A Davidson dad contemplates the empty nest.Those of us who were adolescents as the Beatles came on the scene look at their music as practically liturgical, to be played at significant moments, feeling for the homily inspired at every line.
So it was that I slid a Beatles CD into the slot as we started out pre-dawn from our New Jersey home to take our younger daughter, Sylvia, to Davidson’s freshman orientation two years ago. On came one of the slow solemn songs, and its opening stanza:
“Wednesday morning at 5 o’clock
As the day begins…
Quietly turning the back door key.
Stepping outside she is free…”
I looked at the dashboard clock: “5:05.” Not five minutes before had Sylvia come out the back door with her last luggage load.
Yes, she was leaving home, and I was jelly inside and out.
Now, the empty nest hits everyone in a different way. Some of my friends were overjoyed with the thought of having more time to themselves. Others talked about being ambivalent, but I noticed them leafing through cruise literature and trading in their SUVs for 15-year-old sports cars.
I was mush. Diving into old photographs in insomniac moments. Planning upcoming school breaks. I think I might have even turned on “Teen Mom” or “The Kardashians” a few times.
When we left off our older daughter, Ella, at Davidson three years before, we had a big hug and at least a couple of tears in the parking lot behind Belk Hall. When it was time to leave Sylvia, she had just finished playing some co-ed tennis and was anxious to get back for whatever the after-party was going to be.
“You’ll be OK, Dad. You better get on the road,” she said, with only the slightest bit of sympathy.
I have to be honest. While I may not have been a helicopter parent, I might have been a low-flying turbo-prop. I was an older dad—40 when Ella was born and 43 with Sylvia. I had waited long enough, so I promised myself I would live to never have to say, “I missed my kids growing up.” I was a TV critic, which required that I stay at home and, well, watch TV. Then I was a freelance writer. My wife worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, so she actually had to go to an office. I did, too, but it was 15 feet from our bedroom.We did have au pairs who took care of them during the dull moments, but I made sure I was around for the exciting ones, which included walking back and forth to elementary school. Excitement is what you make it.
The girls were into a lot of things, but a lot of that lot was sports. They played about 17 different things between the two of them, some better and some worse, and it seemed that nearly every day, I was out there trying to be both omnipresent and out-of-the-way.
One day, when they were both on the school tennis team, I made my way down to see them 50 miles into South Jersey’s belly at Cumberland High School. Their team, Haddonfield, would go on to be state champs. Cumberland, shall we say, had no tennis tradition.
When I got there, their coach said to me, “Mr. Strauss, no parent has ever come to Cumberland High School.” I smiled wanly, but I knew what he was getting at.
We also traveled incessantly and somewhat insanely—each of the girls getting to more than 50 countries before Davidson. Lunch in Liechtenstein. Mardi Gras in Malta. Sand-sledding in Namibia. Whatever was strange, I thought it necessary for the connection. I went nowhere growing up, my father not being that traveling sort of guy, but I had two willing companions for scratching that itch.
I admit I was a big partisan of Ella going to Davidson. She applied to—yes, I know it is crazy—14 schools, but Davidson was the only one like my alma mater, Carleton College in Minnesota, which is a lot like Davidson but with D-III sports and a bit lower wind-chill factor. When Sylvia decided on Davidson, too, what was I going to say? I was an only child of older parents who went to school 19 hours away from home. They were a mere nine hours to the South.
In My Life
I have filled up my bare moments with mock-helicoptering. I became a referee for basketball and girls lacrosse, two of their sports, so I could make use of knowing, as I did when they were playing, the rush-hour back roads to every school in South Jersey. I am a Luddite and don’t have a cell phone, so I don’t text, but I do send emails filled with attachments to stories I “know” they will like. I don’t dare disappoint myself by asking whether they actually have read them. I play tennis or basketball nearly every day and try to tell my compadres on the courts interesting or at least funny stories about my kids. They must be appreciative of that, right?
Gayle Kaufman, a Davidson professor of Sociology and Gender and Sexuality Studies, who researches fatherhood, said I am at least not crazy in my swoons around the empty nest.
“Fatherhood is much different in this era,” she said. “The expectation is to be involved. When you were a kid, the expectation was the father went out and made the money and the mother made sure the child grew up the right way.”
It used to be, she said, that parents would go to something big—a championship game, a graduation—but leave the kids be on their own otherwise.
“Now, there is no activity too small for parents to be involved in, no matter what it is,” she said.
So I have spent the last couple of years in withdrawal rehab. Sylvia is now a sophomore and Ella has stayed on after graduation to work in the Davidson alumni office. I sometimes look back at the funny/sentimental memoir I wrote three years ago about being the dad of girl athletes, Daddy’s Little Goalie, and wonder how all that went by so fast.
Then it struck me, maybe I have been in the empty nest for a long time. By the time they were, say, 10, the girls had lives quite independent of me. I may have been at the ballgame, but what about the other 22 hours of the day? I don’t mean they were plotting to deceive me, but only now do I realize I knew far less than I thought about what they did most of the time.
Still, I parse every email from the girls today as if it were “CSI”-worthy. Where are they going? What are they thinking? Should I worry, glory or take a breather?
I had a long and fun life before the girls came around, but somehow, like Heisenberg’s electrons, once they were on the scene, everything changed. I am taking my first oddball trip without them this spring, to Eastern Europe with an old friend to see where our parents were born. It is a surprisingly big step. Next will come in a couple of years, when we will probably downsize from the house they grew up in. Throwing away or giving away even the smallest piece of memorabilia will be tough. As I tell people who say you can’t live through your kids, “Well, then why did you have them?”
I don’t wail, though, as the subject in that Beatles song, “She’s Leaving Home” does, “We gave her most of our lives. Sacrificed most of our lives…”
But, really, I wouldn’t mind being on the sidelines and seeing just one more three-pointer from the top of the key.