Wild city // The so-called empty nest

When people hear that our daughter has begun her first semester of college, they grin and say, “Ah, so you are empty nesters.” For some reason this irritates me, but then I have long thought of myself as the Defensiveness Queen.

I am sensitive, some would say too sensitive, to words, and to expressions like this one. My response has been: “The nest isn’t empty. We’re still in it.” That shuts down the conversation pretty quick.

I wonder if  “empty nest” isn’t actually a euphemism. We might prefer to picture such a thing, at a remove from us, rather than acknowledge what is in fact empty: the back seat of the car, the chair at the dinner table, the bed in the room across the hall.

But then again, we’ve all seen empty nests, and they are no great shakes. They quickly become decrepit and ill defined. The young birds have flown off on their own, and the mated pair, if they stay mated, have joined a flock and headed elsewhere.

In recent years we’ve watched our midlife friends, people whose children have fledged, those who are post-childrearing, make big changes. One couple sold their two-story family home and moved into a condo downtown while they worked on gaining Canadian citizenship. Then they migrated north.

Another couple sold their Minneapolis bungalow and bought a fixer-upper in a tiny river town in Wisconsin. Yet a third couple sold their city rambler, moved to rural Minnesota, divorced, then got back together again.

The common thread, moving on, signals both the couples’ new-found freedom, and the changed, less geographically fixed responsibilities of parenting young adults.

I’ve admired our mid-life friends’ energy and inventiveness as they have made changes, and I’ve been curious about how we would respond when our turn came. It is still too soon to tell. The couples mentioned above were in process for a few years after their kids left home. They had to gather themselves in before they made their great leap.

Family life can be physically confining, even in stepfamilies like ours where the child stays in your home part time. You don’t stop being a parent just because she is at her mother’s house. You don’t stop wanting to be there for her if she needs you. The wild part of you is damped down, the domestic part amped up.

Our house here in Minneapolis is modest, not too large for two people, so we don’t have that practical reason to prompt us to move. My husband and I have spent plenty of time alone here. Given that, we’ve thought that this new stage might not hit us quite like we’ve seen it hit some.

We both like living in the city, so there is no urgent need to live more pastorally. We already have garden aplenty, and a breezeway with knotty-pine walls — a space we sometimes refer to as our cabin. Maybe we will buck the trend and stay right here.

But I have been feeling restless. I’ve mulled over possible reasons:

  • I’ve been working from home, and sitting on the nest, for a long time. Maybe I need a change. Maybe I need more wildness.
  • I have been lucky enough to help raise a child, to have a marriage that is work, and that does work, and to have a satisfying career. I am wondering, what next?
  • It has occurred to me that it isn’t just that you stay home a lot in order to parent; raising a child is itself a kind of container with walls. As long as your child has not turned 18, you, along with them, are inside the confines of their childhood. But once they cross over, those walls disappear. Everything is after. You need new walls.
  • A marriage and a career, as important as they are, don’t have the compelling biological purpose associated with raising children, survival of the species.
  • Most parents, by the time their children are grown, have probably seen flashes of their own mortality. Maybe we sell our homes and move away in order to have another destination besides death. We change our address so death can’t find us!

We got a dog a couple years before our daughter left home. Afterward, I saw that it is a mid-life cliché. You get some other being to care for when your kids are gone. The way it came over us all of a sudden to get this golden retriever, and the way we have fallen for her, indicate to me that we were meant to stay put for now. There is nothing like a goofy dog to keep you oriented toward home, or, as the singer Nancy Griffith puts it, to keep your shoes nailed to the kitchen floor.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.