When our oldest daughter went to college, I cried. Not exactly out of character for a man who barely made it through the movie “Father of the Bride”. So it was not surprising that when we dropped off our youngest daughter for her gap year experience after high school, I sobbed desperately and relentlessly.
The day of reckoning had arrived. My wife and I were now face-to-face with no child to entertain or to entertain us and no child to bother or to bother us. How were we going to fare absent our grown daughters, who make every breath we take worthwhile and simultaneously suck the freaking life out of us?
So to prepare for my empty nest, I did what any neurotic, overprotective parent would do: I wasted a significant amount of billable time preparing for how much I would miss them. I practiced what it might feel like to walk into our home sans a big greeting from my girls (okay, to be honest, usually only the dogs greeted me).
I pictured dinner at our kitchen table with just my wife. I imagined our couch without a moody teen sprawled out under a blanket with snacks and cell phone, watching what appeared to be the same episode of “Keeping Up With The Kardashians”. Sometimes, the idea of my daughters leaving didn’t seem so bad. But inevitably, the reality terrified me.
No one was more shocked than me to discover that empty nesting would be a resounding, unmitigated success. Apparently, how much you love and miss your children is irrelevant to empty nest success or failure. That’s right. Irrelevant. Let’s be clear. My wife and I love our daughters as much as any parent. Unconditional is unconditional, right? But that’s not a factor in our formula for empty nest success.
Our formula is an unfair multiplication equation comprised of two seemingly simple factors: (Happiness of our Marriage) X (Happiness of our Children). It’s unfair because, unlike real multiplication, if either – or both – of those factors is negative, the experience will be a downer.
On the “Happiness of our Marriage” half of the equation, I adore my wife. She is fun, funny, smart, beautiful, grounded, and tolerates me. Yes, I traded up, and yes, she’s rolling her eyes right now because she gets me. We have fun together when we do anything and, more importantly, when we do nothing. This means that when we’re home alone, it’s good. Better than good.
The other half of the equation is equally as important. That our daughters’ happiness is a requisite to our own should not have come as a surprise to me. We live our lives with the primary goal of raising happy children, and empty nesting doesn’t change that.
Put another way, although it is probably unhealthy, I’m only as happy as my least happy child. My wife and I can be having the time of our lives doing whatever we want to do (after all, we are free!). But when we get that crying phone call from one of our girls because she was inexplicably jilted by a boy or did not do well on a test (maybe I wish they cried over tests, so I’ll stick with the boy), my mood is soured and the happiness of the empty nest plummets.
Then, of course, the jilted daughter moves on with her life, and I continue to sulk, but isn’t that the joy of parenting?
Recently, a newly minted empty-nester confessed that while his kids are thrilled and settled at school, he misses them desperately and cannot get past it. I empathized with him, but gently suggested that he work on his marriage.
So, to all you pre-empty-nesters out there, whether it be of preschoolers or pubescent teens, don't dwell on the inevitable departure of your children. Instead, focus on loving your spouse and doing what’s necessary to support your children from afar so you all can lead happy lives.
If you succeed on both counts, your nest will never be “empty.” It will just be a little less crowded.