The lost joys of the empty nest

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Amy Koss

Thanks to wacky eco­nom­ics, our nests don’t stay as empty as we thought they would. Now, when I think back at the tears I shed drop­ping the kids at col­lege, I have to roll my in­ner eye.

Had I known how briefly they would be gone, I surely would have spent more time naked around the house, or at least ap­pre­ci­ated how left­overs re­mained un­mo­lested, ex­actly as I left them. I’d have cel­e­brated how long a roll of toi­let pa­per lasted and trea­sured the adorable tini­ness of our util­ity bills.

Ac­cord­ing to the Cen­sus Bureau, 22.9 mil­lion 18- to 34-year-olds in Amer­ica live with their par­ents. That’s 1 in 3! Way more than at any time since the 1940s. So it makes sense that my friends and I are part of this nest-re­fill­ing phe­nom­e­non.

We all come at the trend from dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions, though. One friend’s son, af­ter earn­ing a slew of fancy de­grees from snazzy schools, has been forced to move home by his gi­gan­tic stu­dent debt.

An­other has a kid deeply un­em­ployed in the per­form­ing arts.

A third friend’s son moved home af­ter col­lege un­der the guise of help­ing his mom out. When she told him she was get­ting re­mar­ried, he threat­ened to move out, leav­ing her stumped for a non-hurt­ful re­sponse.

One daugh­ter’s re­turn was foiled when her mother bought the girl a condo, calling it an in­vest­ment. Never mind that the down pay­ment com­pletely par­a­lyzed her fi­nan­cially.

Still, I think I win this com­pe­ti­tion be­cause my own daugh­ter didn’t just move home, she brought along her hus­band and their dog, and an­other adult friend as well. He’s an el­e­men­tary school teacher who can’t make a fi­nan­cial go of it on his own ei­ther.

To be fair, when I was be­tween cat­a­strophic at­tempts at in­de­pen­dence as a young adult, I felt en­tirely en­ti­tled to re­turn to my par­ents’ house. It never oc­curred to me to won­der how they saw it. Es­pe­cially since, within three days of ev­ery re­turn, I re­gressed to be­ing a 13-year-old brat. I cringe now over the dishes I left in the sink.

Which re­minds me of an­other friend whose kids re­cently moved home and are of­fer­ing help­ful sug­ges­tions about get­ting rid of most of my friend’s fur­ni­ture and pos­ses­sions, which the kids re­fer to as “clut­ter.” Ghoul­ish tidy­ing in an­tic­i­pa­tion of in­her­i­tance?

My own daugh­ter and son-in-law live in our garage, which they have spruced up by adding a cute lit­tle bath­room and minikitchen. It has been hinted that af­ter they have ba­bies (in the garage, like pos­sums), per­haps my hus­band and I will trade places with them.

Their fa­ther and I did tell our chil­dren that our house would al­ways be their home, and that what­ever hap­pened out in the world, they could al­ways come back. We meant, rather than stay in an abu­sive re­la­tion­ship or couch surf in­def­i­nitely. We had no idea that the econ­omy would tank, and that even af­ter things im­proved, the job mar­ket and wages would stag­nate while the hous­ing mar­ket went bonkers.

It is, of course, no fault of theirs that our kids’ world is so hard to sur­vive in. But who’d have guessed that just as I used to com­mis­er­ate with other par­ents over bed-wet­ting and thumb-suck­ing, I now com­pare notes on which adult kids take out the garbage without be­ing asked, and who is wait­ing up to make sure her kid gets home safely. Again.

We love our chil­dren dearly and would give them our last kid­neys without pause. But liv­ing in such close prox­im­ity to our grown kids, we see things we don’t want to see, like their crappy eat­ing habits, or dis­re­gard for ap­pro­pri­ate hy­giene, or waste­ful spend­ing, or lack­adaisi­cal job hunt­ing, or ex­ces­sive nap­ping. We see the num­ber of beer bot­tles in the re­cy­cle bin and the home preg­nancy tests bought, it ap­pears, in bulk.

We choke back the im­pulse to nag un­til out it pops: the help­ful sug­ges­tion. Which is promptly met by its equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion: the flounce, the yell and the door slam, or grim, silent, for­bear­ance.

And there we are: back in mid­dle school (them), driv­ing the car­pool (us).

His­tor­i­cally, hu­mans man­aged to live to­gether in mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions. From a dis­tance it looks sto­ry­book sweet: The wise elders hon­ored and re­spected; ev­ery­one around the laden din­ner ta­ble; laugh­ter and co­zi­ness bathed in golden light.

We too have warm mo­ments that we’d long for if our chil­dren lived far away, or even just a few streets over. But a sigh escapes as we re­call a time when strange card­board boxes didn’t tower in the cor­ner, mag­a­zines stayed open to the page where we left off and, best of all, when we could in­no­cently as­sume that ev­ery­thing was fine and our chil­dren’s fu­tures were bright.

Amy Koss writes young adult fiction and lives in Los An­ge­les.

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