Feathering the Nest

Breaking news. The survey says… There is life after the children leave home! Two studies out this week confirm what we Baby Boomers learned anecdotally after our kids left. I’ll get to that in a minute, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

AARP the Magazine, the definitive voice for Americans who are 50+, found that retirees are happier in their marriages (let’s not talk about the other results which report that they do more housework and have less sex!).

A University of California at Berkeley study tracked the relationships of dozens of women who said that their marriages improved once the kids “flew the coop.” Said one mom, “We were a couple again, two individuals who chose to be together and to live together… We didn’t have to focus 100 percent on raising children.” Another opined, “At first it was very quiet, but there is a lot of good in the lack of noise. We got good at having conversations. Our time is about us.”

If you are reading this post and have young children at home, I am sure you are thinking that these studies must be flawed! I, too, at that stage could not imagine life without the kids, and often fretted about what my existence would be like after they both were out of the nest. Maybe I was a martyr, spinning plates in the air like the juggler in the circus, but it felt productive and worthy of being a good mom.

My own epiphany came the night before our youngest, Ross, left for college; Jordan already was away at school. As the three of us sat down to the dinner table that evening, I was feeling a little melancholy; Ross looked sorrowfully at me and said, “I think this is going to be very hard for you, Mom.” In that instant, a tentative flush of glee enveloped me, and before I could filter my thoughts, I blurted out: “I don’t think so!”

What happened was that I recalled an “aha” moment. While riding the chairlift at a ski resort the previous winter, I met a fellow skier who was about 10 years older than I; she remarked to me matter-of-factly, “Isn’t it great when the kids grow up and the dog dies?” A little harsh, but she certainly gave me food for thought – and I managed not to fall off the chairlift.

I could suddenly picture all those plates in the air (carpool, after-school activities, sports team spectating, sleepovers, wishing the car back into the driveway when they were behind the wheel….) come comfortably to rest, one by one. In that brief fantasy, I saw myself setting the table with those very plates. Adding candlelight. Soothing music. An uninterrupted 4-course meal (take-out of course!) for my husband and me. And a deeply rewarding image of my son walking confidently off into a new life – one in which I would always have a vested interest, but one in which he would draw upon the values we had instilled to create his own niche in this world.

Shel Silverstein makes the point in “The Giving Tree,” in which the tree starts out by providing shelter and continues to change in accordance with the boy’s needs. The tree gave and gave and gave until she had nothing left to give: “Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy.” The tree is every mother, and the sadness felt by the tree is the emotion experienced by every mother when her child has grown up. But it doesn’t have to be that way, because there is a whole, new untapped adventure on the other side of the child-raising mountain — for both children and parents.

What’s the take-home message? Try to preserve your own identity during those growing-up years so that you may rekindle your relationship with your spouse after the years of requisite catering to the kids. You’ll always be Mom or Dad to them, but someday, before you turn around, you’ll also be “honey” and “dear” to each other again.

“Hang in there,” says Sara Gorchoff of UC Berkeley. “Don’t wait until your kids are gone to schedule quality time with your partner,” adds psychologist colleague Oliver John.

Do you have a designated date night? A secret signal for each other that celebrates your relationship? A regularly scheduled sleep-out at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s? Please comment below and share your ideas about feathering the nest so that when the babies depart, there remains a cozy home for the original lovebirds!