The Emptied Nest
The most dramatic and immediate effect on the nest that emptied when our daughter went off to college a few years ago was the quiet. Everything stopped. No phones, no music, no late-night running of the washer and dryer, no extra cars entering and leaving the driveway, no hollered See you later followed by the thud of a screen door. Just eerie quiet. And she wasn't even a particularly noisy kid.
The second most dramatic effect was the cat's behavior. The first time he followed me into the newly-empty front bedroom, he sniffed around, looked puzzled, then bit me on the ankle. For days thereafter he would run into the room, obviously hoping to find the previous occupant, then come to me and yowl, as though the vacancy was all my fault.
I understood. I was lonesome, too. I'd gained a guest room but lost a daughter. Hardly an even exchange.
Truthfully, I had always found the terms "empty nest" and "empty nester" to have an unpleasantly pathetic ring. They conjured up images of a middle-aged couple in matching sweat pants eating Lean Cuisines right out of the plastic container in front of the TV. The next step, I was sure, would be to call each other "Mother" and "Father" and keep The Weather Channel on all the time. Grim.
Of course, we saw the nest-emptying coming. How could we miss it? A year's accumulation of college brochures, numerous trips to inspect numerous campuses, then the final flurry of shopping and packing that preceded the drive to deliver our student and her belongings to the school of choice. But once we got back home, it seemed pretty abrupt. It was like pulling the plug on the energy source that had made our household run for the previous 18 years. It took some getting used to.
We noticed the small things first. Bottles of Diet Coke sometimes lost their fizz before they were used up. Cartons of ice cream lasted for days. Sometimes you could enter a room with a TV and find it turned off. Every couple of days I used to pick up the phone to check for a dial tone to see if it might be out of order instead of just silent. It wasn't.
Time and space perceptions altered a bit. All of a sudden there was time for anything. Stay late at work -- no problem. Make a stop or two on the way home -- why not? Go out to eat without calling home to make arrangements? Sure. There was nobody to arrange for. The house got bigger. We didn't exactly rattle around, but we noticed there were rooms we hardly ever used. The cleaning service even knocked a few bucks off the regular fee.
My personal sleep cycle changed. During the first few months my daughter was gone, I would wake up several times during the night and check the bedside clock before I remembered that I was not waiting for the sound of a car door slamming. I could sleep through the night. The always-on-duty, meter-constantly-running phase of parenting was over.
So it took a while, but we morphed from anxious parents to normal human beings with a grown child.
We've gotten used to the extra space and put it to good use. Unlike some of our contemporaries, we elected to buck the trend toward more lifestyle-appropriate housing and stay where we are. We've become comfortable with our Ward-and-June-Cleaver, back-to-the-future DeKalb County neighborhood and the sturdy brick ranch-style house that makes up in convenience and familiarity what it lacks in architectural distinction. We complain about the size of the yard at leaf-raking time, but we like it anyway.
Besides, it's hard to imagine leaving the backyard arbor that my husband and our daughter's boyfriend built one summer or the hydrangeas on the patio that bloom faithfully each year no matter how determinedly I neglect them. Why should someone else enjoy the new heating and cooling system, or benefit from the new copper piping that allows -- finally -- the dishwasher to run at the same time someone is taking a shower?
The ankle-biting cat is no longer with us, but he is succeeded by two others, Daisy and Hank. Our daughter is back in town, a self-sufficient and gainfully employed college graduate. She has a place of her own, but she still likes to visit the nest every now and then. And that's fine by me.
Susan Percy is editor of Georgia Trend.