An ancient rite of passage becomes a fresh phenomenon in "The Empty Nest," an intriguing new book edited by Karen Stabiner.
Although burdened with the overly long subtitle, "31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop," its commentators include such venerable arbiters of our times as Anna Quindlen, Ellen Goodman and Letty Cottin Pogrebin.
It is Quindlen who immediately tells us why today's empty nests may seem emptier than yesterday's.
"I wonder if this has a particular edge for the women of my generation, who found themselves pursuing mothering in a new sort of way," she writes. "We professionalized it, and in doing so made ourselves a tiny bit ridiculous and more than a little bit crazy -- Motherhood changed from a role to a calling."
Goodman, in turn, contrasts the shock of being "plunged into parenthood" as a young adult with the shock of being "out of parenthood."
"Is there any other job that defines success as becoming unnecessary?" she asks. "Imagine recruiting someone for a job by promising if they do everything right, they'll be obsolete. But the cultural line on parenting is that if you do it right, the children will leave. Leave. You. Alone. If you do it wrong, they will suffer from a syndrome common enough to have spawned a movie: "Failure to Launch."
Pogrebin puts it pithily:
* "You lose a kid, you gain a sex life."
* "Not having to worry where your children are at 2 in the morning frees you up to worry about global warming."
* "Just because they've been out of the house for a couple of decades doesn't mean they won't bounce back."
But it is the lesser-known African-American writer Brenda C. Roberts who brings greatness to these offerings with "A Mile Ain't What It Used to Be." Her striking essay acknowledges today's empty nest as a life stage most likely to begin with a child going off to college -- with multiple means of communication: "cell phone calls. And e-mail. And instant messaging. And text messaging."
"For generations of my family, the notion of such a network would have been hard to fathom," says Roberts. "For them, most farewells were final."
True leave-taking is the focus here, with Roberts recounting her grandmother Sarah Waller's parting with her family when her white employers moved to another state.
Sarah was 16 when her father, a pastor, walked her "only as far as the woods' edge," to see her off to "the unseen side of the moon."
"Reverend Waller was essentially unlettered, so communicating by mail did not even enter the picture," writes Roberts. "Sarah could read and write, but barely."
"Would I have the strength to let my daughters go, the way Reverend Waller did, or any of them?" Roberts asks. "I can't say. Because I live in times in which the meaning of a mile grows ever more faint, I have not had to discover the answer."
College is the catalyst for departure in most cases here -- but not in Lee Smith's "Good-bye to the Sunset Man," and not in Rochelle Reed's "Keeping Him Safe."
In Smith's moving piece, she and her husband take their son Josh's ashes to Key West where Josh, who suffered from schizo-affective disorder, reveled the evening sunset. "To have children -- or simply to experience great love for any person at all -- is to throw yourself wide open to the possibility of pain at any moment," Smith writes.
This is a sentiment shared by Reed, whose son Evan has joined the U.S. Army. "I ponder whether to sell our two-story home and buy a one-story in case Evan comes home in a wheelchair," she says. Later, she recalls being pregnant with Evan and visiting the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, where she saw a plaque with the Navajo proverb, "WE RAISE OUR CHILDREN TO LEAVE US."
There are several men among the contributors here -- including The New York Times' Charles McGrath, whose "Regime Change" reflects an empty nest that is quite liberating. "This must be the condition that real estate agents call 'tranquility,' " he observes at one point.
In one memorable piece, sociology professor Harvey Molotch gives us life-after-children through the contents of his supermarket cart. "The grocery-shopping cart was where my rubber hit the road, the place where I realized life had changed," notes Molotch, who became a widower when his children were 5 and 2 -- and whose subsequent, ever-changing needs at the supermarket came to reflect the stages of his life. In time, in his touching essay, he gains a male partner, and the contents of his cart alter in other ways. But it is when the children go that he really notices. "When the nest empties, the exhibit -- whatever it was before -- changes.
"In the case of my goods, it meant having less to declare." And, these days, Molotch says, "Usually, I just grab a basket at the door; I don't need a cart at all."
Jamie Wolf, a journalist and photographer, notes in her empty-nest offering that "human beings, unlike most other animals, don't have an instinct to drive their offspring from the nest." Then she tells us how it is often the children who make separation possible: "The unpleasantness of their teenage behavior is probably the only resource they can realistically draw on for enlisting their parents' cooperation."
Miami Herald writer Fabiola Santiago, on the other hand, finds the empty nest a purely American phenomenon. "We Cubans don't have empty nests," she declares in her fine piece. "Empty nest. Nido vacio? The term isn't even in our lexicon," she says. "In translation, it rings hollow, false, a too-literal interpretation of a foreign concept."
Ellen Goodman takes issue with the term "empty nest," finding it something of a contradiction, "as if nobody lived there anymore."
Stabiner, whose own daughter leaves for college this fall, has assembled some fine pieces here. Not all of the 31 succeed. A couple are tedious, two or three so self-indulgent they grate. But contributions like Susan Shreve's excellent "The Old Blue House and the New Blue House" -- and, of course, Brenda C. Roberts' extraordinary "A Mile Ain't What It Used to Be" -- make the venture mostly worthwhile.
The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth About Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop
Edited by Karen Stabiner
302 pages, $23.95