How I Got Over My Empty-Nest Syndrome
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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.

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.

Moving On

I was dazed but oddly relieved. At least now I knew who was responsible for everything: me. I finished my graduate degree and took a teaching job. When it became clear that an adjunct professor's salary couldn't stretch far enough, I learned copywriting and supported us by writing ads.

Andrew started high school, a master chess player still barely able to speak. Max vacillated between looking out for his brother and running wild. Leni became the first girl to play on our district's football team. And despite the difficulties, we were happy.

When I met John, a sweet-natured Southerner and computer engineer, I warned him not to get involved in my complicated life. But he wanted in. My family was interesting, he said, which was better than easy. We married and raised my kids together -- getting Andrew settled in a group home, staying up to enforce Max's curfew, attending Leni's high school graduation side by side.

Then on that sunny day in August, it was over. All three of them were gone.

I missed the after-school hours most. For years teenagers had piled into my house to eat pita chips and hummus, lying end to end on the couch. Now our apartment was still, the sofa pillows perfectly lined up.

My life had always revolved around my children and their needs; never before had it been necessary to figure out what I wanted to do. I scoured the Internet for suggestions and advice about midlife change. Go back to school, train for marathons, sign up for a yoga class. All reasonable ideas but we couldn't afford another tuition, my knees were rickety, and I was already doing yoga (I enjoyed it but had no desire to make it my life's work). I stumbled across an article on women and depression that said, "the empty-nest syndrome may be more stressful than previously believed."

I did fill a lot of hours at the gym. And I started cooking exotic meals, driving to the Chinese grocery across town for sesame paste or lemongrass. Still, 3:30 would come and I'd be breathless and bleak. Was it possible, I wondered, that my real life was just done?

Finally one night John took my hands in his. "I'm constantly distracted at work, worrying about you sitting here hating your life," he said. "I can't take it anymore." He proposed a plan: If I could come up with activities to fill my days, he'd supply the evening entertainment.

Our outings were simple: a motorcycle ride, a movie. One night, over dinner at a Lebanese restaurant, John asked if I'd consider buying a house. Maybe we'd been too hasty, becoming renters the moment Leni left for college. Our apartment was a box in a sterile high-rise off the river. There was no neighborhood, no place to walk. We no longer needed a house for the kids, he said, but maybe we needed one for us.

We fell in love with a tiny Tudor and made an offer on the spot. Our new place needed some work, so for a month John and I spent every spare moment sanding and cleaning, iTunes blasting over our speakers, a bottle of wine between us on an overturned box. After stopping work, we'd build a fire, lie back on some cushions, and share the rest of the wine. For the first time in weeks time passed easily. Without even meaning to I began to relax.

Freelance jobs trickled in. I met with clients. The nightmarish quality of early fall lifted. Still, I was itchy. "The problem is, you're used to taking care of three kids and working two jobs," John said. "You don't know what it's like to operate at a normal pace."

He was right. I like the vibrancy of highs and lows. I don't want to sentimentalize hardship, but there's something about the urgency of 16-hour days that I missed. So I began making lists with twice as many tasks as I could possibly finish. I had lunch with former colleagues and called nonprofits I admired, offering to volunteer. I started researching a topic that interested me and suddenly had an idea for a book. Slowly my calendar filled. By mid-November, three months after Leni's departure, my days had a quick new rhythm that was mine alone.

Then, around the same time, my kids started popping up again. Leni asked us to attend an ROTC ceremony. Max and his girlfriend, a basket of dirty laundry in tow, came over for Sunday dinner. Andrew, determined to enroll in college someday, asked us to help him study for the ACT.

Christmas arrived and there was a brief, blissful period when all three kids -- and their friends -- were home. Our little house was packed and I was once again doing store runs for hummus and chips. I loved it all, the crush and the noise. But I fretted about their leaving. Would I spiral back downward?

On a cold January morning, I hugged my daughter, then watched her run down the front walk and throw her duffel into the back of her roommate's car. "We'll miss you!" I called after her.

Then I shut the door and turned back to John, who stood in the living room, looking wary. The house hummed around us and I thought with satisfaction about the stacks of work that awaited me in the morning. But right now, in the quiet of a snowy Sunday, I was surprisingly content.

"How about we make some tea and watch a movie?" I asked and John grinned and put his arms around me. "It's kind of nice," I said into his chest, "being just the two of us again."