pondering the empty nest syndrome
What exactly is an “Empty Nest?” Many people ponder what it means when the kids in which we invested so much time, energy, effort, and love grow up and move out. Speculators give equal space asking what happens if those same kids stick around into adulthood.
For Jay and me, although there came a time when our four children no longer laid their heads to rest nightly in their childhood bedrooms, our “nest” never truly emptied. Caring for our children turned out to be a lifetime commitment. Yet, I always recall the summer Betsy, our youngest daughter, left home once as a bittersweet time.
a daughter’s dreams
Ever since she had been in grade school, Betsy had dreamed of a career in broadcast journalism. For that reason, she attended Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, an institution renowned for its communication majors. For the first semester of her senior year, Betsy headed to Los Angeles to work as an intern at Paramount Studios. That afforded her the chance to work with Henry Winkler on a show he was producing.
The whole time she was in California, I couldn’t stop telling people about Betsy’s wonderful opportunity and I called her frequently to see how the job was going.
lose their gleam
For Betsy, however, the reality of L.A. plummeted her and her dreams into an unexpected pit. While Winkler was a great boss, the low-level position she had as an interview editor meant she worked alone for eight hours a day in a small cubicle at the back of a vast set.
In Boston, she had lived in a small studio apartment from which she could walk to school and her part-time job at a real estate office. In L.A., she shared an apartment with three other girls. She had to commute almost two hours to work.
For most of our conversations, she was too tired to talk. The eager lilt had gone out of her voice. I would set the receiver back on the phone and wish I could reach out and hug her.
what happens now?
By the time Betsy finished her internship, she found little day-to-day joy in her position. She wanted to talk to Jay and me about it when she came home for Christmas, but our home situation had unraveled so quickly with Kristy’s additional problems. She bit her tongue at home.
After the holidays, she returned to Boston to finish her last semester of college. In June, 1995, Jay and I, Betsy’s older sister Carrie, three grandparents and six aunts and uncles, descended on Boston for Betsy’s graduation. After the ceremony, the crowd drove to Cape Cod for a weekend of celebration.
Sea change in our family
Early the next morning, I sat on a high porch overlooking a wide expanse of beach covered with rocks and seaweed left behind by the retreating tide. I took a deep breath of the fresh acerbic air. Yesterday, our family crossed a boundary; it split into two halves. Jay and I belonged to both halves.
We were the parents of two adult daughters who had college educations and professional aspirations. Capable of making their own way in the world, they were champing at the bit to do so. A sea gull swept down toward an incoming wave with a high squeal that made me think of babies–yes, hopefully that family would welcome new babies someday.
Whatever Betsy and Carrie’s futures brought into our family life, it would be mostly out of our hands, totally their own decisions. It would exist in a sphere separate from the tight-knit circle that had been our family for a quarter of a century.
the uncertain future
This did not mean, however, that our nest was empty. Because, although our other two children, Kristy and Johnny, lived in residential schools, caring for them remained a central focus of our lives. Our weekends continued to include them, making room for their individual needs, preference, and disabilities. Major decisions about their welfare would be ours until…
The seagulls cried again, the wrenching squawk that echoed the sound in my heart. Because only death-ours or theirs-would end our responsibility for Johnny and Kristy. And I could hope for neither. Losing them would open up a void as deep as the ocean before me. My death could leave them unprotected.
the here and now
“Mom, what are you doing out here all by yourself?” Betsy stood between me and the railing. “Were you asleep?”
“No, just thinking.” I smiled. Her wide eyes sparkled and gleamed. “Come inside. I’ve made raspberry pancakes.”
“Sounds yummy. Will you keep making those when you come home?”
“That’s something I need to talk to you and Dad about. But after breakfast.” She held the door open for me to pass into the kitchen, a madhouse of conversation, cooking, eating, and washing dishes.
I remained in the kitchen until the last dish was in the dishwasher; the pans were clean and stowed away, and the counters gleamed. As I hung up my apron, Betsy walked in. “Great, you’re done. Come on out on the porch with Dad and me.”
Someone had lowered the awning against the sun. Jay basked in the shade, slouched in an old wicker rocker. “Hi, Betsy, has called a family council.”
I plopped onto the sofa next to him. Betsy perched on a stool at our feet. She might have been six years old again. “So, let’s hear your plan.”
She pushed her shoulders back. “I’m staying in Boston.”
Jay nodded. “When you had little to say about L.A. at Christmas, we gathered you weren’t going back. But why stay here? Your college friends will scatter now. You’ve got roots, friends, and connections at home in Chicago.”
“True, but I’ve got a job here.”
“A broadcasting job?” we both burst out at once.
Betsy shook her head and rushed ahead. “Tony, the owner of the real estate firm I worked for during college, wants to hire me full time. He’s offered me twice the money I could make at any starter job I could get in the television industry.”
I slumped in my seat. “But you’ve wanted to be a broadcaster for so long. I thought real estate was just a temporary thing.”
She put her hand on my knee. “I did too, Mom, but I never realized how good I would be at selling or how much money I could make in this industry, and…” She gazed down and away. “I didn’t have what it took to succeed in television.”
“How can you say that? You only spent a few months there.” I shoved my hands under my legs to keep them from gesturing.
“People said things…things that let me know I’d never get in front of the camera, and even if I gave up on that, making it as a producer, which is the first level that pays a living wage, would take years.”
“But, honey, you’re giving up on your dream.”
She shook her head. “I’m not. The dream wasn’t what I thought it would be. And it wasn’t my only dream. I’ve always wanted to travel–a lot! Working in real estate will give me the money and the flexibility to make that dream come true. Life’s a trade-off. This is mine.”
When had my twenty-two-year-old party-girl become a philosopher?
“Cased closed,” intoned Jay. “Let’s hit the beach.”