In celebration of the empty nest

April 10, 1995|By Lucy Lee

WHEN MY daughters became teen-agers I listened more closely to friends' laments about their empty nests. I took note of magazine articles that suggested ways to cope with this painful JTC stage. But now that I'm finally in it, I wonder what the despair was about.

It is an adjustment and, like all new phases, it takes some getting used to. The first few weeks I came home to an empty house the snapshots of the children practically jumped off the desk at me. The quietness and stillness were eerie; the sense of expectation, disorienting. After 24 years with a houseful of people, having only two adults at home was different. But it's a difference that grows on you -- quickly.

The thing I like most is the quiet. MTV and the stereo no longer blare nonstop. There are no sibling squabbles, no car doors slamming or phones ringing during the wee hours. I can start my car without having the radio blast me through the roof.

The empty nest years present an opportunity to shift the focus to another member of the family: myself! I never gave much thought to me as a self. I was always Mom the PTA worker, Sunday school teacher, driver, spouse, events coordinator. Family activities came before personal activities, and who had time for a personal life anyway? Creating one has been both challenging and rewarding.

For starters, I have blocks of time in which to read. Instead of scanning fast-moving escapist fiction between car pools and soccer games, I revel in quality time with Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen. Instead of choosing an outdated, damp (drool?) issue of Parents magazine in the pediatrician's office, I read the current (dry) issue of Newsweek at home. I have time to think about what I've read and to discuss it with my husband and friends. Who would have thought it possible?

Increased reading and reflection time prompt me to write my own words. A class in journal writing brings new self-awareness and a reconsideration of past events. My journal is a perfect friend -- discreet, non-critical and always available. It helps me discover patterns, rethink relationships, make sense of things -- mental activities that are more important as I get older.

The extra time that comes with the empty nest allows me to reconnect with old friends and out-of-town relatives through letter writing -- a method of communication that I've always found satisfying. Letters can be reread, shared with my husband, referred to for dates, activities. I've begun to keep copies in a loose-leaf notebook of the ones I write and receive. This increasingly bulky collection is a comforting presence.

I have persuaded our daughters to communicate by mail and discover that our letters to each other relieve some of the inherent parent-child problems. Phone conversations can deteriorate quickly: "You lost your new coat? I can't believe you're 20 years old and still losing things? How can you be so irresponsible."

Having time to think before I react tempers the automatic "mother" response. And it makes for more thoughtful expression in general. I can articulate feelings more accurately with a little lead time. This works at both ends. I see my children in new ways as I read and consider their written words. We are learning to know each other outside of the mother-daughter relationship, as adults and as friends.

Another benefit of the empty nest is a much-increased energy level. Everyday life is definitely less tiring with two people to tend instead of four. There are fewer dirty clothes and general messes, longer acceptable intervals between house cleaning, fewer trips to the grocery store.

Mental energy, too, is more abundant. When the children were young my mind whirled with schedules, appointments, birthday parties, menus for nutritionally impaired taste buds. As they became teen-agers, peer pressure, active hormones, new driving permits and the temptation for alcohol and drugs opened up vast new areas of worry. Decision-making took on chilling overtones since the consequences of bad decisions could be life-threatening.

Both physical and mental energy can be redirected during the empty nest years. I am finally a member of the physical fitness movement since I have time to swim before work. After work, I sometimes take a walk. There are no dance practices or piano lessons to -- to, and supper does not have to be wedged in between after-school activities and homework.

Often supper does not even have to be cooked! Going out to eat is one of the top-ranked benefits of empty nest. Gone are the days of standing in line for bad food, watching the French fries being propelled towards an unwary sibling, wiping the ketchup out of just-washed hair. Instead, one eats good food at a leisurely pace, accompanied by conversation, quiet music and a glass of wine. Don't tell me that's not progress!

Week-end activities switch from soccer games or frantic trips to the library to movies, plays, concerts. No longer controlled by the baby-sitter's curfew, we can stop for dessert or a nightcap.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect of our new social schedule is that it doesn't have to be arranged -- it just happens. The freedom of unscheduled time is exhilarating. It fosters a different marriage relationship. We are no longer Dad and Mom, but Jim and Lucy -- individuals who came together initially for reasons we had almost forgotten.

None of this is to say we don't miss the children. Sometimes our nest feels painfully empty. That's when I talk to my husband about them or reach for my pen and paper. But mainly, it's a good feeling to know they are surviving, even thriving, on their own. It is a time of celebration for all of us.

Lucy Lee writes from Roanoke, Va.

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