Our Reading Lives

What Your Bookish Empty-Nester Parents Wouldn’t Want You to Know

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Nicole Mulhausen

Staff Writer

After a childhood spent traveling around the country, Nicole Mulhausen landed in the maritime Pacific Northwest for college; finding it to be God’s Country, she never left. By day (and night) she manages a performance venue at a small liberal arts college, where she regularly rubs elbows with talented writers and musicians. Alongside the chickens, Artemis and Athena, she holds the fort at home while her two dashing sons galavant around the planet, flying airplanes in Montana and deep sea diving in Southeast Asia. With a nest now empty (aside from the chickens), she has more time to follow her sons' lead, exploring hitherto unknown wonders — like reading the works of authors-not-yet-dead. Twitter: @nicolemulhausen

parents helping teen pack for college

While the helicopter parents are keeping the therapists in business and attracting media attention, the rest of us—and I hope to high hell we’re the majority—are gleefully enjoying our freedoms, grateful to be under the radar.

So what is it like, after the diapers and the endless driving-all-over-hell’s-half-acre to practices, competitions, rehearsals, concerts, etc., etc.?

The cultural narrative is that we empty nesters are suffering and aimless. Okay. If that works for you, whatever. It didn’t work for me. Here are some of my own discoveries about the big changes after the children are on their own. Your future mileage, or your parents’ mileage, may vary.

    1. Freedom. Now, you’d think that time, lots more time, would be the number one change after the chickens fly the coop. But work and adventure and all the things you wanted to do in your twenties but didn’t—the day fills up whether you’re caring for children or not.

      The other day I was discussing our youngest son’s wisdom teeth with my ex. Like you do. They need to come out, and the logistics are a bit complicated, because college. At one point his dad asked, “Have you talked to him?”

      “Briefly. But I was right at the good part in my book, so I told him I’d call him back. And then I forgot.”

      “You… WHAT?”

      See, when the boys were at home, there was no negotiation-of-schedules. All The Activities had strict beginning and ending times. The removal of the teeth might be tricky to schedule, but it doesn’t have to be scheduled this exact minute. I don’t feel like I have more time, but having the freedom to choose how I spend my time is shocking and marvelous. Natch, I’m reading.
    2. Volume. The year after my youngest shoved off to college I read three times as many books as I had the previous year. That number might have been higher, but I’m a slow reader, and I tackled a few door-stoppers, The Forsyte Saga, about 900 pages, and The Coming Plague, (cheerful!), about 700-ish.

      Before Number Two went to college, I can’t recall whether I finished any books, let alone a mighty bone-crusher.
    3. Content. When the boys lived at home, I didn’t read much non-fiction or history or difficult material because I was constantly distracted. And I also prefer reading with my ears, rather than my eyeballs. I hate headphones and earbuds, and when you’re sharing a small house with other people, your audiobook choices are limited to what the whole crew wants to hear. Unsurprisingly, none of the fam wanted to hear about all the ways we could die with that Plague book.

      I recently also listened to A Brief History of Seven Killings, which is filled with disturbing scenes of violence. I don’t think I would have gotten through it with my eyes, but listening while folding laundry or cleaning the bathroom, ordinary life tasks, comfortingly mundane, helped me process. Also not a fun family listening project.

      But I haven’t only read more difficult material since the house has been empty. A few years ago when my oldest was home for a few weeks before joining the Peace Corps, he picked up a novel I’d loved, Anil’s Ghost. Later he confessed that it was pretty awkward to see that I’d written an exclamation point in the margins by a sex scene. (I should note here that even the great Michael Ondaatje’s one female character in this book, which, again, I loved, didn’t seem believable to me, so my guess, because I can’t remember, is that my exclamation was more “that’s ridiculous” than “SO HOT.”) Now. Of course I wouldn’t categorize Anil’s Ghost as smut, but! On the whole, there have been a few more heaving bosoms. Not that they would even care, but it wasn’t until the boys were gone that I realized I could read any damn thing I wanted.
    4. Life-Changing Magic. Whether you’re a Kon-vert or a Kondo-hater, the fact is that with fewer people in the house, it’s easier to keep the place clean. And for me it’s a win-win. I can listen to audiobooks while I tidy, any book I want! More reading, more tidy. Some of my reader friends live in slovenly hovels and just don’t care—they’re too busy reading to clean. But for this introvert who needs a little order in her environment, gosh. This is huge.
    5. Relationships. When children are small, parents are GODS. And then for several years, we are IDIOTS. The emotional roller coaster is exhausting. Sometimes the IDIOT phase never ends, and adult children are never able to see their parents as fully enfranchised human beings. And vice-versa: some parents are never able to see their adult children as anything but their babies. I thank my lucky stars every. single. day. that we are not living in one of those circles of Hell.We’re entering the stage now when we find each other interesting and engaging. My boys’ interests are wildly different from mine, so they read books and articles I would never even notice. Prior to my boys entering adolescence, I was 0% interested in politics and the economy. They love that crap. I’ll never forget when my oldest was about fifteen, and he came to me while I was making dinner, “Mom! Let me tell you about hedge funds!” I’m a more responsible citizen, more fully informed voter, and generally more woke, because my children helped me shift my attention to subjects that had previously been opaque to me. Our conversations are vastly more interesting since my fellas have become adults and since I’ve had more time for my own reading.

My friend Amy is sending her oldest to college this week, his first year, and of course that is a heart-breaking thing, not just the end of his childhood at home, that chapter of their lives, but a shift in her identity. But once the dust settles and the tears are dried, this transition, sending the children out into the world, whether it’s to college or just into their own adult lives, means the ushering in of a new self, and, surprise! It isn’t all horrible. Sure, some days it feels like there’s nothing left but DEATH. But there are lots of days when it’s like being twenty again, except solvent and happy.

Really, the worst news, and I’m sorry to report this, is that the TBR pile never gets smaller. Because, darn it, people keep writing books. And we keep accidentally buying them. As it should be.

We love you. And we promise we’ll call you back. After one more chapter.