, turn into decent, productive adults. Much like the runner of a race, your legs have yet to slow down, your heart still pounds against your chest just as your feet pound against the concrete. Or stairs, as the case may be. We continue to dash about the house. We sprint to the kitchen sink where too few dishes only half fill the sink. We rush to the laundry room where once lay a mound of soiled clothing, only to find too few pieces to fill the oversized wash tub you were sure you would always need. Your husband asks why you cooked enough for an army; while you are convinced your brood will once again, meander through the door at dinner time. They always did. We are never, even when we look forward to the day, fully prepared for an empty nest. Be you the stay at home mom or the upwardly mobile career mom, home changes once your children move out.

One day you sit on your favorite side of the sofa, look around to find your house has stayed cleaned. Your heart admits what your mind has known. You are an empty nester. Panic sets in at the realization you now live alone with the man you married and raised the grown children with. You cautiously wonder how much you have left in common with this man. Yes, yes, we know. You were so much more hip than your parents. You and hubby had date night. Peel away the layers and what did you discuss? The...children.  It is a stage of life that has haunted the successful and not-so-much successful empty nesters as they take those first few cagey steps into the rest of their lives.

My personal first few steps included Googling, researching and separating the good from bad advice out there on empty nesting. I was left unsatisfied. What advice I did find left me wanting. What I sought was good, solid advice. Much of what I read referenced sex alone. One such article suggested, as empty nesters, we take advantage of the privacy and meander around the house naked. Visions of Peg Bundy danced through my head; an older Peg Bundy groping Al, to be accurate.  I am all for discussing intimacy as an aspect of the fifty-plus crowd. Far be it from me from me to raise my nose and sniff at such topics. It is an aspect though. Not the whole enchilada. As an aside, my once lithe, agile body no longer looks like a duplicate of Heidi Klum. Parading it around the living room might get my husband's attention. It would do little for my self-esteem...or libido, for that matter. (On the up side, my husband is still with me...unlike Heidi Klum's. Who says body tone is everything? Not Seal.)

In light of the lack of information, I contacted two good female friends who are new to empty nesting. Our collective experiences, coupled with advice, is documented in order to shed some light on this
I decided to take my own experience, along with that of two close friends, in order to shed a little light on this much talked about, anxiously anticipated and dreaded time. The three of us are recent empty nesters, all still married to the same men we raised families with.

S.L. Bartlett is an author who delights in the country life she and her family have created in the small town of Onoway, outside of Edmonton, Canada. As the mother of three grown sons, the youngest handicapped, she lends a unique viewpoint.

"I was never a solicitous mother." S. L. began went asked to write on her experience. " My first two boys were raised with what I kindly (to myself) called “loving neglect”, satisfying my motherly duties limited to teaching them to never talk to strangers or weird relatives without my husband or I being present, or stealing candy from stores without fear of serious bodily harm from me, and being kind to animals. But that all changed when my youngest son was born. We were lucky to receive a diagnosis early in his life, four days old, which was unusual for patients with my son’s extremely rare disorder. FOP was not normally diagnosed until the sufferers were two or more years of age, and lucky even then, before more damage could be inflicted by tests that did more harm than good. Because of him, I discovered that my normally sloppy, apathetic maternal instincts were aroused to over-protective mother bear status. They say things happen for the best, and he certainly proved it, for this new behavior drifted to my other sons as well.  More important, having a handicapped child severely curtailed my normal, adventurous proclivity and grounded me, as long as no one expected “super-Mom”.

For twenty years I functioned on this level, keeping my attention span devoted almost exclusively to my boys, most especially my youngest. Mind you, my husband knew I was married before and that I came with a son. I give him all the credit that he was willing to take on a selfish, adrenaline-junky, single mother who modeled her first born in a portable little package that travelled with me on my adventures that were unusual, to say the least. My husband to barely instill enough responsibility in me to ensure I stuck around the house long enough to change diapers and feed the boys before rushing out to chase tornados or some equally exciting foray. My youngest son became my anchor, and I soon had to forgo my search for adventures.

Only a few months ago, my youngest son moved out, eager for his independence, into a very good assisted living housing unit. While I was thrilled for him, it was with an aching heart, selfishly suffering from anxiety and loneliness. My main reason for existence was gone, not to mention my sidekick who shared my sense of humor and eternal fodder for my writing.

