My husband and I have officially completed our first year of “empty nesting.”
We are grateful that both of our college-aged daughters could live on campus, even if they were taking classes online during this COVID-19 year.
Watching them navigate on their own out in the world makes me feel simultaneously proud, scared, and even a little envious at times of all the voice and power they have that I never did at their age. I take my consolation in knowing that I had a role in helping them grow those voices.
Being an empty nester is just the flip side of becoming a parent for the first time. With both events, your life changes radically overnight. It is such a different experience than navigating any of the other milestones along the way, most of which are slow, barely perceptible changes. But with empty nesting, one day they’re sleeping under your roof, and the next they’re gone for five months.
It’s like taking off sunglasses you’ve been wearing for about 20 years, and the truth is suddenly so glaring—especially the truth of the state of your marriage. Perhaps this is why empty nesters are at a higher risk for divorce than other couples.
I was thinking about what empty nesting has revealed about my marriage, particularly, and I think it comes down to at least six variations of one thing: chemistry.
1. Interest Chemistry
For the time you’re raising children, your interests are naturally aligned with your children’s interests.
Our daughters were competitive dancers, so my husband became a “prop dad” and a “dance dad” while I got involved as a team coordinator. Even if it was crazy busy at weekend dance competitions, we were all in it together. We talked about the same things, complained about the same issues, worried about the same problems. Our family vacations revolved around dance competitions.
But those days are behind us now, and we’ve reclaimed our weekends. My husband is a golfer; I don’t enjoy golf. I love yoga; he doesn’t care much for it. But, we both enjoy art fairs, theater, brewpubs, farmers’ markets, and walks around the lake. Last summer, we started biking together on a regular basis for the first time in our lives. After we realized how much we both enjoyed this time together, we set and met a goal to do a 50-mile ride by the end of the summer.
2. Conversation Chemistry
It is really easy for couples to let all the household conversations revolve solely around the children—the logistics of who’s doing what where, as well as other issues such as friendship problems or homework requirements.
If this has happened, it will be very quiet in the house once the kids are gone. But on the positive side, if a couple can find their way back to more general conversation, there are now endless possibilities of things to talk about that often couldn’t rise to the surface. My husband and I in this last year have had some of the best philosophical conversations we’ve ever had, conversations that reveal so much about where we’ve grown and what we’ve learned over the years. It’s fascinating, really.
3. Friend Chemistry
Back when my husband and I were first living together, we were joined at the hip. We did the grocery shopping together; we got our hair cut together; we ate every meal together; we had all the same friends.
Over the years, that slowly changed. We needed one person to run the household errands while the other did babysitting, taxiing, or some other activity related to the children.
But we recently went to Costco together for the first time since before we were married. We actually had some fun fighting over who was going to push the cart and whether or not we needed that many cartons of broth. Our friendship has rekindled in doing simple things together again.
4. Food Chemistry
For all the years of raising children, mealtime options worked around the children and their schedules. Plus, you’re making meals for a group, not just a couple. Now, we’ve had time to really think about what we both prefer to eat and who likes to cook what.
Our tastes have changed since we first got married, back when making a boxed meal was the extent of our abilities. But now, we’re taking our time—marinating, chopping, blending, seasoning, and presenting meals, just for the two of us. Oh, and the grocery bill has been cut in half!
5. Personal Growth Chemistry
People change a lot over the course of two-plus decades and two children. Some people are aware of these changes and discuss them regularly with their partners. Others, perhaps, don’t take or find the time to have these critical discussions.
It’s far too easy for couples to get so swept away in raising children that they never think at all of their own marriage.
Over the years, we have continued to discuss our changing needs and wants. We’ve done counseling, late-night talks, resets, accommodations, and reflection. We both have our individual growth paths, but the one thing we both want now is to grow into more contentment, gratitude, and relaxation. (We’ve freaking earned it.)
6. Sexual Chemistry
No one wants sex advice from a married woman, so I won’t give any. All I’ll say is that lifting the threat of someone arriving home at any moment, not worrying about making too much noise, or caring where clothes get left reveal quite quickly if you’ve still “got it.”
When your energy isn’t pulled always and constantly in the direction of your children, when your mind isn’t constantly filled with thoughts about who’s going where and when they’ll be home, it’s amazing how many other thoughts and ideas take their place.
So many expectations and barriers are gone. Spontaneity has returned. We don’t care about a few extra pounds here and there. Fancy negligee and other courting techniques might be appreciated but are no longer needed. Sure, I enjoy wine and flowers and all the rest…but I seriously don’t give a f*ck. There’s nothing hiding in the shadows; there are no secrets, no games, no tug-of-war or chasing needed, wanted, or missed.
I know with confidence that our daughters will be just fine. They’ve got all the tools they need to be out in the world. This knowledge has allowed my husband and I to finally be able to take our eyes off them for longer stretches of time and pay a little closer attention to ourselves, each other, and our marriage.
When I first met my husband in 1996, I had a vision of the two of us in old age, rocking on the front porch together on a summer evening, keeping each other company with stories and laughter. That vision is one of the reasons I married him.
And if this first year of empty nesting tells me anything, it’s that my vision is still on its way to becoming a reality.