Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Ask an Empty Nester

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m about to send my youngest off to college, and the way she’s talking, I doubt I’ll even see her over the summers. It seems she’s gone for good, which I guess is the whole idea. My question is: what should be done with her bedroom? I don’t want to make it into a shrine or anything, but to eliminate all trace of her seems a bit callous. Any suggestions?

Jeannie E, Seattle, WA

Dear Jeannie,

To some degree, this is a matter of real estate: how large is your home? If you lived in a land of giant houses, like, say, Houston, any modification to that room might not be worth the bother. But if your home is typical of Seattle, sounds like you could really use a proper guest room. So you’ll want to make that room attractive to your friends and relatives, which means pulling down the BTS or Monsta X poster, ditching the stuffed animals, upgrading the battered old bumper-sticker-plastered dresser, and if necessary (e.g., if the walls are red or black), repainting.

That being said, if you want to preserve something of your daughter’s essence, in an aesthetically pleasing way, leave her bookshelf exactly as is. Perhaps you have fond memories of seeing her behind this or that book, and after all you probably bought her some of them, especially if your daughter was wise enough to insist you hold on to her favorite children’s picture books. (Note that if your kid doesn’t have a bookshelf full of books to leave behind, you’re a shitty parent and all bets are off.) (Kidding!) (Sort of!) (No seriously, I’m kidding!)

Dear Empty Nester,

My son’s grand European tour dovetailed right into his departure for college, so my husband and I got an early start on our empty nester experience. The main thing I’ve noticed so far is that we’re kind of snippy with each other, especially about—of all things—the perennially low gas gauge in our car. We used to blame our kid for this (and frankly he earned that), but with him gone it’s still going on. My husband swears he doesn’t run out the tank, and while he’s not known to be delusional, I’m sure I’m not the culprit either. Are we losing our minds?

Emily K, Portland, OR

Dear Emily,

This could just be a phase as you adjust to life without your son around. Perhaps both you and your husband are flakier than you think when it comes to filling the tank, having long scapegoated your kid, and now the size of this problem is being exaggerated. You might also reasonably chalk some of this up to sky-high gas prices; maybe you’re getting just a few gallons at a time because you keep finding yourself almost out of gas without a reasonably cheap gas station nearby.

There’s a silver lining here, by the way: at least your son learned to drive! As described in this Wall Street Journal article, a growing number of Gen-Z kids aren’t bothering to learn; in 1983, 46% of 16-year-olds got their driver licenses, whereas in 2014 that had fallen to 24.5%. Don’t get me wrong, cars suck and we should all be biking instead, but knowing how to drive is an inarguably useful skill.

Dear Empty Nester,

It’s been almost a year since we dropped our child (er, adult, I guess) off at college, and when he didn’t even come home for summer break, my wife and I relapsed right into the empty nester funk we’d suffered originally. It might even be worse this time. It’s so bad, my wife is talking about getting a dog. This initially struck me as a really weird, hail-Mary type of notion, but I’m starting to think I’m just crazy enough to try it. What do you think?

Malcolm R, Oakland, CA

Dear Malcolm,

First of all, I am not a dog person, so I am fundamentally unqualified to answer this question, but I’ll give it my best shot anyway.

If you have never had a dog, this seems like a strange time to get one; or, to put it another way, if you’ve lived this long without a dog, do you actually fancy yourself suddenly becoming a dog person? Meanwhile, there are practical things to consider: as an empty nester you now have the opportunity to travel more, but a dog can seriously cramp your style. You should probably interview your dog-owning friends see what you’re getting into.

It also strikes me that a dog would be a questionable replacement for a typical teenaged human, with their moodiness, their tendency to hole up in their room, and their inevitable lack of greeting when you arrive home. In short, it’s likely your departed teen behaved more like a cat. Wouldn’t that be a more realistic surrogate?

Dear Empty Nester,

Why are we called empty nesters, anyway? It’s not like the nest is gone; we parents are still in it, thank you very much!

