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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 3 · Spring 2009


The Empty Nest

Photo: tandem skydivers give thumbs up

Time for parents to take wing!

Sometimes being a parent is so hard it feels like it just might kill you. Back a few generations, it did.

When life spans were shorter, people lived just about long enough to grow up, have kids and send them off to college at Oxford. Shortly after commencement, parents would succumb to mysterious fevers and boils that were treated with curative bloodlettings until eventually the parents, um, well . . . they gave up the ghost. Lucky stiffs. Nowadays, thanks to modern medicine and the skyrocketing cost of cable, Internet and phone service, parents are required to live for at least a couple of decades after the initial launch of the kids.

For empty nesters, this raises a lot of uncomfortable questions. For instance, “How do I load new songs onto my iPod?” “Have you seen my reading glasses?” Eerie silence, awkward pause and then, “What do we do now?”

The child-raising years remind me of that old carnival ride “The Rotor,” where people stand with their backs against the wall of a round room that starts to spin, faster and faster, until suddenly the floor drops out, and the riders feel so dizzy they almost wish they would just plummet to their doom, but due to Newtonian physics they remain pinned in place, howling, until the ride stops and the kids leave for college.

When the nest empties, it’s normal for parents to feel some dizziness. Other side effects include shortness of breath, dry mouth, blurred vision and heart palpitations. But these symptoms rarely persist. After the initial shock subsides, parents often experience a period of mourning that lasts from moments to months. Depending. But there’s also a sense of relief. Of course, you’ll be parents forever, but once the kids have left home, the grunt work is over. Whichever member of your household bore the brunt of shopping, cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, caring for sick kids, signing school permission slips, keeping dentist appointments and staying up late at night to make sure teenagers arrived before curfew — that will be the parent who experiences the most profound sense of giddiness once the intensive day-to-day toil of child-rearing is over. Husbands will also breathe a sigh of relief.

When your calendar is no longer cluttered with kid-centric activities — band concerts, sporting events, theatrical performances, PTA meetings — you’ll discover you have some time. Time for your spouse. Time for your community. Time to take care of your elderly parents. Time to travel to exotic locales like India or Malaysia where that knee replacement surgery you’ve been dreaming about costs a fraction of what it would run you here at home. And finally, after all those years of sound and fury, parents have time to think. Thinking brings us around to the realization that we’ve grown old.

I know! I was shocked, too! But the circumstantial evidence is pretty compelling. Once empty nesters acknowledge how much time has passed, they start calculating exactly how many good years they have left before their grown children pry the car keys from their grasp, convince them to sell the family home and move to Leisure World. And they start wondering how they can live their remaining years to the fullest.

For some parents, the simple freedoms of the empty nest are fulfilling. Catch a movie with your spouse on the spur of the moment. Work late without the guilt. Eat cold spaghetti for dinner. Go away for the weekend. Leave the house clean. Return home to a house that is still, miraculously, clean. Spend more time with friends. Do two loads of laundry a week instead of 20 a day.

Other empty nesters yearn for a more dramatic makeover. They view the years after the children leave home as an opportunity to entertain new possibilities, to set new goals, to search for a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life.

Meaning and purpose? Hey wait a minute, this is starting to sound suspiciously close to a midlife crisis. No really, there’s a difference. A midlife crisis is when you realize that one day, sooner rather than later, you’re going to die. This inspires you to eat more fiber.

A midlife transformation, on the other hand, is all about living. Some empty nesters are delighted to discover that raising children didn’t kill them, after all. They take on challenges completely out of their comfort zone because they figure anything that scares them half to death celebrates the fact that they’re still alive. As a middle-aged parent in pursuit of adrenaline, you might volunteer in a political campaign, speculate in real estate, move to a new city, learn how to scuba dive or study a foreign language — anything to keep from nodding off in the armchair after dinner.

You might even decide to pursue a whole new career. And why not? 401(k)s have become a lot less fulfilling than they used to be. Maybe your kids no longer live at home, but they still lovingly think of you as an ATM. You probably have many years ahead as a wage earner, so you might as well enjoy your day job. I know several people who have charted a new course in midlife after their children left for college — a school teacher who became a flight attendant, a homemaker who became an executive chef, a computer scientist who became a math teacher. I also know an empty nester with two kids in college who quit her job as a magazine editor* to return to school and study nursing — because life is too short to finance just one university education at a time. Her husband, an attorney, is very proud to have his family out there wrecking the curve for the rest of our students.

Mind you, I’m not saying you should abandon a steady paycheck. Especially after that “cease and desist” letter I got from the attorney whose wife is in nursing school. I’m just pointing out that, hypothetically, an empty nest allows you to make a midlife career change that better reflects the goals you had before you got waylaid by the more pressing concerns of children, such as how come he got more birthday cake than me.

I can’t stretch past the hypothetical because I’m still a few years shy of being an empty nester. One down, and two to go. Sending our oldest child off to college, however, has offered me a tiny little preview of what’s to come. Before our son left home, I was a parent and a writer. Now that he’s launched, I’m, um, a . . . parent writer.

Dang! I guess making a midlife transformation is trickier than it looks. Unfortunately, I don’t have much time to think about it right now because I’m still at the amusement park, riding “The Rotor.” Cowabungaaaaaa!!!


*Hint: See editor’s letter on page 2.

Robin DeRieux can be reached at