My husband and I have never been alone. I already had a child when I met him, albeit I treated my son more as a pet than a child. He was like my faithful puppy, clean, well fed and always by my side on my frequent adventures of my own making. So when my youngest moved out, my biggest fear was that we would have nothing to talk about. Our conversations for twenty three years had consisted of how to get children’s bodily parts separated from various stair railings, or butts out of buckets, or rescue youngest son from the roof of the shed when other two sons wanted to ditch him by using his gullibility against him, or other equally embarrassing but urgent situations. Now that they gone, what possible conversations could we have, or avoid for that matter. Any semblance of intimacy was gone twenty minutes after meeting each other, since my first born, then six years old, felt he had the perfect right to insinuate himself between us and proceeded to interview my date as a potential father. I have to say, my son showed amazing perception, and on his approval, we were married shortly afterwards. Even then, we had to sneak any intimacy in between demands for breakfast, lunch and dinners, help with homework, and late night drinks of water and resulting trips to the bathroom. It didn’t help that I was immediately pregnant, and then a year and a half later, another son, my youngest, arrived.

For the last 21 years, I could not wander from home. Most of the time, I couldn’t go any further than the grocery store, and only if getting a few things and not gone more than half an hour. Occasionally, I could leave my husband with my son as long as it did not involve bodily fluids or male nakedness, even his own son’s. My husband was a typical redneck type. But he was the best father when he made my son full meals when all he wanted was a snack, and helping him with homework (doing it himself while my son watched TV and ate). It became instinct to check everything in the house and make sure my son was safe before I could even leave the house, doors open, to do some gardening, let alone go anywhere.

It is now 23 years later, and husband and wife are alone. We had forgotten how to be a man and a woman, friends and lovers. This would take some adjusting, not to mention I missed my sons and their antics that may not have been funny at the time, but now we found hilarious, recalling them with laughter and fondness. Surprisingly enough, I re-discovered the selfish single woman I was before the arrival of troublesome creatures, and even more surprising, my husband seems to like it. He has even hesitantly accompanied me on some of my newly re-discovered adventures, although he is nervous about it, always having been a staid, calm, sensible type; quite my opposite. However, we have always shared the joy of outdoor activities like fishing and camping, and have taken it up with a vengeance now that my youngest, who could never go camping because of his restrictions, is in safe housing and gone. Before this, my husband usually got to go, and me rarely since I had to stay home. It is very hard to find a babysitter for a severely handicapped child, and I probably wouldn’t have trusted anyone else anyway.

 I find I like being able to just jump in my car and leave, not having to think about it. Perversely, I also miss the restrictions. On some level I suspect I resent my youngest for not needing me anymore, and for brazenly learning the lessons I tried to instill in him. In fact, he learned better than my other two boys, probably because it was far more essential if he had any hope of living his own life.

When my youngest came home for Christmas for a month, I was in my element. However, I was also once again stuck to the house, and lost my independence. I enjoyed being needed again, but when it came time for him to go back, I also admit I was relieved. I had become accustomed to being free again, and since then the resentment and loneliness had eased considerably. It hasn’t even been a year, and I’m being patient with myself. I envy men; my husband doesn’t seem to notice the difference much, but I still find myself checking my son’s old room out of habit before realizing I don’t need to do that anymore. I suffer a brief pang of regret, but as I pick up my keys to go about my business, I find myself smiling. It’s not only the freedom I regained, but also my son’s freedom; the freedom for him to make his own decisions, the freedom of knowing he can handle what comes his way, and that we, his parents and brothers, will always be there whenever he needs us."

S. L. (Sheree) submitted this as a rough draft. The more I read it, the more I decided to leave it as it is. The raw emotion of a mother with a handicapped child comes through. I felt it important to leave that element alone.

My only commentary to the above would be to address a father's adjustment to the empty nest. Men are not, by nature, nurturers. Men teach, they encourage self-reliance and bravery (usually much to our chagrin.) Fathers instinctively know when it is 'time' for children to be on their own.  Generally speaking, husbands and fathers adapt to the empty nest with much more ease than mothers. I do not subscribe to the theory that a working mother conforms to the empty nest as well as a man. Women, working or otherwise, are nurturers. It is that vein that my own story begins.