John S, Ashburn, VA

Dear John,

I wondered the same thing, before learning more about the avian behavior underlying the metaphor. For one thing, as described by Audubon, a bird’s nest exists purely for the eggs and hatchlings, and is then abandoned. If we want to be pedantic about it, the empty nest metaphor isn’t very apt unless the parents sell their home and move.

But it actually gets even more complicated than that. The real power of this metaphor derives from its allusion to brood parasitism, the practice of a bird laying its egg in another bird’s nest, manipulating the creator of that nest (the “host”) into raising its young. Isn’t this how all parents feel, before their nest empties out—as in, “Who are these evil teenagers and where did my sweet little children go?!” (This is related to the concept of “soiling the nest,” wherein—perhaps by biological design—your teenager becomes more and more annoying over time, to make his her departure a relief rather than cause for lament.)

The metaphor of brood parasitism is also a means to understand the guilt you are feeling now: just to get this kid out of your hair, you’ve planted her in a college dorm, making her her RA’s and roommates’ problem. They can try to get her to turn her stereo down, stop slamming doors at night, and not leave piles of laundry all over the floor. Offloading your chick to someone else’s nest feels  downright irresponsible, doesn’t it? Yeah … she learned from the best.

Dear Empty Nester,

This is really weird: although I think I’m coping pretty well with the empty nest (it’s only been a week), I startled myself the other day by calling my husband by our son’s name! Even more surprising, my husband says this was the second time I’ve done it. Am I losing it, or is this a known phenomenon?

Tracy A, Castle Rock, CO

Dear Tracy,

I have not only heard of this, but I did it myself! I wouldn’t read too much into it … just a brain glitch I think, based on your departed kid being on your mind. Perhaps it’s like that game where you tell somebody to say “stop” fifty times in a row, and then you ask him, real quick, “What do you do when you see a green light?” and he answers, “Stop!”

If, on the other hand, you start calling your husband by your ex-boyfriend’s name, then you might have bigger issues, like you’re reverting too far back to your previous life…

Dear Empty Nester,

I am having a disagreement with my wife about how much contact we should have with our son during his first couple weeks at college. She thinks he might be shy about reaching out to us for assistance, but I’m guessing he’ll love the independent feeling and would prefer to be left alone. When it comes to phoning, emailing, or texting a recently fledged kid, how much is too much? Please reply soon … we’re sending him off next week!

Rob S, Council Bluffs, IA

Dear Rob,

This will certainly vary from kid to kid, and based on where yours falls on the spectrum from already independent to totally coddled. I guess I would err on the side of less contact, since there are so many resources available to kids these days, with their parents likely being be a last resort. Remember, when our generation started college there was no Internet; most students lacked cell phones; and there was no Amazon … and yet, we somehow survived.

My younger daughter, a freshly minted college freshman, mentioned recently during an (albeit brief) phone call home that her alarm clock had broken and she had no idea how she’d wake up in time for her first class on Monday. So I suggested she use her (non-smart) cell phone, which surely has an alarm clock feature. She seemed to shrug off this idea, and dropped the subject. Well, the next day I downloaded the owner’s manual and sent her the instructions via email. Shortly after that, I sent her an unrelated email about some college lecture notes from thirty years ago I’d just stumbled across, relating to Nikolai Gogol, a writer we both enjoy.

Well, guess which email my daughter responded to first? Correct: the random one with no practical purpose, about how Gogol was a disgusting little kid, etc. To be fair, my daughter did reply to the alarm clock one too, but only to say she’d figured it out on her own. I have to say, I felt much better about the Gogol email. Her response to it told me she was alive and well and on top of her correspondence, and I didn’t feel like a mother hen. (Frankly, I’m more of a father rooster at heart.)

