Abandonment is one of the classic and deepest fears of a young child. Focused on their parents to the exclusion of all other people, little children often assume the worst when a parent is out of sight and descend into meltdown.
Obviously that doesn’t completely go away as you get older, but the conscious mind does lend context to fear. One of the deepest growing up memories I have was after a particularly intense Battle Royale between my parents when my mother put me to bed in the classic Betty Draper mode of a swift tuck in, kiss on the forehead, and a speedy exit. I remember, at six, having the overwhelming sense that my mattress was a raft in a sea of black night.
The tables do turn, however. Our children do abandon us. But when over thinking Boomer parents have met the fulfillment of their childrearing years (getting children into the best college situation they are capable of) there are some uncontrollable problems.
If we had been more cavalier about the upbringing of our children, things have been a whole lot easier. But being one of those parents that went to every athletic practice of one son until high school (not to mention all the games) and every performance of the other child’s five (and sometimes six) musical groups, (plus every other “event” imaginable for both) the absence of all this activity has been unexpectedly problematic. Until they left for college, the children who lived with us for over 20 years created a second full time job for us.
And we have just been laid off.
The same feeling of loss that happens when you’re asked to clean out your desk is flooding the minds of many Baby Boomer parents. But the worst aspect of abandonment is not the factual reality that our homes have gone from several to two in occupancy. The nadir of self respect is reflected in the pathetic positive spin we strive to gloss over our extreme life change as captured by these phrases:
“I have so much more time to do the things I want to do” – I want nothing more than to read to my young boys again as I did for 13 years from the time the oldest was three until the very last page of the very last Harry Potter book.
“I never thought that these concerts and classes existed until the kids went away” – I don’t know about you, but the amount of mental stimulation I have at work is overloading as it is, creating more of it doesn’t seem to make much sense.
“With the kids being gone, our romantic life has become wonderful.” Ick. (This may be the signature phrase that generated the acronym TMI.)
“We can get to know each other again as a couple”. Good grief, if you didn’t get to know each other giving birth to children, seeing them through every triumph and tragedy and figuring out how to pay for it all, I’m not sure where there is more capacity to learn.
Beyond these bogus rationalizing statements I see people of my age (mid-50’s) hand feeding small dogs. I see them driving across state lines to go to book groups. I see reaching out to acquaintances who ceased being friends after or even during college because the absence of children in your home pushes you to reach out to them. Is dead air time that bad?
Clearly this is not tragic, it just sucks. When I think of what either of my boys could have said to me in their junior or senior year, I feel a little better.
“Dad, there’s a night manager position opening up at CVS – I really think that would be a great way to make money after high school.”
“Dad, Emmy Lou is pregnant and I do think that means we should get married.”
“Dad, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I really want to join the Army and kick some ass in Afghanistan.”
“Dad, you know I’ve really never seen the United States. I think I wanna just drive around for a few years.”
The empty nest does truly suck, but every other possibility other than the empty nest sucks worse. What this really means is that we all have to suck it up and get over ourselves and press on. But we should press on honestly knowing that a portion of our lives which will end up probably being our most important years on the planet has transitioned into indirect and non-integrated contact with those beings that were front and center for decades.
Since he’s been away, I have “talked” (texted, emailed, phoned) with my younger son more times in the last two months than I talked to him in the two years before he left. I still see athletic performances of one and musical performances of the other, albeit far less frequently (and with far greater cost).
Everything is fine, no one has cancer, there’s almost enough money to pay for all of these excruciatingly bizarre bills that come in all the time, but at the end of the day you are left in a home that once had hustle, bustle, and purpose that’s now occupied by two 50-somethings that have everything “under control”.
Not on a bed launched into the night, but not a place we were prepared for either…