When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, it had been barely a month since my husband and I had walked down the aisle. This surprising – but wonderful – turn of events had quite an impact on my new marriage. Imagine this scene – a young husband, called to the phone at work where he spent long, long hours supervising people who were building airplanes. A job so demanding that on our honeymoon his supervisor was calling our hotel – in Hawaii – asking when he would be back. It was rare that I would call him at work for any reason (this was before we had cell phones, of course), knowing the huge amount of stress he was under. And yet, in my state of excitement and joy, I thought calling him at work at 6:30 am to tell him I was pregnant would be an ok thing to do. Not the best idea.
Three days later, after barely speaking to me (not that he was angry, just in shock), my husband joined me in anticipation of the baby we would have in 8 or so months. As I gained baby weight, he gained sympathy weight, helped along by our shared love of a local Italian restaurant’s Chicken Parmesan. We shopped for furniture, painted the baby’s room an odd shade of blue/green that I thought would be suitable for either a girl or a boy, and welcomed our daughter early one beautiful April morning. From that day on, my husband was all in as a Dad to our daughter and, 2 years later, our son.
So when we returned home from dropping our son off at college, it wasn’t just me that felt the enormity of the empty nest, even though I had been a stay at home mom. The hardest part of the day for me was the 2:30 – 5:30 hours, during which I felt the void in my life most acutely – the hours when my son would return home from football practice, starving and dirty, or my daughter would run in the door – often running right back out – after show choir rehearsals or student government meetings. I would hear the bell at the nearby elementary school that they had attended and automatically begin to shift my energy, ready for them to come home – but of course, they didn’t come home. It was sometimes almost too much for me.
My husband was, in some ways, even more overwhelmed by it than I was. For me, the empty nest represented not only the end of something, but also the opportunity for me to shift from putting my children first to putting myself first. As daunting as it was to figure out the rest of my life (I was 48 when my youngest left home), there was, for a while, a sparkling kind of openness to my days that allowed me to breathe deeply, nap soundly and cook lightly. For my husband, however, at first there was little that was very interesting about coming home to a house where just the two of us now lived. It took a while for us to find our rhythm and begin to adapt to – and then really enjoy – being empty nesters.
So much of the focus of empty nesting articles and news stories is on mothers. However, fathers are just as likely to be affected by the feeling that there’s something substantial missing in their lives when their children leave home. They just aren’t always comfortable talking about it with their friends – or even their wives, particularly if their wives are having a really difficult time with it. Though baby boomer fathers spend nearly triple the time with their children than their fathers spent with them, they may not always show or talk about how emotionally connected they feel to their children. When the children leave home, they may withdraw or take up hobbies or activities to fill in the time they had spent coaching, cheering, tutoring or anything else they did with their kids. In doing so, many husbands can seem remote and cold to their wives.
I don’t remember feeling as though my husband was disconnected from me, but I do remember him being out-of-sorts and easily bored on the weekends. He missed our son the most when he watched football, since that was – and still is – something they loved to do together. That was when I both heard and saw how difficult it was for him to have our son gone, leaving us empty nesters. We made a point of getting out and doing things on the weekends to keep from being blue, which sometimes worked but not always. I had good and bad days and so did he. After a while I stopped looking at the clock at 2:30, expecting my kids to come home, and he learned to enjoy watching football with his friends almost as much as he enjoyed it with our son.
Eventually everyone adapts to a new normal when our kids leave home. Giving fathers the space and time to understand their own feelings before they understand yours is the best way to let them grow comfortable with the empty nest. It may take a while, and it may not be easy, but getting to the point when you enjoy the empty nest is worth the wait.