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Who's your empty nest icon?
Mama's talkin' loud. Mama's doin' fine. Mama's gettin' hot. Mama's goin' strong. Mama's movin' on. Mama's all alone. Mama doesn't care. Mama's lettin' loose. Mama's got the stuff. Mama's lettin' go.
The last few years, it seemed like many of the celebrity moms I’m aware of stopped talking about their little kids and began talking about becoming empty nesters and how sad they feel about it. Then I read Heather Corinna’s book about perimenopause and just felt bummed about the agenda of a mother’s life. First you have a baby and that’s hard, followed by the grind of raising small children. Then your kids become teens and hate you just while your body is wrapping up, and then just when you have sweet menopausal freedom they move out and you’re sad and you’re an old crone and you die.
But then I began thinking about some of the more senior witches I know whose children have grown up and left home who seem to actually be enjoying this stage of life. One said, “I fucking love it. Everyone is happier: me, my husband, the kids (now all in their 20s and living on their own). There is SO much less stress on a day to day level. I put something down, come back to it two hours later, and IT'S IN THE SAME PLACE. No one runs an ink pen through my dryer. No one leaves all the goddamn cabinets open. No one leaves an open bottle of juice on the brand-new couch. It’s heaven on fucking earth.”
Another wrote, “The kid's leaving made it possible for me to apply for a fellowship in Mexico. I had the time to take Spanish, work on the application, and then head off to Guadalajara for five months. That would have been close to impossible earlier.
It’s so much quieter and cleaner now. My husband and I fight far less because there are fewer things to be stressed about. There’s less laundry and fewer dishes, and more dirty dishes make their way to the dishwasher. We can afford to do so much more, too, now that our kid is out of college. (One of my father's friends likes to say that the biggest raise you will ever get is when your youngest child leaves college.) So for me, it’s awesome. Our kid is doing well, too. Yay!”
Another is a relative of mine, K.—not only do she and her husband travel a ton and have an active social life, I know she is also close with her two grown sons, and on top of that, they are independently nice young men who seem to enjoy their relationship with their family. This is a template for later life I would like to follow if at all possible! So I spoke with her on the phone about her point of view on this side of parenthood:
When was the last time you spoke with your kids?
I talked to A. (28) and B. (25) today through text and messaging. A. and I work at the same university. We try to meet once a week for lunch. B. and I talk at 4 PM every Thursday. B. just moved out about 6 months ago. He had a tragedy in his life and came back home and then COVID hit and he stayed home for a bit. My husband and I sit down and we chat about the day and catch up. B. would come out and talk with us too. A. is a bit of a different breed; he’s not as open as B. is. You have to work hard with these boys, especially when they get a girlfriend.
Did you and your husband make a ‘plan’ for how you wanted to be once your kids grew up?
A long time ago, when the kids were in elementary school, we knew a couple whose kids moved out and their relationship deteriorated and they separated. We had talk about it—”I don’t want to lose sight of you of why we got married; let’s not grow apart.” You grow so much in your 20s and 30s. We wanted to make sure we stayed knowing each other. We always, no matter how broke we were, tried to have a date night, to have a weekend away without the kids, to keep our relationship going. I really do believe that’s helped us now. We’re having a blast.
We did not see eye to eye on a lot of parenting at the time. Our younger son could be difficult. I was more of “Let’s take it easy” and my husband was a disciplinarian. Now we’re closer because we can concentrate on each other versus all the other things that come along with having children.
Have you found yourself bored or socially disconnected when the number of kid obligations and the network that comes with them dries up?
B.’s senior year he didn’t do sports, so we stopped going to the football games and all of that. It was a gradual process. We kept the friends that we wanted to keep from that. I remember being sad thinking about how life will be different and how it won’t be the same forever and that was always a tough thing to think about, especially with boys, knowing that women are closer to their moms and the mom’s family. That’s always bothered me and worried me. We try really hard. We have family dinner one a month. If you can make it, terrific. We try to give them experiences that they might not be able to afford; we just took them to San Francisco to see the Van Gogh exhibit. They appreciate that.
