How I Got Over My Empty-Nest Syndrome

For 25 years my world had revolved around three kids and their needs. Now it was time to figure out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
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My husband and I took our youngest child to college on a hot August afternoon. The U-Haul held Leni's entire life -- clothes, computer, books -- and a good bit of ours: a futon, a spare microwave, an enormous shag rug. We settled her into her dorm room on Sunday and on Monday watched as she was sworn into Naval ROTC. Then we hugged her good-bye and drove home.

I awoke the next morning with the sense of being nowhere. My day stretched impossibly ahead. I tried to write, as I had throughout a quarter century of childrearing, but emptiness echoed. After an hour I gave up.

John and I have been married for only six years but from the beginning, my three children were part of the deal. Then one by one they moved on. This last year with Leni had been joyful: She's a funny, wise teenager who helped around the house and kept us entertained with her hilarious stories.

Just before Leni left we'd downsized from a three-bedroom house to a small apartment so we'd be free to travel. I took a short leave from my job at an ad agency, but when I returned my job had been eliminated -- and with it, the money for trips.

Worse, I no longer had children to plan my days around. There were no dental appointments to make but my own, no huge loads of laundry to do, no high school games to attend, only simple meals to prepare. At the grocery store I stood behind a cheerful woman pushing a cart heaped high with boxes of cereal and yogurt pops. My sad little basket contained two chicken breasts and a lemon.

Back in my car I sat in silence. It felt like I'd just emerged from a 25-year dream full of whirling color and activity into a place that was utterly, eerily still.

I became an empty nester at 46, an age when many of my friends still have young children at home. But I've always been precocious, starting with enrolling in college at 16. I was a brand-new graduate of 20 when I met Ned, a quiet, bearded man who spoke reverently about literature. He proposed on my 21st birthday; I was pregnant within weeks.

Our son Andrew was born in 1988 -- a perfect, happy baby -- followed two years later by Max. We lived on the Minnesota Iron Range, a rugged, snowy region with brilliant sunsets. We were poor but the boys were healthy and our struggle felt noble.

Then horror struck. One day our 3-year-old was sounding out words and laughing, the next he was stony and mute, one hand flapping in front of his face. When Andrew was diagnosed with autism, in 1991, our local doctors barely knew what it was. So we moved to Minneapolis, where Ned worked overtime while I took Andrew to high-priced specialists. At night we'd do the various exercises they prescribed.

By the time Andrew was 6 he was relearning language. Ned had his first professional job and we'd settled in a house two blocks from the elementary school. Max was a clever, cheerful boy who chattered and stuck by his brother and spoke for both of them. We decided to have a third child, Leni, when everything in our life seemed stable again.

But the strain of everything -- debt, guilt, worry over Andrew's condition -- had done something irrevocable to us. Ned and I began fighting and then avoiding each other. By 2000, married for 12 years, we were living very differently: I was in graduate school, teaching, and publishing. Ned had taken a sales job and was gone more and more. We disagreed about money and how to discipline the kids. At a counselor's suggestion, we tried to make time for each other but too often we'd end the evening bickering. One autumn night -- after a particularly nasty argument -- Ned threw some of his belongings into his truck and simply disappeared.

Continued on page 2:  Moving On


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