To the world it appears I rule the roost. I laugh at this misconception. The truth is; my husband happily allows me to have my way until it is time for me not to. It was during one of these episodes when he announced, "No one is moving back in, do you understand?" I nodded with all of the obedience of a wife who knows her husband is right. I would have likely allowed the revolving door that had become our home, to endure. Unlike Sheree, who was forced by her youngest child's FOP, into vigorously insisting her offspring reach the age of independence, I was content to allow mine to lean on me.  In defense of my actions, the great recession had hit full force, alternately throwing families into leaning on each other. I not only enabled. I encouraged. My point being, my husband knew our children were ready. I was the hold out. Hindsight is 20/20.

I asked Dana Matthews to contribute her ideas, as well. A recent empty nester, she has a son and a step-daughter. Much like me, her mother was dying as her children were leaving. Another monkey wrench in the works of transitioning from 'married with children' to 'empty nester' is the death of our parents. This is usually preceded by the caring of our parents. In both our circumstances, we lost our fathers first and cared for our mothers in their final months, days, hours.  

At my request, Dana wrote down some helpful suggestions to consider.

                              Simplifying Life.

First you have to learn to embrace the quiet and live for yourself.  This is hard since you have been selfless for so much of your life.  If you can do that, the rest is easy and fun. 

After you learn to except that there are just the two of you, you start to find things to do together.  At first I thought we had to do big things, vacation, day trips........but then (after exhausting my husband) I realized that little things matter more.  Going to the store together, fixing dinner, eating when you want instead of being on someone else's schedules.  

But what I really like, is after there is no one else to worry about, you can finally start learning who you are. I always knew that life was a journey, but I just didn't see where I fit into it all.  Who has time?  Work, family, dramas......It's not just your children, but your parents too. Then things start to slow down and you can actually think about yourself and what you are about.  I actually had to learn how to enjoy myself without doing it for someone else. 

In learning about yourself, you also see things that need to change.  Time isn't endless any more.  And you know it.  You don't want to waste time on things that are no longer needed.  Below is my insane list of things I have done to simplify my life:

Learn not to be an enabler (should be every ones number 1)

Scale everything down

I use two things to clean, vinegar and dish soap (my husband cleans the main bathroom)

Throw things away I don't use (or enjoy).  Why continue to clean something that is just sitting there year after year

Do things in smaller time frames instead of doing everything at once

I shower when I go to the gym since I swim and I am already wet

I cook my week's worth of breakfast on Sunday

Organization - I calendar things I need to do, it helps me focus

Buy things with the thought of "what is easier"

Take my car through the car wash

Work is just a job, not your life

Make several weekly menus for dinner and rotate them, this helps buy the right foods and I don't have to think about "what's for dinner"

Change or remove as much stress as possible.......I think "is that going to stress me out" 

Know myself and what is important to me and what isn't

I have less bills and auto pay some of them

Listen to my gut/'s wrong less than my brain

Save money for things I want to do

Accept the present and meditate when I get tired

 Now I have time to spend doing the things that I enjoy! 

Lastly, I will add my own sage advice. I am happy to report each of my three children manage well without my interference. As do I. In the last eleven months I have:

1) Reconnected with the two wonderful women who helped contribute to this blog. (Thank you again to both S.L. (Sheree) Bartlett and Dana Matthews!)

2) Sheree and I have completed the first book of a series of three books we plan to co-author. "No Gentleman Is He" is the first book. Our baby. It is in the final editing stages. We have, as well, began the second book and I have begun research on my own project set in the gilded age of the 1890s. I have always loved writing from the time I was in my 'tweens'. How awesome that the time presents itself where I can work on what I love!

3) Walked the busy streets of New York City with Dana. (I am not a country girl. Give me the bright lights of the city.)

4) Vacationed in Upstate New York with my husband. (Admittedly, it was to see our son, daughter-in-law and two of our granddaughters. However, we get a nice hotel close by and spend time to ourselves becoming acquainted with the area.)

