Op/ed: A gradual transition to empty nest makes the cord-cutting bearable
By Jon Light
During the Golden Years, when my daughters Katherine and Elena breezed through ages 3 to 10, I couldn’t imagine the post-apocalyptic empty-nest years. We were the center of our identical twins’ universe. Nothing was more anticipated than Dad’s arrival at home after work. Let play time commence! No activity was too mundane — there were squeals of excitement when I announced an excursion to the market to pick out fruit. Bug walks in the adjacent foothills, equipment belts strapped on, butterfly nets at the ready. Hikes in the rain. Twig forts at the park. Separation anxiety was acute, but actual separation unimaginable.
I got all the glory — snow trips with the dads, caravans to the beach for boogie boarding, softball coaching, painting terra cotta figures for hours on end, crafts at the kitchen table (“Dad’s pumpkin globe is soooo cool. Every country! Nice job, Dad!”). I was the Fun Generator who never said “no.” Mom was only the chief safety officer, health professional, fashion consultant, educational guidance counselor and all other things of real importance. She ensured ingestion of the proper medications (“No, Jon, Tylenol and Benadryl really aren’t the same”). She did her best to protect the girls in less dangerous but equally important areas. More than once I led the girls out into the world with their clothes on backward. It was the perfect universe of minimal back-talk; their parents’ word was The Word, and we could do almost no wrong.
But then ages 11 to 12 arrived. Those years commenced a gradual pulling away and occasional disharmony. I was afraid our perfect world would be torn asunder by every little female spat in the house. I wanted no conflict. I pined for the harmony of the true Wonder Years. What hath hormones brought down upon our realm? My wife, Angela, correctly assured me all would survive these years and the pitched battles would pass quickly with little scarring.
In the early days on the drive home from school, I avoided the inevitable monosyllabic “Fine” in response to “How was school today?” I’d cleverly ask, “Tell me one fun thing, one funny thing, and one thing you learned today.” That primed the conversation and Big Discussions were had. By the double digit years, however, the tone had changed. We did transition to morning drives happily listening to Mark and Brian on KLOS, further evidence of their evolution from wide-eyed daddy acolytes to semi-equals.
By the time the girls turned 13, I had become a minor public embarrassment. I was no longer clever. Eye rolls replaced peals of laughter at my witticisms. Of course, we endured far less abuse than I imagine many parents experienced. But clearly we peaked on the bell curve of parent cluelessness by the time they reached age 14. By then the girls generally preferred to hang out with their friends. They did continue taking actual fashion advice from their mother — a wise move at age 15. My wife and I had reached the zenith of our un-coolness.
Sweet 16 brought two more vehicles to the household and even fewer opportunities for interaction. The girls were far more autonomous with their new mobility. The process of dis-engagement progressed.
By 17 we were fairly well back in their good graces, no longer a complete embarrassment. Dad’s foolishness now merely endured rather than met with open hostility. I was grateful that they again recognized my ability, at least occasionally, to impart actual wisdom.
The separation was in full-swing. The gradual pace, spaced over several years, helped us adjust to the concept of the empty nest. But the cord cutting, by then just around the corner, would still be, if not a shock, at least painful in its way.
By December of their senior year our daughters had early admission to college secured and so the last semester was less stressful, though no less busy. After graduation, the last summer — those last few weeks of semi-chaotic preparation before the big moves when parents fully appreciate that we are not as central to our childrens’ lives as we had hoped — sped by.
But the reality of that separation set in on college move-in weekend. Alas, the girls were in different East Coast cities and Kat got stuck with me. I vividly remember her lamenting to Angela on the phone while we were in a Washington, D.C., Target store to outfit her Georgetown dorm room: “Mom, Elena scored! Right now I soooo wish I got you! Dad has no clue about fitted sheets.”
And the final denouement on Sunday morning. The school had cleverly scheduled a 9 a.m. student orientation. A quick hug and a kiss and heartfelt “thank yous.” Then Kat turned to head off to her first official solo activity. I sat on a bench in the school’s courtyard, awash in self-pity, watching forlornly as other parents said their goodbyes, shoulders sagging as they headed back to the great unknown of the empty nest. Nevertheless, I sat with a measure of contentment and satisfaction, knowing our work here was done.
• Jon Light, a partner in Camarillo-based LightGabler LLP, specializes in employment law on behalf of management. Katherine and Elena graduated from Georgetown and Yale, respectively, in May 2013 and are now working in Washington, D.C., and New York.