An Empty Nest

The fledglings have flown. Now what?

On Labor Day Weekend 1992, my wife, Jane, and I brought our fourth and youngest child, Jenny, and all her belongings to Bowdoin College. We made the trip in a rented van packed with everything that a young woman needs, or believes she needs, to exist away from home.

Jane and I were experienced at the ritual of taking our children away to college. We had done so with Andy at Williams in 1984, Amy at Kenyon in 1988, and Rebecca at Skidmore in 1990. It seemed as if there was more stuff to take with each child. The trips were always somewhat tense. Each of our children wanted his or her experience to be unique: making comparisons with our trips to Williamstown, or Gambier, or Saratoga Springs was not greeted warmly. Even worse was any attempt to compare their experiences with ours when we went to college.

It seemed as if our children always arrived at college on the hottest day of the year as we, along with all the other parents, perspiring heavily, carted boxes, clothes on hangers, fans, lamps, stereos, trunks, favorite stuffed animals, you name it, up multiple flights of stairs. And the room always seemed so small that it was difficult to imagine that two or three people could possibly live and study there, along with all their gear.

As we kissed and hugged Jenny and left her at Bowdoin, Jane was elated, as well she should have been. From October 13, 1966, when Andy was born, until that Sunday before Labor Day 1992, Jane had four children to feed, clothe, diaper, play with, cry with, laugh with (and at), and drive, drive, drive: drive to oboe lessons, drive to soccer, drive to baseball, drive to softball, to jobs, to Sunday school, to confirmation classes, to the mall, to friends' houses, to movies.

We dealt with our share of scrapes and bruises, visits to the emergency room, the ups and downs of friendships made and unmade, good school experiences and bad. We were like every family. And we had to face all the issues. Our children tested us and themselves constantly. We would set limits and then they would test them. They challenged our values and judgments and made us rethink them. They taught us even as we taught them. We all grew up together.

As Jenny was delivered to Bowdoin, Rebecca was studying for a semester in Sydney, Australia, Amy was working in Nagaoka, Japan, and Andy was doing business consulting in Moscow. We had four kids on four continents--and an empty house. But, more important, we felt, as Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sang in High Society, "We've got each other!" Looking back, it seemed like only yesterday we had a house full of pre-adolescents. Somehow--almost instantaneously--our children had gone from infants to teenagers to college.

Jane and I are very fortunate: we have four extremely bright, attractive, high-achieving children. They are friendly, outgoing, and self-possessed. None of them returned home after completing college! They came through all the trials that children go through: they probably tried everything there was to try, and they did their share of mischief. Were we lucky? You bet. Did we do some things right? Of course. Did we do some things wrong? Without a doubt. But, on the whole, with much more credit to Jane than me, we have four children that would make any parent proud.

The thing I think we did best was to trust our children and to let them make their own decisions when they were old enough. When necessary, we bit our tongues when we saw them doing things we didn't think would work well for them. It was the hardest thing we did. We let go, and we watched as they took wing!

As parents, we do whatever we can to make our children's lives better than ours. We want our children to be self-sufficient and to have self-esteem and to take responsibility for themselves. But as long as we are parents, we never really believe the nest is empty.

Being parents of grown children, Jane and I have learned that having grandchildren is an inexpressible joy. Yes, we have an empty nest, yet we often have a very full nest. For the most part, we have freedom to do what we want when we want; we have the pleasure of watching the four children we brought into this world succeed in their lives; and we have the gift of grandchildren to love and to spoil and to return to their parents when diapers need changing or crying cannot be soothed.

This is, for us, the best of times.

A Kenyon trustee and class agent, and a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, Neal Mayer lives with his wife, Jane, in Bethesda, Maryland. He is a lawyer specializing in international maritime administrative law.

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