One of the more challenging things when your kids leave home is adapting to the quiet of an empty nest.
Despite a fundamentally good marriage, there are hours...days...sometimes longer when my husband and I don't have much to say to each other. It's not that he's not interesting -- and it's certainly not that I'm not fascinating -- it's just that some days we run out of energy, or anecdotes, or simply don't want to be in the same room.
What if, after all these years, we're talked out? What if we live the next 30+ years in that weird, awkward silence that you see between some couples? You know, the cliched pair, sitting in a restaurant not saying a word, not even looking at each other's faces. That couple.
The Wall Street Journal reports that in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 individuals who divorced were 50 or older. Almost 20 years later, that number jumped to more than 1 in 4. In 2009, more than 600,000 people ages 50 and over got divorced.
With statistics like that, the empty nest can be a scary place, especially when it's really quiet.
The issue here is not how to start talking after those days spent in near-silence. It's how to be content with the quiet and know that it doesn't mean the end is coming. Most of the time for us it's fine, and we happily go about our quieter days with little moments of chatter here and there. Sometimes I'll be a little remote, and sometimes he'll be a little obsessed with football. Or something.
When you're raising your children, there's always something to communicate about.
For most parents, the act of parenting is far more enjoyable than working. It's no wonder we spend so much time talking about our kids -- they bring us so much happiness.
According to a study by Pew Research, American parents with children under age 18 find 62% of their child-care experiences "very meaningful," compared with 36% of paid work-related activities.
Whether it's the mundane, like schedules, or the profound, like college choices, children bring an enormous amount of information into our lives that is often discussed, processed and filed around kitchen tables or on family car rides. How many times did my husband and I go to bed and spend those precious quiet minutes before sleep talking over our concerns about our children? How many date nights were focused on where our son would apply to college or what the odds were that our daughter would make the softball all-star team? How much conversation did we have that wasn't somehow centered around our immediate or extended family? Not as much as we should have, I think.
The empty nest and having two grown children has eliminated so much of the wonderful busy-ness that we lived with when we were raising them. When they left home they took with them the day-to-day concerns that consumed so much of our daily thoughts. The minutiae of managing their little, then big, then bigger lives suddenly was gone -- and my husband and I had to find other things to talk about around the kitchen table and in the car.
We began to talk about planning for our future together, much like we did when we were engaged -- only now the future is about us, not about the children we'll have or the family home we'll someday buy. We talk about what's going on in the world, what's in the news -- which we often watch before dinner (or sometimes during). We talk about our friends and their kids, what flowers to plant in the yard, whether or not to get another dog (not, for now). And sometimes, we don't talk much at all. Sometimes we just sit and read, or surf the internet, or watch The Big Bang Theory or House Hunters.
"What do you think it would be like to live in Costa Rica/Bhutan/Savannah/Austin/Dubai?" one of us will ask the other.
And then the conversation begins. Again.
Previously published on Empty House Full Mind.
Read more from Sharon Greenthal on Midlife Boulevard
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