At 56 and 57 years of age, the “nest” that my wife and I built over nearly 30 years of marriage is, as they like to say in the pop psych trade, an “empty” one. We are not alone in this condition, of course. Millions of couples in our demographic group, and even younger ones, find themselves in a similar circumstance nowadays.
Except for one thing. The term empty doesn’t quite fit in our case. Because the nest we reside in — at the moment a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath cape in the suburbs — has always had just two human occupants. And we’re still here. Both my wife and I decided long ago that having kids just wasn’t going to be our thing.
We’d made this decision not together but before ever meeting; I, in my late-teens, believe it or not; her by her early 20s. The woman’s deep desire to protect her freedom to come and go as she pleased was, I’ll admit, a major attraction to me when we met. It still is today. Since the day we married, in our late 20s, the two of us have done pretty much whatever we’ve wanted, provided it was well within our means. Made a few unexpected bucks this month, did we? Great, let’s not work next week; take a road trip someplace. Joe and Joel are going to be in Rome for a month? Book a flight, we’ll hook up with them for a few days.
But for a very brief — and always financially motivated — blip here and there, neither my wife nor I has held down a job in 25 years. Rather, we have worked at home, in separate (and distant) offices, practically the entire time. And most often at a pace determined by ourselves, not by others. We’re nowhere near being rich, but we are debt-free and reasonably comfortable. We do worry about the future, sure, but who doesn’t? We’re also about as free of responsibilities as we had hoped to be when we were younger — something that might not be the case had we chose to become parents.
I won’t speak further for my wife on the subject, but the truth is that I myself cannot recall ever considering fatherhood to be a potential life path. Compared with the relatively untethered life that I had always imagined for myself, parenting a child just never looked terribly appealing, or even all that interesting.
Please don’t get me wrong. I respect people who take on the role and responsibility of raising children — deeply. I’m awestruck by those who get out there and give motherhood and fatherhood all they’ve got and more, even if their skills might be lacking. As far as I’m concerned, the whole parenting game is some high-level PhD genius shit. I mean that. I really do. It just shouldn’t be an open-enrollment system.
In some circles, my wife and I probably amount to no more than a couple of self-centered, lily-livered narcissists who haven’t got the stones to create, let alone commit to and care for a human life. That’s fine. It wouldn’t be the first time we’ve been accused of selfishness. But I’m smart enough to know that entering such a high-stakes game as procreation without total commitment and enthusiasm is a pretty terrible idea. The way I see it, guys like me do the world, and all of its children, a big favor by sitting out parenthood and letting the A team handle the heavy lifting.
You’d think that being an old pro in living the empty nest life might make me a valuable resource to those who are new to the game, like the many friends I have seen grapple with their grown offspring leaving their childhood homes. Turns out, it doesn’t. Far from it, in fact. Anytime a friend who’s experiencing “empty nest syndrome” seeks my counsel on how to live alone in a house with just their spouse, it takes about 10 minutes before they realize that I am completely and utterly useless as a newly emptied nest advisor.
It’s not that I don’t work very hard at assisting my friends — listening, analyzing, offering advice; if anything, I could be trying too hard. No, I’ve come to believe that the problem is more fundamental. Because our whole perspective on marriage and being a couple is at odds.
To me, family life is based upon my wife and me; as long as we’re together (which we still very much are), happy (I think so) and healthy (so far, yeah), I figure that everything’s going to be OK. To my empty nest friends, family life stopped being about them and their spouses ages ago — a couple decades actually. And so, learning to live with each other now really means learning to live without something that they love even more: their kids.
I’ve found myself unable to be very helpful in sorting it all out with them, I’m afraid. I feel badly about that.
In my defense, this is some serious stuff we’re talking about. And so how much assistance could a man like me actually be? The Mayo Clinic says that “parents dealing with empty nest syndrome [experience] a profound sense of loss that might make them vulnerable to depression, alcoholism, identity crisis and marital conflicts.”
Of course, the clinic also notes that an empty nest has benefits: “When the last child leaves home, parents have a new opportunity to reconnect with each other, improve the quality of their marriage and rekindle interests for which they previously might not have had time.”
All well and good. But easy, it just ain’t.