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m going to be an empty nester soon, along with a few of my friends and neighbors, and at some point someone was talking about silver linings and said something about free stuff. Is there some way to get free stuff out of this deal? I hope it’s not just bumper stickers or ball caps from the university…

Peter L, Albany, CA

Dear Peter,

You’re in luck! It just so happens there’s plenty of free stuff in our community, thanks to parents cleaning out their kids’ rooms. I’m seeing all kinds of perfectly good things dragged out to the curb: desks, chairs, old lamps, a clock radio, a boom box … you get the picture. My wife set out the six or seven stuffed animals our kids didn’t insist on keeping, and they were all taken … even the home-sewn turtle whose head was starting to come off. If you hurry, you might still nab this stereo cabinet (if that’s what it is) though I already scored the little alarm clock:

Dear Empty Nester,

My son, who starts his freshman year in a couple weeks, shocked me the other day by casually mentioning he’d be coming home once a month or so to do his laundry. (His college is only a couple hours away.) Is this a standard behavior? Should I allow it?

Lisa N, Sacramento, CA

Dear Lisa,

Look, this kid has a lot on his plate. He’s got his grades to think about, and making friends besides! I think you should drive out there twice a month, pick up his laundry, and do it for him. And bring him lots of baked goods while you’re at it (cookies, brownies, etc.). And if you really care about him succeeding socially, you should probably do his roommates’ laundry as well. And then write all their papers for them.

Have I made my point? Your son presumably has his tuition and dorm fees covered … he shouldn’t even be asking about laundry.

Dear Empty Nester,

I just have to say it: my youngest is going off to college soon and I’m already feeling pretty down. One way I try to process these kinds of feelings is through art, literature, etc. that goes into the problem Im grappling with. That said, I don’t want to spend a lot of time wallowing in my grief by reading a 400-page novel on the topic. Any recommendations for a good empty nester movie or something?

Aaron W, Minneapolis, MN

Dear Aaron,

I know just the thing: “Bao,” an animated short film from Pixar (available on Amazon Prime Video). There’s a nice interview with the director and the producer here.

Dear Empty Nester,

That bit about brood parasitism being part of the empty nest metaphor ... you totally made that up, didn't you.

Mike R, Sheridan, WY

Dear Mike,

Yeah. I did.

Dear Empty Nester,

I’m getting ready to drive my kid cross-country to drop her off at college, and I completely grasp that this is the intended outcome of her upbringing, that things are going to plan, and that the best case scenario is that she immediately adjusts, thrives socially, and doesn’t give her family a lot of thought. At the same time, I must confess I’d feel heartbroken if she didn’t miss her father and me at least a little. Is there any way for me to tell if she does, or will, and is that even realistic to hope for?

Kaitlin C, Fairfax, CA

Dear Kaitlin,

This is a common question (fielded not so long ago by the columnist College Dad as well). The fact is, you should brace yourself for your daughter to be totally unemotional during the final sendoff (even if you’re crying your eyes out), and pretty blasé in the weeks to come as well. Bear in mind, she’s blasting off into an exciting future, and all her hormones are united in jettisoning her old life with extreme prejudice. You are correct that the best case scenario is a swift and complete detachment.

That said, if your family has a pet, your daughter will surely miss him or her. Pets are much more attractive and cuddly than parents, and never pester the kids for anything but food (which after all is easy and fun to serve up). I also wonder if longing for the family pet is a kid’s way to sublimate homesickness into a more acceptable form.

Our younger daughter’s big goodbye took place last week, and it was predictably brief and offhanded (especially for her). But during her final week at home, she was moved to write a poem about our cat Freya. The poem ponders how little we can understand our cat; how differently she perceives the world; how she likely doesn’t differentiate between dream and recollection; and how little she perceives absence. The poem concludes:

Yet when I’m gone
Perhaps the slightest lack is felt, she’ll start
At one more cold place in the house.
And so I’ve left, within her scattered mind,
A memory of warmth

An Empty Nester is a syndicated journalist whose advice column, “Ask an Empty Nester,” appears in over 0 blogs worldwide.

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