Empty Nest Syndrome

Empty Nest Syndrome 2007-2009

My daughter graduated from high school in the spring of 2007, and I felt a huge sense of pride, but also a strong sense of relief. I had been so involved with her final year in high school that I sometimes felt like her admin instead of her mom. She did 18 hours of dual enrollment college coursework, was at the high school half of the day, worked in the university library, and won a medal in state one act play competition. She was so busy that we kept a dual calendar so that I could remind her what was next on the schedule, but she survived it, graduated 7th in her class, received $30,000 worth of scholarships and didn’t have a nervous breakdown!!! My husband was not really involved – he was in the final stages of writing his thesis so that he could graduate, and so he devoted weekends and evenings for months to research and writing. He managed to pull it off, and graduated in August ’07.

I was very proud of them and looked forward to the changes the graduations would bring into our lives. J would be done with school so he would not be over-scheduled or have a split focus any more, and E was moving into the dorm and would be starting her own life separate from us. It looked like the child-rearing period of our life was over, and I expected to see more of J. I was looking forward to a period of reconnection and maybe a rekindling of romance. Instead I ended up with a bad case of Empty Nest Syndrome. I had a lot less interaction with E, who was finding her feet on campus, but no more interaction with J, who had become involved in a National Park Service project that was an extension of his thesis research. He was almost never home, and wasn’t really present even when he was in the room. The amount of alone time I had on my hands was appalling! I really like spending time alone – reading, writing, sleeping, even watching TV, but the amount of time I had in the fall of ’07 was ridiculous.I also decided that this was the perfect time to get healthier and lose some weight, so I gave up sugar – cold turkey. No coke, no sugar in coffee, no dessert, no potatoes, very little bread. I was fine for a week and then spent the next three weeks crying several times a day. I think the crying was actually more about missing E and disappointment in the lack of reconnection with J because the worst time of day was driving home to an empty house every afternoon. The lack of sugar, however, seems to have made it much worse, and after a month I fell off the sugar wagon, and life looked a lot rosier.

I was also dissatisfied with my teaching  job. I loved the kids and interacting with them, but the paperwork and the demands outside the classroom were also starting to grate on me.  I mentored a student teacher who talked non-stop all day – sometimes I went home feeling like I had been verbally assaulted. She was not rude or uncooperative, just talkative – and the more insecure she was, the more she talked….I sometimes felt like screaming. I also had special ed teachers in and out of my room every period, sometimes more than one. All of the coming and going and coordination with other adults, all of whom were uncertain about their role in my classroom, created stress. Also, like many other teachers, I just didn’t feel like my stake in the system was the same after my child was not in it. My need for change crystallized when the superintendent explained earnestly to me that the district could not afford to pay the cost of travel for 7 of my students who had received medals at the regional level and were therefore qualified to compete in at the state level in National History Day and UIL Social Studies because the BASEBALL TEAM was doing well in district competition and MIGHT need the money later to go to state. I was offered a job at the university library as the education coordinator for the special projects department. The job offered the same pay, but with better benefits, no grading, and less stress. The library offered to hold the position until the school year was over, so I accepted it

At the same time, E moved home. She hated the dorm, couldn’t eat the food, was sick all the time and wanted to save money so she could study in Costa Rico during the next summer. We did some remodeling and reorganizing so that she could have a little more privacy – bedroom and sitting room with a private entrance – and she moved home for another year and a half. This time with her made me both really happy and frustrated. We shared books, TV, conversations, meals out, shopping – actually, we spent most of our free time together. I wasn’t as lonesome anymore, but I was frustrated because she really wanted to come back home and be taken care of like she was a preteen, so we were constantly negotiating over expectations and chores.

