Four years ago, a word came to me: restless. That’s me, I thought. That’s what I am: restless. And then I saw how well it went with the word “nest.” Restless Nest. Suddenly, I had a retort, a comeback, to the tiresome questions about how I was coping with our newly empty nest.
“It’s not empty,” I would say. “It’s restless.”
I liked saying it, because it instantly defused a whole Molotov-cocktail shaker full of flammable issues behind the words “empty nest.” There was the implied sexism—“I’m sure your husband’s fine but you must be a mess!”—and ageism: “wow, life’s pretty bleak and empty at your age, isn’t it?” And then there were my own incendiary issues: I hated the thought of my college-age children judging me and thinking my life was now empty and dull. I resented the mixed messages from well-meaning friends, which I somehow heard as: if you’re a good and loving mother, of course you are going to feel bereft when your children leave. On the other hand, if you do feel bereft, that must mean you defined yourself through your children, and didn’t we all vow thirty years ago we wouldn’t do that?
Four years later, thinking about what I was thinking then makes my head spin. Because here’s one thing I’ve learned: I am not the only restless one in this nest, and I’m not just talking about my husband.
Although he’s a good place to start.
“Read this,” he said on Sunday, pointing to a New York Times Opinion piece titled “Sad Dads in the Empty Nest.” It’s about how much life has changed in this generation for fathers and what that means for them when their kids leave home. Our husbands are not like our dads. Writer Liza Mundy (The Richer Sex) cites a Pew Research Center study stating that since the 1960s, fathers have nearly tripled the time they spend with their children. The number of stay-at-home dads has doubled in two decades, and nearly half of all fathers say they would stay home if they could afford it. They’re doing more housework too, though Mundy writes that women still do about two-thirds of household chores. And so, she theorizes, “the empty nest may represent for men a pure loss of a cherished presence, whereas for women it can bring sadness but also freedom and a certain relief.”
“Pure loss of a cherished presence.” Wow. I wish we women could be sad with such noble, straightforward simplicity. But it’s not fair of me to be snarky, because honestly? Mundy speaks the truth. When our daughter Claire left for college in 2007, my daily emotional diet was, precisely, sadness, freedom and a certain relief. Missing her was a constant, sad ache. Freedom came more gradually, as I found that the ache was creating a space, and into that space moved a long-neglected, freedom-loving friend: the desire to write. Relief came in the form of a lightened schedule. Our son Nick was still in high school, Rus and I had plenty of work, but juggling three peoples’ daily events was somehow a snap compared to juggling four.
By the time Nick left for college in 2010, I had earned an MFA in creative writing and written a polished draft of my memoir, Her Beautiful Brain. The nest was not empty. It was restlessly busy with a capital R.
And now, four years later, we’ve downsized to a new nest and adjusted to the comings and goings of the truly restless people in this family: our young adult children. They are both college graduates. They’ve both lived independently and stopped in at the nest on occasion. Right now, they are in Colorado and Eastern Europe, respectively. When they bounce back to Seattle, I’m sure they’ll touch down here. And we’ll welcome them. And we’ll applaud their restlessness. It’s what they should be doing. It’s what we should be doing.