As a mother I have always paid attention to those who are further along in the process of parenting than I am. I figure it is an ideal way to learn what might be yet to come. As a result I have learned much — mistakes, triumphs, best ways to avoid what a friend calls “social service moments” — but over the past few years I’ve noticed a particular phenomenon among my friends and family with teenage children, one you don’t read about in women’s magazines. We all know about “Empty Nest Syndrome,” but from what I can tell, incidents of this psychological and emotional condition are on the decline. I had the first indication of this from observing my sister, Ellen.
We were in Puerto Rico and our aunt Georgina — who has twelve dogs and carries a case of dog food in her trunk to feed strays — had just rescued an unbelievably cute puppy from her office parking lot. He was a Sato, a street mutt, black and furry with big, pleading, chocolaty eyes. Georgina was trying to find a home for him, and since I’m allergic I suggested to my sister that she take him with her to Vermont. Her reaction was so vehement I had to take two steps back.
“No! No more dependent creatures!”
Ellen was recently separated at the time, with her two sons well into their teenage years, and she explained (after she stopped twitching at the very thought) that when the boys’ dog and cat died, she was not getting anymore creatures that needed her to survive. It was then that I understood that when the boys were gone and off to college, Ellen wanted to focus on herself, not feeling bound or completely responsible for any living creature.
Recently my friend Nancy at work was talking about the two fish she had gotten for her daughter. She too has recently separated and her daughter is now a junior in high school (notice a pattern here?). They discovered that in addition to their five cats, that one fish was male and the other female, and subsequently, Nancy awoke one morning to find a tank occupied by two orange parents and a dozen flittering babies. Frustrated at the thought of caring for them all or giving them away she yelled into the tank, “For God’s sake, isn’t your breed supposed to eat your young?” Now, when she told me the story, I knew that Nancy was not wishing ill on the poor, defenseless (albeit fertile) fish, but rather like my sister, the concept of yet another group of mouths to feed, no matter how small, was just too much to consider.
I have some other friends who wish their children could stay little: the smiling baby that smells like powder and all things good in the world; the round faced two-year-old toddler who grasps your two fingers tightly as you walk along side-by-side. But as for me, though I adored those times and ages in my son’s life, I am enjoying watching him grow and become more and more independent. He can fix his own breakfast better than I can and manage a computer better than my husband, and we wouldn’t go backwards if we could.
I know that Ellen missed Jed and Josey when they left home and that Nancy will pine after her daughter when she leaves for college, but I’ve also come to realize that unlike the fretful 1950s Mom wringing her hands, waiting for her kids to come back to the nest at the holidays, feeling incomplete without the more immediate, daily role of mother, there are some of us who, after the initial grieving, will enjoy having time to ourselves. Who will look at the nest and say, “Boy, this would make a great yoga room/office/ pottery studio/darkroom.” We will celebrate our children’s arrival in adulthood but also our own new unfettered status (though we all know motherhood never ends, at least you don’t have to worry about them sticking a fork in an outlet or drinking Mr. Clean anymore… I think). Because, after all, the nest is never empty while we are still in it.