The NPS Years

From fall ’07 until fall ’09, J’s focus was not reconnecting with me or investing any time in our life together. E’s graduation and move into the dorm meant he was even less involved than he had been before, because he had always made an effort to go to all of her school events and to be involved in the big moments. Since he had barely finished his thesis when it morphed into a project for the NPS, he went from one intense activity to another with no down time and the stress level showed up early. His contract specified that he would spend 25% of his time working on research for the NPS, and the remaining 75% on his job at the university. While the university collected the contracted 25% of his salary from the NPS, this money was not made available to pay for someone to pick up a percentage of his duties, so his job responsibilities were now at 125%. As a part of his contract work, he traveled for surveying and research several days a week, while also acting as a tour guide for a variety of officials for state and national agencies. He also assisted others who were working with the NPS on similar research. Meanwhile, the work at his full-time job still had to get done. The end result – he was hardly ever home, and when he was, his head was somewhere else. He rarely had time for anything related to the house, and he became impatient or angry if anyone made too many demands on him at home or at work. In fact, he had reached a point where his first response to any question or request was a sharp “No”, even if he re-evaluated and helped out later. While this was hard enough to deal with a home, I really worried about the effect it was having on his work relationships.

At the same time, he was also feeling pressure as a result of his dad’s deteriorating health. In the fall of ’07 he made several trips to see  him and started calling every Friday, just to find out if he had been hospitalized or not – since it was happening randomly and frequently. The same pattern continued through the next year – he fell several times and had to be hospitalized, but still continued to serve as an interim minister for some of the small towns around their city. We had planned to go to their house the week after Christmas 2oo8, but got a phone call from J’s stepmom on Christmas Eve saying that the doctors said he needed to come now if he wanted to see his dad, so we packed up and drove early Christmas morning and then spent two very difficult weeks since we didn’t know from one day to the next if he would still be alive. After a month, he moved to rehab, and then eventually home, although he ended up back in the hospital several more  times in the spring. J was going back and forth, sometimes flying, sometimes driving, at least once a month and sometimes more. Meanwhile, his stepmom seemed to be trying to pull away – she was becoming more and more dithery and unable to make decisions. She felt like she couldn’t take care of him at home, and wanted J’s help in looking at rehab and care facilities, but then didn’t do any of the contact work or really investigate what was available, and even when J did, she wasn’t willing to make a decision….as soon asJ’s dad was coherent, she just turned it all over to him, and then nothing happened….until the next time he fell or went to the hospital, and then the whole process started over. In addition, she had planned to go to Italy with a church group in June 2009, but didn’t think she could because of the precarious state of J’s dad’s health, so J promised to go and stay for several weeks to keep an eye on his dad and to do some repairs and add handicapped aids to the house.

Meanwhile, my new job, which had started off with a bang, including a week in Oaxaca, Mexico and four days in South Padre Island, had settled into routine and while I was learning some new skills, it was really not very demanding. E and I developed a plan, supported by J, to go to Europe in the summer of 2009. We were very excited and both of us started organizing our finances and developing an itinerary. Fortunately (or unfortunately) reality set in. E was planning to graduate in August of 2010, and start graduate school in another town, or even state, without ever having lived on her own. We sat down, had a serious discussion, and decided the money should go to her living on her own while she was still close by and had a support network, instead of waiting and trying to cope with living alone and managing all the details that go with it AND with the pressures of graduate school. For me, I realized that I was going to be living alone with someone who was frequently gone, and with a job that was not very challenging. I discovered that the Educational Leadership Program was expanding its doctoral program to include a Higher Education emphasis, which would provide additional credentials I could use in my job and use up a significant amount of the spare time I expected to have. In the spring of 2009, I split my time between preparing for summer workshops, helping Emily look for a house, and applying for grad school.

We did make some effort to reconnect – Jeff invited me to go to a conference with him over Spring Break and we had a good time, although  his dad was hospitalized and not doing well, so we had to cut it short and go by his dad’s on our way home. We tried for more romance in April, since he had committed to go to a friend’s wedding out of town and thought that it would be a good opportunity for us to be alone and reconnect, so I agreed. It was a fiasco, his attention was not on me, and I just ended up  mad. No romantic reconnection for us.

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