where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “Empty Nest”

The Restless Report

DSC00865Four 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 Her_Beautiful_Brainpolished 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.



DSC00865We were going to camp, but the weather was terrible. Instead, we rented a tiny cottage on the Washington coast. It has a wood stove and a big window, so we can watch the storm pound the beach in comfort.

There is room, in this cabin, for exactly two people: my husband and me.

About fifteen years ago, we rented a pair of houses up the beach a ways. There were eight of us—my sister and her family and me and mine. Four adults, four kids. Beach fires, forts, expeditions, charades, a new puppy—it was a hectic, joyful blast of a trip.

It was a different time of life. A wonderful time. I feel lucky to have had such a wonderful time.

We still feel lucky. We have two young adult children who actually want to hang out with us reasonably often, and we treasure our time together. But we also have this: the flexibility to sneak off to the beach and rent a place the size of a dollhouse, where we can read, write, walk, eat and sleep when we want.

The Washington coast is a good place to ponder the passage of time. Little changes here, and yet everything does. The wind and waves push the sand without ceasing: every day, the beach is brand new.

Two years ago, when I began writing these commentaries for KBCS radio, I thought I would reflect frequently on the passage of time and this big life transition from a full nest to a “restless” one. More often, I’ve found myself responding to what is happening in the world, whether in my neighborhood or far away, from this more restlessly reflective vantage point.

Turns out, “restless” really is the right word to describe this phase. And not just for me and my husband but for our two children, as they make their ways in the world, bouncing back to the nest for an evening or a week or a month, setting out again, visiting frequently with reports from the frontlines of becoming an adult.

If you’re lucky, there is no dramatic break between a full nest and an empty one. Instead, there is breathing room—for us and for them—and frequent reunions, in which we can compare notes.

In some ways, their 20something and our 50something lives have more in common with each other than they do with the people in between us: the busy young parents renting the big beach houses and making spaghetti for eight. Our daughter’s in her first professional job; our son’s in his final stretch of college. They, like we, are pondering questions such as: what do I want the next one, five, ten years of my life to be? When you have young children, you’re way too busy doing to spend much time pondering.

Old beach cabins creak and rock and shift with every storm. There’s a for-sale sign outside this one: before long, it will probably be torn down and something bigger and fancier will be built on this prime beachfront lot.

I wonder if the new owners will keep the driftwood fence, with its festoons of fishing floats. There are names of people and places on some of them—Dominica, Piraeus, Doreen. Bits of histories that floated up here in the surf. Of people, who had bad times and wonderful times and stories to tell. Which I hope they told.

I’m going to take a three-month hiatus from the weekly Restless Nest radio commentaries. I may occasionally post a new (or old favorite) piece here over the summer, and I’ll see you on the radio again come September.  

In case you missed it: “Laughter and Forgetting,” mAugust 2012 story in Seattle Metropolitan Magazine about younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease just won first place in health reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists. Honored and grateful to Sharon Monaghan and Cathie Cannon for sharing their story with me.

Radio lovers: Podcasts available here of the full Restless Nest audio archive.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.


Readers: October has been a busy month here in the Restless Nest. This week, I re-broadcast a radio piece on one of my favorite subjects: breakfast.

“So, how’s the Empty Nest going for you?” the Other Mom asked me when we ran into each other in the park.  Our children were the same ages: 18 and 21.   The younger ones recently graduated from the same high school.

“It’s a little strange.  But I guess I don’t miss getting up every day at 6:30.”

“Oh, that wasn’t an issue for me,” she responded.  “My daughter was so self-sufficient.”

The implication being, of course, that our son was not: that it was his sorry lack of self-sufficiency that got my husband and me out of bed every morning.

But that wasn’t it at all, I wanted to explain, but didn’t.

I wanted to be there every day, just to say “Good-bye!  Have a great day!” as Nick ran out the door.  I wanted to know he had breakfast in his stomach and a sack lunch in his backpack.  I knew he didn’t “need” us to get up.  He probably didn’t even “want” us to get up.  But isn’t one of the enduring themes of the teenage years that secret feeling that no one really cares?  And when you’re having one of those dark adolescent moments, might it not help to be able to say to yourself, At least my parents get up every morning and pop my toast in for me?  At least they say good-bye when I leave the house?

