I had a friend in high school who liked to say that various things kicked his ass. This girl, that homework assignment, his old man making him do chores—and after he said it he liked to laconically add: ...hard and repeatedly. A math test would not just kick his ass, but kick it "hard and repeatedly."
I gotta say, various things have been kickin' my ass hard and repeatedly lately. A mid-life crisis of epic proportions, which I probably ought to write about one Sunday...and empty nest syndrome.
Empty nest has been bad. And I never expected that. I've been alone for a while, and I thought I had this alone thing down. Before it happened, I was not scared of the empty nest thing at all. What, me worry? Being alone was a solved problem: I'm an introvert anyway, and I have friends, and I have relatives who I'm close to, and I'm not afraid to talk to people. And it's not like a teenager in the house is really all that present anyway—you can't get them to hang up wet towels, much less talk to you about their lives. They come and go like loud messy ghosts, flitting in and out, their lives revolving around their friends and whatever pastimes they're into that month.
I was already alone, or so I thought, even with him here. I figured at worst, having him gone full-time would be, what? Ten percent worse.
Was that ever wrong. Not even in the ballpark. It was ten times worse, not ten percent.
I just wasn't prepared for it. I think even intact couples who've raise their children cooperatively have problems when the last bird flies. It's tough. Parenthood reprograms your brain; as a parent of a young child you're not just that same single person you always were only with babysitting responsiblities and, without knowing quite where it all came from, a bewildering amount of brightly-colored plastic crap lying around on the floors of your house all of a sudden. Some deep-down chemical switches get thrown in your brain and you turn into that being we all know as "parent"—ever alert, sometimes anxious, sometimes nagging, reflexively supportive, talking baby-talk and picking up your five-year-old's neologisms (which, ten years later, makes them think you're weird—which is highly unfair, since you got it from them in the first place), ready for problems and willing to do whatever is necessary to cope. The sudden removal of the impetus for that mindset can leave you feeling lost and purposeless. It's like you're suddenly free, but you're free of a job that you liked and wanted and that made you feel useful. You're released from a burden that wasn't burdensome. And if you happen to be single, it's really lonesome, turns out. Long and short, empty nest syndrome is kicking my ass...yes, hard and repeatedly. Ouch, ouch, and ouch.
Zander left for college again last week. He's about halfway through. He's in a great situation and I really couldn't be more pleased with the way the whole college thing is turning out for him. After waiting tables in high school and working blue-collar jobs for several years out of high school (changing oil 60 hours a week, unloading trucks at Target in the middle of the night, and making tiny steel springs endlessly at Wisconsin Coil Spring), he was 100% ready and plenty self-motivated for college. That's another tough one for parents—the realization that the motivation for success just has to come from them. And he's done very well so far, and is overflowing with confidence that he's going to do well this semester, too. He chose the college his girlfriend attends, and they're still together. That's them below, at our traditional off-to-school sushi dinner a few nights before they left. This semester, for the first time, he's living off campus, in a rental house with five of his best friends.
So he's exactly where he should be. I don't have to worry...and I don't. He's fine. He's right where he should be. What that means is that now I have to do something that I can't help but feel is strange and foreign and against the habits I've established with effort and attentiveness for more than two decades now: I have to figure out how to take care of me again, and start looking at how to make something good of the last decades of my own life. It might not be easy. It requires a little luck. Or maybe a lot.
Strange and foreign—but kind of exciting too. Life is an adventure after all, eh?
"Open Mike," which appears only but not always on Sundays, is the editorial page of TOP and often strays into off-topic reflections on various subjects.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Kirk Tuck: "Mike, we sent our final/only/wonderful teenager to college one week and a day ago and I've been depressed, disengaged and mopey ever since. He was a great student in high school and got recruited to a college 1,849 miles away from Austin, Texas. I thought I was prepared for the separation but no. Years of driving him to and from soccer, to and from cross country, to and from—you name it—gives you a lot of time to get to know your kid. For my sake I wish he'd stayed in Texas. For his sake I'm glad he followed his intuition and his dreams. Yes, we've already sent three separate boxes of stuff he needed (or we thought he needed) including (surprise!) Neckties and dress shirts. He's learning that in Austin 'formal' means slightly better footwear than sandals and a clean shirt with a collar. Much different in the Northeast.
"He had just a couple of preferences for a college, beyond academic reputation and credentials. It had to be out of Texas. It had to be in a 'blue state' and he was happy to find one without the football culture. Sadly, all of these parameters moved him about as far away from us as a kid can go and still be in the same country.
"The final heartbreak? I took him into the studio the last week he was here and offered him any camera he wanted to take along with him. Lenses too. He just shook his head and pulled out his iPhone. Sniff. Parental failure?
"Ah well, maybe he'll make it through life without the agonies of freelancing in the arts.
"My sympathies and empathy to you. I'm working on now finding out what I really want to do now that I'm grown up. I suspect we are not the only (older than average) fathers just now grappling with midlife crisis. I'm equally sure we'll muddle through."
David (partial comment): "We became empty nesters about 10 years ago. That transition was easy compared to the more recent transition to retirement."