Monday, August 30, 2010

The Empty Nest

A friend off mine recently suggested I look into the etiquette and dynamics which surround those of us who have become empty nesters. Life changes dramatically when the children to whom you have given so much nurturing over the years are suddenly no longer under your roof. She wrote to me, "there are all kinds of us empty nesters- mine came a bit sooner than anticipated under circumstances I didn't anticipate so I am winging it...but also biding my time wondering if the college student will be back post degree, or the younger one asking to come back with a baby and girlfriend/wife. Hope you cover stages of empty nesters and "temporary" empty nesting. Whichever it is, I've found it a bit odd when someone says, "oh, now you can come to our house one of these weekends"--my first reaction is I have to think about this...who might need me in town (even though they don't live with me!)... getting better though! My husband, Jim, says "let's get going while the getting is good and go!"

Untying the apron strings can be just as difficult for the parent as for the child. There tend to be residual feelings of needing to help, of fixing things, and of being responsible for other peoples' well being. Not being a parent myself, I can only imagine the challenges. However, from the perspective of the child, and being able to step back and observe my own family dynamics, I can say that there are major adjustments. There's a lot of new time on your hands which used to be filled with a series of responsibilities. Once these no longer require your attention, there is this void which suddenly becomes part of your reality. That can be accompanied by feelings of fear, excitement, freedom and a whole host of other possibilities. Everyone one of us is different. It is important to accept these differences and to allow customizing of this extra time to take whatever form it may. There is no right or wrong way to approach or handle this altered state of existence.

One event that a person finds time for after the children are out of the house is accepting invitations to high school and college reunions. Rekindling friendships which started when we were children ourselves is invigorating, rejuvenating and balancing. We have time to rediscover things that we might have lost or set aside during child rearing years. Now that we have time on our hands to devote a little more attention to ourselves, reconnecting with long lost friends can be a lot of fun.

Some people want to continue their education. It's interesting how different the dynamic is when you return to school as an adult to complete a diploma or start the path to a higher scholastic degree. There is a feeling of desire that isn't always present when we are in our teens or twenties. We can decide to study topics which really interest us intellectually as opposed to a real focus of preparing us for the job market. I have one friend who is doing both, that is pursuing education to go into a field she has dreamed about, and she is studying topics of great interest, all in pursuit of the goal of a college degree. It requires dedication, courage, and a real sense of adventure.

Many people have full time jobs, do charitable work, and of course maintain their familial connections. This is multi tasking in one of its highest forms. Men and women both have enormous responsibilities and have historically each worked. Work was not defined solely in terms of monetary reward. Working the fields in the old days, and living without the modern conveniences of the past hundred years, folks have always worked hard. With less emphasis on the element of just survival, time takes on a different perspective. It affords people the possibility of following one's dreams.

In the exuberance of this new lease on life it important to keep in mind that plans can change; the flock can return in fits and starts unexpectedly; and you are then faced with choices. Can they come back to the nest or do you encourage them to face life's challenges on their own? These choices are as complex as one can imagine and there is no right or wrong answer on how to handle them. I am of the school which says that children need parental support for varying amounts of time; sometimes intermittently; and in some form or another throughout their lives. We all grow up at our own speed and arbitrary ages have little bearing on much of how we mature. Show compassion always; be fair and civil to yourself and your family at all times. Life is short and happiest when we learn to bend like a willow.