I have work, I exercise. We definitely like to travel. We love to get away. That’s my main hobby, seeing friends. We don’t have anything to get home to outside the dogs. I always read at night—that was never something I had to give up. We garden: we love it back it here.
Do you have a particular philosophy when it comes to how you think about A.’s long-term girlfriend?
It’s all about her, for sure. I want to make sure that we are close, I get to know her, that I appreciate her. Luckily, she’s wonderful and we think she’s probably going to be his future wife and we are thrilled. I do my best to include her on everything; we know we have to. That sounds terrible, like a chore, but it’s lovely. In order to stay close with our son we need to have a relationship with his future partner. We’ve always done that, even with girlfriends in high school. We’ve taken them on trips, to regularly invite them over for family dinner if they want t.
How did you figure out how to relax and not worry too much when your kids went off on their own?
That is weird. When B. moved out — he’s our fragile boy — I was probably texting him a few times a day, just checking in, throughout that week, and then it tapered off. We have a group text, we play Wordle together, we’re going to Bodega Bay together soon so we’ll talk about that. It’s really tapered off with that anxiety on my end, because I know he’s doing OK. I know him, that he will call me if he needs something if he’s upset or having any issues.
Did you get advice about this stage of life that was useful?
My grandma who lived in New York came to visit quite often when the kids were little and I said to her once, “Grandma, this just makes me so sad that life won’t always be like this, having kids and Thanksgiving together.” She said, “Honey, by the time that they are ready to move out you’re going to want them to. You’ll be ready.” She was so right. When they get older, they become adults. When he moved back with us, B. was essentially our roommate, not our son. It’s so nice to have the house to ourselves and we’re not saying “Hey did you wash that pan?” He paid us rent, so it was definitely more of a roommate situation. You want them to go fly and start adulting and live their life and figure it out.
What did you do with their rooms and their things?
We have these plastic big tubs that I got from Target and I said “OK here’s my memorabilia from when you were in school and growing up,” like their first teddys. We put everything in these tubs and downsized it to that. I said “Take anything else you want. The tub is your sentimental box that you’ll always have—those are still here.” As soon as B. moved out we bought a Peloton and we converted his room. “I’m sorry, there’s no room for you sir, you can’t come back.”
What were the hardest eras of parenting, looking back?
I think middle school is the hardest because hormones are going nuts, and they don’t know how to deal with it. Being boys, you can’t necessarily show a lot of emotion without getting judged for that. They both had a rough time, especially with the medication B. was on; the hormones changed how his body processed it.
What was something you thought was important about parenting that turned out not to be important?
Probably the discipline piece. My husband was very rigid, and that wasn’t necessarily needed. That’s a hard part, when you don’t agree on how to deal with something that bothers you but not so much the other person. It’s a balance. I believe in rules, I believe you should know what’s right and wrong. If you can raise good humans, good for you. If you can get them to be polite and to be happy, that’s what it is in the end.
I do think our discipline on B. was too hard. He could be such a jerk sometimes, and he was grounded often, things of value were taken away, that sort of thing. In the end, those measures did not really work. My husband and I talk about this often and wished we had had better tools to deal with this challenge. However, B. will completely credit us with getting him through high school and helping him find the skills he needed to succeed as an adult. And he is an amazing communicator.
My advice is to just try to have fun. Have a good time. Try to enjoy your children. And it’s so hard. It’s so hard sometimes, but we do now. We love seeing how they’re behaving as adults and we’re so proud of them. We like them. We’d hang out with them if they weren’t our children. That’s cool, and we feel really proud of it. We were so young when we had them, we were winging it. It was a journey. Now, we love to go to Disneyland by ourselves, get a beer, and watch other people’s little kids melt down.
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The archives live here. Here are a few random ones I pulled for you to check out if you’re new and want to poke around: