Embracing the empty nest

by Brian on August 27, 2022

in A Parent in Israel,The Old Country,Travel

On the day we took our youngest son, Aviv, to Ben-Gurion Airport to begin his new life as a music student in New York, we couldn’t stop crying. 

Aviv – a few days before flying to NYC

It’s not that we think he’s making some mistake. On the contrary: This is an amazing opportunity to advance his career, made possible by a generous 82% scholarship from the school.

Still, we are grappling with perhaps the most substantial change in our marriage since we started having kids: We are now officially empty nesters. The parenting part of our journey together is now over.

Well, hardly.

We still have our other two kids, their partners and our nine-month-old grandson living nearby. And heading to an out-of-town college is not like it was when we left home some 40 years ago.

Back then, there were no cell phones, no WhatsApp or FaceTime or Zoom. Once you were out of the house – usually at age 18 – you were gone. Maybe you’d talk to your family once every few weeks or see them a couple times a year. 

Today we’re in touch daily. 

Aviv needs advice on a mattress to order? Send a screenshot from the Casper website. 

Do those new Hokas look snazzy? WhatsApp a photo while still in the shoe store.

Still, it’s not the same. Aviv lived at home for his entire 24 years, even commuting to Tel Aviv for the army, school and gigs.

Our time together was intensified when Covid came calling and we stopped having guests. We probably had hundreds of Shabbat meals just the three of us. 

Aviv also had the opportunity to “witness” my wife, Jody, and me at our best…and our worst. If we got into a tiff, he was there to contain us, even if it was just the fact that he was present in the house.

What would it be like now without him at home?

“I tell couples that nowadays most people have at least three marriages – sometimes to the same person, sometimes not,” my therapist told me. “There’s the initial short marriage; the young couple on honeymoon. Then there are the many years of raising children. Now there’s the empty-nest period. For each, you need to renegotiate your relationship.” 

Moreover, for every growth, there is a “necessary loss,” writes Judith Viorst in her book of the same name. Becoming a parent means you lose a certain amount of intimacy. Getting married implies giving up on the ability to play the field (if that’s something you in fact wanted). 

Aviv’s New York sojourn will be a period of incredible growth, too, but we can’t deny the feelings of loss and longing.

My friend Fern Reiss wrote about the strangeness of her own empty-nest status in the Huffington Post. Fern notes that, while she anticipated the day when the house would be quieter and “we could count on the brie cheese still being in the refrigerator when we looked,” the quiet was too intense. “It permeated everything. When I saw the brie cheese still untouched, it made me feel wistful, rather than victorious.”

Fern touches on something empty nesters frequently fret about: Would conversations with her husband “wither into feeble reminisces about [their] children’s past?”

I’d been thinking about that, too. 

Would Jody and I have what to talk about? Or would silence consume our Shabbat meals when the kids weren’t around?

That was clearly coming more from fear than reality. 

After all, Jody and I cherish our alone time together, whether that’s in town, eating at a new restaurant, hiking or visiting an art exhibit, or on an exotic vacation overseas. We have the skills and tools to handle the empty nest. 

There are positive changes, as well.

The house is already tidier, there are less clothes to wash, we can talk loudly without worrying we’ll wake our sleeping son, there are no fights over who finished off the last rice milk. We can have sex with the bedroom door open.

There are renovations to do, painting that’s gone neglected for years. Maybe we’ll entertain more, even have overnight guests.

And then, of course, there’s travel, which becomes easier when there’s no one at home to take care of. Unless a particularly virulent new Covid variant shuts the world down again, there are so many places on our bucket list – including Manhattan to visit Aviv.

“The motto for the current generation of empty nesters is carpe diem,” writes Andrea Petersen in The Wall Street Journal. “Some empty nesters are treating this period as a fleeting window of freedom before…health issues arise [or] the kids move back in.”

Petersen cites Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, who notes that, after they get through the transition, “a couple’s shared connection gets stronger, relationships with adult children improve and parents develop new interests.”

Christie Mellor, author of Fun Without Dick and Jane: Your Guide to a Delightfully Empty Nest advises parents to revel in their new role, watching movies until 4 am or eating cereal for dinner. “You need to embrace your empty nest and not wallow in your misery.” 

As I write this, it’s only been a week since Aviv left but we’re already starting to come out of our “grief.” I mean, it’s not like someone died. Aviv is off on the adventure of his life and, even if we can’t always witness it in person, we eagerly look forward to every new WhatsApp, every jam session video, and all the personal and professional growth that will undoubtedly come his way.

I first wrote about becoming an empty nester for The Jerusalem Post.

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