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Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: It's time to redefine empty nests and full attics

Oct. 07, 2012 @ 12:12 AM

My father called it the "Empty Nest and Full Attic" stage of life. Although I don't have an attic, I do have a recently emptied nest. And yes, I have a crowded basement along with a few crammed closets.

As he predicted, those of us who "suffer" from the empty nest syndrome come to it gradually.

The nest starts emptying when the last child enters grade school. Parental tears mist the eyes in the morning, but by afternoon they are quickly dried with the demands of routine.

When the first child goes to college, there are more tears. Life reconfigures itself at home and you learn just how altered it can be with one less in the family mix.

But when the youngest goes to college, life is forever changed.

Beat-the-clock mornings filled with multi-tasking and those dreaded what's-for-dinner conversations are simple now, almost pointless, if necessary at all. The bookmarks of the day -- before school, after school, dinner, homework, and bed -- no longer structure our days.

Life is so different without those steadfast routines to guide it. One day I drove through the carpool line just to make sure it was still there.

I realized I not only emptied the nest of my children, but also of their activities and entourage of friends.

My role in that world evaporated; the disconnect was abrupt.

"Don't think of it as an "emptied-nest," a writing colleague suggested. "Think of it as 'Becky-filled.'"

That thought was energizing -- at first. How often did I get to do exactly what I wanted to do without another schedule rolling around in the back of my mind?

But after about a week of it, I'd had enough. When a friend asked me about the college drop-off, I said, "I'm sick of me. It's been all about me for over a week. I need something in my head besides me. Tell me about you!"

Yet the scaffolding remains, as my father suggested.

I recall our bicycles hanging like loose spaghetti from the ceiling rafters. My siblings and I denied all requests to sell them, claiming we wanted our children to have them someday -- which of course never happened.

The empty nest, in fact, is often a cluttered nest filled with decisions. "What to keep? What to let go?"

But the real question is, "Will they miss it if I pitch it?"

I'll never forget the time my youngest pulled a Certificate of Participation out of the trash.

"Mom, what are you doing with this?" he asked.

I mumbled some confused reply.

"Don't you know how much a certificate means to a child?" he said, emphasizing "a child" as if I'd missed a parenting class.

He was 4.

"I'm sorry, Pete," I said. "I guess I made a mistake."

So I'll de-clutter slowly and thoughtfully, trying not to trash another treasure.

I'll call it the "what's left" stage of life, empty, but filled with ongoing choices about letting go and leaving in to make room for "what's next."

This column was co-authored and edited by Rebecca Faye Smith Galli, daughter of the late Dr. R.F. Smith Jr., a longtime columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Her email address is rfsgalli@gmail.com.

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