The "empty nest" of the '90s is the gaping hole created by the joint-custody arrangement. Every weekend, every other week, every two weeks -- whatever increment of time alternating between households agreed upon by enlightened divorced parents -- the joint-custody household expands, then silently, eerily, contracts.
Many factors are at play here, the primary one being the presence or absence of children. There is the initial shock -- sometimes a pleasant one -- of a neat house. Beds remain carefully made, the kitchen counter uncluttered, the dirty clothes basket empty. Mornings are quiet, afternoons are quiet, evenings are quiet. Competing radio broadcasts and kids' voices swelling to overpower one another give way to the soft patter of the cats' paws scuttling across the hardwood floor. Dinner becomes more a choice and less of a task: out or in, a proper meal or none at all. Bedtime ceases to be an issue.
But with the contraction of household population and activity level comes a vacuum that ushers in doubt, loneliness and anxiety -- a faceless, nameless void waiting to be filled.
When I first became a single parent, the temporary absence of my children was liberating. I could double-up on work when they were gone, take a trip out of town for the weekend, eat dinner at my desk, stay up all night reading if I felt like it. Defiantly, I would drop my clothes on the bedroom floor and leave them there for days since daily laundry duty was no longer required. Long years of primary responsibility for the care and feeding of four kids prepared me for the break I felt I deserved.
What I wasn't prepared for was the solitude of extramarital life. My marriage of 20 years had been defined by the presence of children. My former spouse and I -- kids when we said, "I do" -- had failed to know one another as growing, changing adults and had put all our best efforts at home into jointly growing our brood. So long as the kids were around, I didn't feel the quaking disruption of divorce.
The real threat of the breakup of the nuclear family, I believe, lies in that paradox. We know one way of life as an intact unit -- mom, dad and the kids -- and that way is dominated by the joyous flurry of the kids' lives.
Left to our own devices, anything is possible, even the fleeting fantasy of running away.
My generation grew up with the stereotypical notion of divorce: Dad leaves, mom is left with the kids. Dad starts a new life somewhere else. Mom struggles through, raises them on her own, becomes a martyr to the family cause. And the kids grow up fearing abandonment.
Experts like Dr. Judith Wallerstein continue to perpetuate that scenario, relentlessly reminding those of us who are divorced -- even those of us who have done it fairly and amicably and who have vowed to continue jointly raising the kids -- that we have likely injured our children for life. Our best efforts to provide all the benefits of the nuclear family from two separate households most often go ignored. Sending the kids off to dad's with full assurance that they will soon return still feels like abandonment, the parent left behind absorbing the uncertainty and fear that goes with it.
I have discovered that filling the void of a once child-filled household, now empty, is a difficult task that will never be fully resolved so long as my children continue to come and go. On a regular basis, I will experience "empty-nest syndrome" until my kids have finally gone for good. When they are here, life will feel normal. When they are not, I will search for a new definition of what's normal and fight off the demons that come with this uncharted territory.
Last summer, as I was driving across rural North Carolina, I came across a perfect hillside, a sagging white farmhouse with a wide front porch, a FOR SALE sign standing in the front yard. In a minute's time, I imagined myself pulling up roots, starting a new life in that house, climbing that hill at sunset every evening.
But by the time my car had passed the corner fence post, I was drawn back to reality by the image of my kids back in Colorado and the knowledge that they would be coming home on Friday. The lives their father and I have designed for them are deeply rooted in two homes a mile and a half apart. Knowing they will return home reminds me every time -- some roots just can't be pulled up, even after they have been severed.