Empty nest, two months in

After putting up with a year of my anticipatory angst, you might be wondering, How’s it going with that Empty Nest? 

And after about two months I can answer… really well!

Here are the visible changes in my life:

  • Got rid of the station wagon and bought the Chevy Volt (which I love – but more on that in a future post).
  • Started taking an intense 90-minute bike/row class at the gym at 6 a.m. three days a week.
  • Cooking more “adult” foods — bok choy, kale, chard, cauliflower.

Stinson Beach – an empty nest weekend walk / Photo by Ilana DeBare

  • More free time on weekends — autumn without kid soccer games! — for birding, hiking etc.
  • Ability to take a vacation in the middle of the fall, not on school schedules.

The biggest change, though, is not a visible one. There’s an entire part of my brain that was tied down and now is suddenly free. It wasn’t taken up with major worries, just a constant drone of minor stuff — when will she be home from school, is she done with her homework, should she be going to bed, should she be waking up, what’s the status of the college applications, what are her plans for the weekend, etc.

It felt like a computer with a DOS program running steadily behind Windows — you don’t see it, you don’t hear it, but it ties things up and makes everything run a little more clunkily. For eighteen years. And now suddenly it’s gone! Wow!

(In other words, my brain went from PC to Mac?? Am I now insanely great?)

There have been other changes that are more nuanced. They have to do with relationships:

The Alice in Wonderland Marriage

My marriage seems more intense, as if it had inflated, Alice-in-Wonderland style, to fill a room.  I suddenly feel more dependent on Sam. We’ve gone from a household of three to a household of two.

Before, if he went out of town overnight for work, Daughter was still around — most likely busy, or staying out late, or closed up in her room video-chatting, but still around for a good-night hug or requesting a lift to BART. Now when he is gone, there is no one but me and the cat. It’s a little unsettling to feel this dependent on him.

The Assembly Line Has Shut Down

For the past 18 years, our marriage has been intertwined with a huge, all-consuming Project — raising a child. Even when we went out for dinner by ourselves, this was always there at the table with us. Now suddenly the Project is gone.

Returning to my computer analogies, imagine if the Apple workforce showed up one morning and were told they should keep on working, but they would no longer be manufacturing Macs or iPhones or iPads.

You look around and think, Um, now what are we supposed to be doing? Why are we all here? 

In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream

I’m newly conscious that I don’t have that many strong, current, one-to-one friendships. I have a zillion Facebook friends, including some very old, very dear friends from my teenage years with whom I have marvelously reconnected via the Internet. I have blog readers. I have co-workers. I have people I see at synagogue. But I don’t have as many nearby, frequent, get-together-and-laugh-until you-pee female friends as I had in my teens and 20s and early 30s.

Basically — confession time, a little post-Yom Kippur al cheit here —  I let my own friendships slide when I became a Parent. I wanted to spend my free non-work time with Daughter and Sam. And we were constantly socializing in child-centered formations — school potlucks, soccer weekends, dinners with parents of Daughters’ friends. There were lots of people with whom I spent lots of time, but never really developed a meaningful individual relationship. We related through our children. And now those children and those potlucks and soccer weekends are gone.

That just heightens the unsettling feeling of dependence on Sam. And you read those articles about aging and how people with close friendships stay healthier and live longer than those who are isolated. Aak! I don’t want to be an 80-year-old cat lady alone in her house.

So resolved: I will put effort into reviving and cultivating individual friendships.


All told, I can understand how marriages fall apart when the children leave the house. (Even more, I suspect, when spouses retire and suddenly find themselves together at home all day.)

Now, Sam and I are not going to fall apart. (Don’t worry, Dad!!) But there is subtle recalibration that needs to happen — even with all the positive changes, the freedom, the opportunities, and the knowledge that Daughter is happy and healthy and doing what she needs to do.

I do need to add this as a postscript. The sense of freedom, of losing that DOS program of worry in the background of my brain, is only possible because Daughter is happy and doing well.

The empty nest would be a completely different experience if it were empty because a child had gone AWOL, or was floundering or making dangerous choices. That isn’t our situation… fortunately.


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8 Responses to “Empty nest, two months in”

  1. johnmangels Says:

    That’s GREAT news!

  2. JM Drew Says:

    Hi Ilana,
    Your honest introspection and ability to clearly articulate the changes your are experiencing during this life transition to ’empty nester’ ring truthfully. I very much identify and appreciate your candor. Many of us (I include myself and many who know you through JMSG) are at a similar crossroad. The daughters (& sons) are exiting the nest and the parents no longer have eggs to tend. The continuation of life, fall following summer — winter on the way… has it’s own special comfort. And there will be new patterns which emerge. She returns home for holidays and perhaps the summer months and then goes back to her studies and her college life.

    Our lives do not end as our fledgling leaves the nest, but they will never be quite the same.

  3. leagpage Says:

    I am approaching the empty nest stage one: me oldest is in college and my youngest, homeschooled from the beginning, is heading to high school for 11th grade next year. I have imagined what that might mean, and your description resonates, especially the issue with friends. Lots for me to consider. Thanks.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Glad it resonated! It’s good to think about this stuff in advance. I had a lot of moments of thinking about “lasts” during the year before — last soccer tournament, last back to school night etc. — and I think it helped ease the transition to do some of the “mourning” in advance.

  4. Arn Lisnoff Says:

    Wow, what a great piece! In many ways I can relate…In my hometown mill village life was so full of people that someone leaving for school or work meant that there was slightly more space at the dinner table and if you spoke loud and often enough, you might actually get heard. It would have been an odd idea that you had to put effort into filling the now empty social spaces. How life has changed from that intertwined shtetl-like life. Not better or worse, mind you, just different.

  5. Christina Baglivi Tinglof Says:

    Wow! My twins are juniors and already my mind is preparing as I agree with everything that you’ve written. I can see it happening, and it does have me worried as I’m not a person who enjoys the quiet solitude for long. I like the craziness and the action of family life. I’m trying to nurture my marriage as well as my relationships with my girlfriends for these reasons.

  6. Meg Spencer Dixon Says:

    Ilana: Thanks for another insightful blog post. I love your analogy about the DOS program of parental thought flow; that’s so true. And I think it’s perfectly normal to focus on time/energy on parenthood during the 18-year project (which I’m half-way through!), to the detriment of nurturing friendships with other women. I’m sure that once you focus on it, you’ll develop such friendships. And I suppose the good news is that at our age, the “laugh until you pee” part isn’t that hard to come by — although not for the same reasons that applied in our 20’s!

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