But I didn’t say any of that to the Other Mom.  Especially since she was the same Other Mom who, the first time we ever chatted, scolded me for putting my daughter in an “elitist” gifted program, the same program she put her own daughter in a few years later.

Parents can be so judgmental.  Myself included.  In Seattle, we judge each other for, among other things, not offering the most perfectly healthy snacks or allowing violent video games or too much TV.  Or any TV at all.  But one of the wisest, most non-judgmental moms I know once told me, when Nick was still in middle school, that she would continue to make peanut butter toast in the mornings and pack sack lunches until her tall teenaged boys absolutely forbade it, because to be able to send them out into the day with good food gave her such comfort: the comfort of knowing that, whatever else might happen to them that morning or afternoon, breakfast and lunch were covered.

I can do that for Nick, I thought at the time.  I will do that.

Her twin boys are 21 now, seniors in college, living off campus, cooking and eating with impressive self-sufficiency.

I don’t miss smearing peanut butter and jam on bread, bagging carrots, rummaging in the cupboards for trail mix or cookies.  I do miss knowing that Nick has a brown bag full of healthy food in this pack, food he can “eat standing up,” his one specific lunch-packing request.

I don’t miss having to get up at 6:30.

I do miss the two-second, patiently tolerated goodbye kiss.  That I do miss.

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

Goodbye, Oh’leven

Hey 2011.  Can I call you Oh’leven? You have been quite a year.  The Year of the Protester, according to TIME Magazine.  I know: I mentioned this last week.  But I’m so not done dwelling on the significance of it.  Oh’leven will forever be the year millions of people—in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, New York, Oakland, Seattle—decided to stand up, move, do something.  Because sitting out the recession wasn’t working very well.  Neither was waiting for aging dictators to die, or democracy to just happen.

I regret I did not personally take part in the Occupy Movement, which was at its height during our family’s craziest time in 2011: the Big Move from the house we’d been in for 21 years to a smaller home two miles away.  Instead of taking to the streets, we were taking endless loads of stuff to Goodwill.  But our move felt, in its humble way, like part of this larger story.  When our house sold, we traded in a big mortgage with a big bank for a small mortgage with a small bank.  We traded in a big house that served us well while raising children for a townhome that will serve us perfectly in our Restless Nest years.   We occasionally sold but mostly gave away all kinds of things we no longer needed—basketball hoop, couch, futon, rowing machine, clothes, sheets, towels—to people who need them more.  We chose a neighborhood where we can walk and take light rail.  When we tell people about making these choices, they get it, because this is the year everybody came clean about being squarely in the ranks of the 99 percent.

It’s so ingrained in the American psyche to aspire to that top one percent that the widespread acknowledgement of actual economic reality—the reality that for most people, it is well-nigh impossible to ever get even near those highest heights—is a big, big collective gear shift.  For our daughter and her classmates, who graduated from college in 2011, this shifting of the gears has hit hard.  They feel lucky if they have jobs at all, let alone something in their fields of study.  They feel lucky if they can scrape together enough money to move out of their childhood bedrooms.  Their expectations have skidded from the high times of 2007, when they graduated high school, right into the steep muddy slope of a recession no one hinted to them was just around the corner.

Our move, our daughter’s transition from college to work and living on her own, how these personal events dovetailed with the Year of the Protester: I found plenty to write about and think about this year, as I began my own Oh’leven adventure as a KBCS radio commentator.  There have been weeks when it was hard to find the time and, even more, the focus to sit down and write a Restless Nest piece.  But I’m so glad I get to do this every week, because it is keeping me writing through a time in my life—in all our lives—of great upheaval.

Every time I sit down to write, I learn something.  I let go of something.  My lost passport, for example: a casualty of the move, which if I share with you, I have to admit what a small thing it is.  How easily it can be replaced.  Just as whenever I write about the Big Move, I have to acknowledge how lucky we are to have pulled it off.  We sold a house and bought another one in the middle of a recession.  We made it through the steeplechase of inspections and repairs and loan approvals and it all actually worked.

Oh’leven, I am grateful.  You have not been easy.  But no one would ever call you dull.

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