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Boomeranging Into An Empty Nest

I was extremely heartened to read in the New York Times that having a good and open relationship with your kids, one in which you speak frequently and they solicit your advice, is a positive thing. Not that I ever doubted that. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, and the pudding that is my children — despite occasional high temperatures and other mishaps — have turned out as well as I could have dreamed. And they aren’t even completely done “cooking” yet.

I have never been a helicopter parent, but I resolved even before my kids were born to be a conscious parent: one who made decisions based on rational outcomes and behaved in a consistent manner. I also resolved that my children would be able to talk to me. And that I would be as honest and supportive as was humanly possible. Those resolutions were made in direct opposition as to how I was raised — by a mercurial mother whose support waxed and waned with her own mental health crises and a mostly absent father who, in the tradition of ’50s and ’60s dads, left the parenting to his wife.

I was also heartened to read that kids coming back home for period of time doesn’t mean that the parent failed to launch said kids into the world. But what the article doesn’t discuss, of course, is the emotional complexity that accompanies children returning to the nest, even for short period of time…

My son essentially dropped out of his first college and came home to hang in my house. After a month of such “hanging,” I sent him to his fathe,r who seemed to have a larger tolerance for that sort of thing. After several fits and starts he got a job and then enrolled in a community college to take courses so that he could finish at a major state university. He will graduate next fall with a joint degree in Cognitive Science and French, has made the Dean’s List each semester and has worked two jobs (including one in a Neuroscience lab which will result in a few papers published with his name as one of the authors), all while taking a course overload. He is looking into PhD programs in Neuroscience for some time next year.

If this sounds like I am bragging, I am not. I take no responsibility for his success other than practicing tough love and being available to him emotionally at the same time. Both his early failure and his later success are his to own. What I do take pride in is that he calls me regularly, we visit often, and when he and his sister spent their spring break with me, he said it was the best spring break he could imagine. All we did was read, talk, eat out and spend some time at the beach. It wasn’t Cancun.

My daughter is now experiencing a similar sort of boomerang. At my house for the summer, she has been slightly… let’s say… reluctant to seek out a job. She knows she has to work, but she is taking her time about it. And as close as we are, I have had to have some serious heart-to-hearts with her that also often involved yelling. Part of this is because the space to which she has returned for the summer after her freshman year is different than that from which she left. Two weeks after I drove her up to college, I moved to Savannah to pursue a life-long dream to live by the water in a warm and subtropical climate.

As I packed up the house at the same time I packed my daughter up for college, I sensed that my timing was somewhat predicated on my desire not to have empty nest or empty house syndrome when my last child left. I thought it would be hard to walk by the room she had occupied for four years. I sensed that moving myself would entail several months of hard labor which would distract me from being sad.

What I did not anticipate was how much I would like, even love, living alone. And how complex my feelings would be when she moved back in with me for four months. I had sent up this condo with its water view to take advantage of that view: My office, open to the rest of the house, affords me the sense of almost writing outside. And the peace and quiet, the chance to completely set my own schedule, became second nature to me more quickly than I thought it would. I very much need quiet, order, peace and no morning conversation to get started on my work. ll of which has been shattered with her residence. It’s a continuing struggle, even as she now is amping up the job search. I suspect we shall bump heads all summer. Partly because I feel like I need to work around her, think about her food needs, cook more often, and, well, do a certain amount of caretaking, even if none of that is actually true. And partly because, as grown up as she has become in the past year, it is true than when we go home we often revert to certain more childish ways. The independent kid I would get texts and calls from while she was away now seems to need answers to the most basic of questions. Plus I still have to tell her to pick up her stuff.

On the ride home from the airport a month ago, my daughter regaled me with a tale of her roommate, whose mother had come up from Florida, booked herself into a hotel for the last week of school and spent that week taking care of everything her daughter would need to end the school year: She bought and packed boxes, arranged a storage unit, cleaned, etc., all so her kid wouldn’t be “stressed” during exam week. The roommate even stayed with mom at the hotel.

“Can you believe that?” my daughter asked? “I mean, like wow.”

Like wow, indeed. My daughter was not impressed or jealous; she was amused and a little infuriated. Because she had arranged her own packing, shipping, storage and cleaning herself, all while studying for tests. And as much as I might have liked to step in, the most interference I ran was in asking her if she had arranged for the storage of her things for the summer. I only asked her that three, well, maybe four times.

I lived at home for a month the summer after my freshman year at college because, for the first and only time, I had been fired from a job (waitressing at a Ramada Inn). It did not go well that month, and I resolved to be as financially, emotionally and physically independent from my parents as I possibly could. It was clear that that was the only way I could survive. It still makes me sad to think about my parents and what they missed out on: My sisters and I are good and interesting women, but they never knew us at all.

I believe, in the long run, that the close relationship I have with my children will benefit us both. I would rather have them text me too much than not enough; rather have then ask my advice on something frivolous than be afraid to ask at all. There was nothing I could talk to my parents about. There is nothing that my children can’t discuss with me. I may not approve of all they do or even of all they say, but I will defend to the death their right to tell me all about it.

(This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post)