5) Spent many hours pleasuring myself by finding new styles of clothing, downsizing my house, reinventing my make up style, re-acquainting myself with capable adult children, reading how-to books on writing, finding the perfect vehicle that allows us to travel and yet not drag a huge machine around with us. We settled on a Rav 4 and love it. Many hours have been spent riding through the city and countryside discussing our lives and what we want for the future. Now that I am in the empty nest groove, it will be full steam ahead.

Additionally, I would like to toss in my own advice for those of you looking toward or submerged in empty nesting.

1) Let technology be your friend. Don't shrink from the convenience of smart phones and online bill paying. Go paperless. Who needs all of that extra paper tossed around their house? Not I. In neat folders in my email are receipts with confirmation numbers and bills paid. It could be said this is advice anyone of any age could benefit from; though I find the fifty-some crowd more reluctant.

2) Cut your hair. Yes, Cut. Your. Hair. Gravity pulls our face down with time. A nice short to mid-length cut will make your face look younger. So will highlights (I am blonde on blonde.) Find a decent salon with a stylist you can trust.

3) Take a walk (or ride) at an odd time. Just because you finally can.

4) Revamp your kitchen. Tuck away the mixer/blender/toaster oven. You'll want them for company, especially on holidays when your kitchen is once again in full tilt. You don't need these small appliances every day. Throw away the old, bent flatware. Buy new and enjoy it now that it's only you and your husband. Give away stuff you'll never use again. Dishes, pots/pans, the three extra crock pots you'll never need again. Your children, who are now running their own race, will gratefully accept them.

5) Meal time can be romantic! Like me, your meals as a family probably revolved around roasts, ham, meatloaf; any food that could feed your tribe and fill those empty pits known as stomachs. It is time to invest in steaks and chops. Meals are downsized, hence so is the cost. Indulge.

6) An addendum to number 5 is my own personal formula for intimacy. I am at my least amorous on a full stomach. With an empty house, perhaps it is time to switch your love making routine to pre-dinner time. This works for us...and we're always famished afterward; ready to devour a good meal. Find your own time. Work with your body clocks.

7) Why heat/air condition empty space? Downsize. Many of our friends, along with Monty and I, moved to a townhouse. Give yourself enough room to paint and create that private space we all long for. Office, library, man-cave. It's a fun project you can work on together. Another change we made was to move my husband into his own bathroom. No, he doesn't clean it. I do. However given that he no longer complains about my 'products' and I no longer have to look at his 'shavings', it is more than worth it to me. My happiness is augmented by my lack of falling into the toilet with the seat up in the middle of the night.

8) I opted to keep my oversized high efficiency washer and dryer. I put the over sized drums to work for me by only doing one load of each per week. One load of whites, one load of darks, etc. With the exception of bedclothes, this works perfectly. I do the same with my dishwasher. I fill it and run it once a day. You may find you need to run your less. No longer are you a slave to these major appliances. They now work for you.

9) Decide how often you will have grandchildren over and They are fun, keep you young and on your toes. They are not yours, however. Nor should you take on the responsibility. There will be exceptions, of course. Our Scarlett was hospitalized, so we took the other two older children for two weeks. That is an exception. That they cannot find a sitter for a night out is not. Stick to your guns. Grands should be enjoyed not burdensome.

10) As much you need time to reveal yourselves to each other again, it is as important to respect each other's space and time alone. My husband is a man of great faith. Each morning he spends one to two hours with his bible and research books. I could wake up and start talking. He would allow me because it's the kind of person he is. I don't. I want him to have this time that brings him personal fulfillment. This is not an interest we share. God is important in my life. Church is not. Although I have encouraged him to go without me, he enjoys his time alone with his faith. If I could find a church where the people did not equate being a Christian with being a card carrying member of the conservative movement, it might work. As it is, I leave more confused than when I entered. Still, I have great respect for the person he has become through his faith...and that he can have such faith without one iota of judgment. I, on the other hand, am a political junkie. I can go on a non-stop rampage on the virtues of liberalism. He not only agrees, he encourages my free thinking. He allows me time to write, visit friends, take trips to NYC with my cousin and basically enjoy my personal time. I try to do the same for him. You will not always enjoy the same interests. Trust your relationship is strong enough to survive a few differences. You'll come back to each other stronger and more interesting.

Give yourselves time to get to know each other again. To quote one of my favorite songs: "Do a lot of catching up a little at a time."

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