Ten tips for empty-nesters
At lunch recently with my buddies, two of them married so long they forgot their anniversaries and their wedding vows now seem like threats, the chat turned to their kids leaving for college soon.
“What then?” I asked.
Pregnant pause, then one confessed, “My wife and I have no idea. You tell us. You’ve never had kids. You’ve been an empty nester all your life. What do you do with your time?”
Ah. Finally. The day has come:
My lifelong childlessness, once regarded as tragic or dubious, now makes me an invaluable sensei to the soon-childless.
I’ve heard about the existential angst of the empty-nester, where spouses ask themselves and each other The Big Questions:
Who am I? Why am I? Who is this person in my house and why is he/she here? Why are we together? Do we do, um, you know, that thing? When and why? Right here, right now? No! What about the kids?! Oh, right — they’re not here.
Do I love you? Do you love me? I mean, really? Do we even like each other? How do we know? Should I leave and find myself? Should I have an affair with that terrible flirt from work? Ugh. I don’t want to get my own apartment and furniture. Besides, I’m used to you. Ok, ok, I’ll stay. That flirt at work is trouble anyway.
So … when are the kids coming back? I can’t wait. I miss them. Their rooms are untouched in case they come back. Maybe we should visit them. I emailed, texted and Skyped them several times yesterday, but haven’t heard back. Wait! I got a ping. Sorry, honey, I liked what you were doing to me, it was nice, but it might be the kids. Do they need anything more from IKEA? I saw a nice Dagstorp sofa on sale.
I empathize: These couples put 90 percent of their adult human lives — decades they’ll never get back — into birthing, nurturing, raising, schooling, busting their butts to pay for, and not killing their kids intentionally or by “accidentally” locking them in a hot car.
As parents, they gave everything to shape and launch the beautiful, unique, cherished, precious and rarest fruit of their loins. They’ve endowed their spawn with supreme self-esteem, a belief that their immeasurable value surpasses even that of the world’s largest flawless vivid blue diamond (the 13-carat Winston Blue), they’re the Eighth Wonder of the World beyond seven others (surpassing even the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus), and the Greatest Gift That Yahweh Has Ever Given To Humankind. Even if the kids can’t pick up their clothes and they suck at most things if not everything.
For my friends, their children gave great meaning to their lives and purpose for the daily grind, the mortgage, the series of Honda Odysseys, the groceries, the medical bills, the school meetings, the puzzling anew over calculus and conjugation, and the whirlwind scheduling and constant dashing about for the sports, theater and other practice and activities the kids will never be good at.
These are parents who mock “helicopter parents” who are way too obsessed.
Yes, the children were worth the usual long-term couple celibacy reinforced by the fights or snits over who did or didn’t do something they should have done or promised to do. The kids gave the couples something to talk about on the date nights their marriage counselors advised if they wanted even a prayer of staying together.
And maybe the kids, as they move on with their lives, will visit. Maybe finally they’ll produce some grandchildren and visit at least on the holidays, is that too much to ask? Maybe they’ll visit their parents in the nice community the kids arranged for them because their confusion over the latest iPhone update was a sign of early onset dementia.
For now, to help parents transitioning from Full House to Empty Nest (both late 80s/early 90s sitcoms), I suggest these ten tips to live like I do:
Learn to do nothing
Absolutely nothing. Sit on the front porch on weekend afternoons. Nod hello at the neighbors. Stare at the leaves long enough to actually see them transform from green to red/yellow/orange to crispy brown and then watch them detach and float earthward.
When I mentioned this do-nothing tip to a soon empty-nester mom, she asked, “So, my sensei, how do we learn the sublime art of doing nothing? “The same way you get to Carnegie Hall,” I replied with the old vaudeville joke, “Practice, practice, practice.”
The next eight tips are good ways to practice doing nothing:
Any time. Anywhere you’re tired or sleepy. Collapse and nap there. On the porch. In the yard. In the car in the driveway or in the Whole Foods parking lot. On the phone with your mothers. In front of ESPN3 NCAA field hockey (New Hampshire v. Maine).
Stop preparing meals — eat fistfuls of restaurant leftovers right from the fridge at breakfast, noon or midnight. Let dishes pile up and nest maggots. Leave muddy shoes, dirty clothing redolent of rotting Stilton, and random sports equipment lying around in hallways and staircases to trip over. Elevate your home from minor biohazard to major EPA Superfund site.
Going native will a) give you more time to do nothing and nap; b) remind you of the kids and ease the pain of missing them; and, c) help you accept that you no longer need to set an example for the kids.
Also, walk around the house naked, unless it grosses out your spouse. Either way, I don’t want to hear about it.
Stop doing chores
Guys, admit: The only reason you’re willing to risk tetraplegia by climbing on the roof to patch it, or do yard work, or fix things that require 30 trips to the hardware store is to get away from the family.
On the other hand, errands are now less of a drudgery and more of a fun outing, a reason to shower, put on clothes and mingle with the public. If you like that sort of thing.
Not Facebook. Books. Book club books. Maybe “Finnegan’s Wake” and other classics you had no time to read. If not, I suggest the tragic, gripping, Oprah-recommended memoir of a white 22-year-old Mount Holyoke grad cursed with a normal happy privileged life and wealthy doting father whose Princeton fraternity brother and golf buddy is an executive at HarperCollins.
At book club, since nobody reads the book, kvell about your empty-nester life of doing nothing, napping, and going native.
Have face time. Not FaceTime. Have lunch. Not just lunch — liquid lunch. Beers at noon make you sleepy, and naptime is coming soon.
Learn to use iTunes
And all of your computer/internet/tech/iPhone, iPad and app whatnot. Learn to “download” and find what you downloaded, and what a “meme,” a “gif” and the “cloud” are.
Ha! Just kidding. Don’t even try. Your Fitbit heart rate will explode and the app will melt your phone.
Letters to the editor or elected representatives, Yelp reviews, community listserv posts, guest columns in throw-away neighborhood weeklies, but rarely if ever on your kids’ Facebook pages.
We all have something unique and trenchant to say about Trump and other political, cultural and current events that nobody else has thought of or could state quite as insightfully and lyrically as we can.
Get it off your chest by writing Medium.com effluvia like this and then checking every hour to see if anyone has viewed, read or clapped. Don’t be disappointed when nobody does.
Loiter at Starbucks
Take your time and everyone else’s learning the drink menu and order a grande half-caff iced sugar-free vanilla no foam latte with soy milk at 120 degrees. Just to screw with the barista.
Even better, wait for the Starbucks Roastery and Tasting Room to come to your town, sit at the bar and watch the master barista employ the ancient Italian Siphon method “with its elegant glass chambers and stunning vacuum process” to brew your rare, single-source, hand-picked beans into a custom single cup so powerfully sublime you’ll slip past the event horizon and into a tesseract like Cooper in “Interstellar,” which you now have the 2hr 49m running time to see. The special coffee also takes 2hr 49m to brew but the process is more interesting and easier to follow.
While waiting for your cup, do not glance furtively at comely college students your kids’ ages with anything but respect for their personal agency.
Date your spouse
You know what to do. If you don’t, if you forgot, go back to that marriage counselor. You now have time for dating each other.
And it’ll answer some of those existential questions, reminding you why you’re together.
Enjoy! At least until the kids move back in.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.