A family is like a circus troupe, performing stunts under the big top for decades. There's Mom, juggling chores and work and hot flashes. There's Dad, clowning around in his big shoes. And there are the precious children, running around in circles, the star attractions, bouncing basketballs, riding bikes, doing tricks with the dogs.
It's stressful but sweet, lovable but distracting, and above all, it's supremely and incredibly entertaining. Eventually, though, the children outgrow the circus. They leave, with the intention of someday starting their own family circus.
Then it's just you and your partner. The two of you are the only stars of the show now, standing alone in the harsh, bright circus light.
Just the two of you.
At first you miss the presence of your little sideshow attractions. You're dazed, and a bit afraid, too, because you can't figure out what will happen next.
How will you and your mate be as entertaining, and as entertained, if it's just the two of you? What will you talk about, for instance? Many of your former topics of conversation no longer apply. You don't need to figure out who gets the car when or who attends which school events. You don't have to assuage your son's anxiety about finding a prom date or argue with your daughter about missing her curfew. All of the former child-oriented discussions and arguments and plans are mostly over, or at least put on hold for a while.
What do you do together, now that you can do anything at any time? It's almost as if you're newlyweds again, only with a lot more wrinkles and cellulite, as well as a much-reduced sex drive. But you also share years and years of companionship and troubles, heartaches and joys, disappointments and triumphs. Ideally, all those years together should form a solid foundation of love and support on which you will build the rest of your married life.
But in marriage, as in life, the ideal path isn't the only one.
Take my own marriage. When my youngest child left home, my husband and I talked about the dog. We discussed who would feed her, who would let her out, who would take her to the monthly vet appointment she needed. We imagined what our son, or our daughter, might be doing at the moment we were thinking about them. We talked about our work and our exercise plans for the weekend, and whether we'd go to a movie on Sunday afternoon. But those discussions didn't take very long, nor were they particularly engaging. We ignored the obvious, like the fact that we should try to go on a date together, or take up a sport or hobby together, or go away for a weekend together. These kinds of togetherness "shoulds" just didn't interest us.
We didn't do them before our kids left, so why should we start now?
Because we needed them, that's why. It soon became clear that we had lost the ability to show mutual consideration and respect, as if we'd forgotten how to speak a language we once knew. We were a kinder and gentler couple twenty - two years ago, before we had children. But those days were long vanished. Indeed, it seemed as if the harsh way we treated each other, spoke to each other, touched each other was out in the open for the first time in ages, no longer obscured and shielded by the commotion and distraction that children provide.
Our shaky marriage was all we had left under the family-circus big top. We were the only remaining stars, but we were wobbly on our feet, damaged by years of neglect for each other and for our marriage. We had no clue what we should do next.
Many couples are like us after their children leave. They become partners without being parents, and they're confused and uncertain about what that means. "Just the two of us, building castles in the sky," as Bill Withers's 1980 song lyric goes. "Just the two of us, we can make it if we try."
But it's the "trying" part that so many couples forget to do, and for some, it's no longer something they are able or willing to do.
Yet other couples find themselves in hunky-dory shape when the kids fly away. They have paid attention to their relationship all along, and they're able to pick up right where they left off, before they had children, when they were a couple and not a family.
Wives in my Web survey who are lucky enough to have such marriages say they are relieved that they get along so well with their husbands. "We're still good friends," they say, sometimes with amazement.
Once their children are gone, these wives report that their married life improves enormously. Many say they're thrilled and delighted to find there's less tension and stress without the children at home. They claim that while they used to argue constantly about their son's trouble-making or their daughter's grades, now that they no longer have the children to fight about, there's less conflict. Wives adore getting more attention from their partners once the former little ones have shut the door and walked out. Husbands appreciate getting more wifely attention, too, according to their wives, who sense that their husbands have been jealous of the children for years, because the kids hogged most of the family limelight. Many wives agree that once the children are gone, hubby becomes priority number one again, the way he was before the kids were born.
"We still feel close and we're still in love, but now we don't get distracted by the kids," says one of these happy wives. "And my husband loves having all my attention." Another confesses that "it's exhilarating to come home in the afternoon and leap into bed with my husband."
That is an empty nest filled with middle-aged sex.
Not all marriages, of course, are hearts and flowers and midday sex after the fledglings have flown. One woman says that her husband decided, on the second Thursday in September, right after their youngest son had left for college, that something was missing. "So he walked out the door, and we separated," she says.
"We spent so many years taking care of everyone else that we have forgotten to take care of each other," another unhappy wife confides. "For me, it feels more as if I'm living with a roommate than a husband and lover. There have been too many years of indifference for me to relight how I felt."
Her image is nearly perfect: a marriage is like a bright light for two, and both partners must constantly tend the flame, or else it goes out. And it becomes increasingly easy to tell if the light is no longer lit once the children's own vivid lights have moved on.
It's not all that difficult, in fact, for couples to figure out if their conjugal flame is alive or if it has been snuffed out for good. It's a matter of being able to see each other, to listen to each other, to be in tune with each other in a way that was difficult to achieve when the children were clamoring for attention.
Do you praise each other? Do you offer each other compliments and encouragement? Do you really listen to each other? Do you provide sympathy and support and strokes of affection for each other? Do you worry about each other's health and well-being? Do you notice signs of sadness or anxiety or when something's just not right?
I'd have to say that my own initial answers to these questions are, mostly, "no." It's as if my husband and I got out of the habit of being considerate to and thoughtful of each other. We had grown used to giving commands, managing all the tasks required to keep the circus going, instead of enjoying each other, with affection and comfort.
But marriages like ours may be in the minority, according to my Web survey. In a group of seven women I interviewed in Connecticut, for example, just one said that her marriage was worse after the children left home. She was the only one whose son had come back home to live, which may have had something to do with her marital blues.
I met these women in a sprawling contemporary home set on a lush, manicured property that included a perfect lawn and a perfect garden, as well as a tennis court and swimming pool. Inside, the dark hardwood floors gleamed with polish, and the marble floor in the vast kitchen was so shiny it could have been used as a makeup mirror. The guest bathroom was covered in narrow strips of mirror, mirrors from floor to ceiling, so many mirrors that you could see all of yourself as well as infinite reflections of yourself.
This is the House That Failing Feet Built, owned by Rosie and her husband, a monstrously successful podiatrist.
Rosie and her six friends, all in their fifties, agreed to meet me on a late summer afternoon, since a few work full-time and one takes an afternoon class. But they also spend a great deal of time playing tennis and going out for lunch, a July indulgence. They are the sort of women who, when they tell me they go out clubbing with their husbands, mean that they spend a lot of time at their country-clubs. Many wear diamonds, thick encrustations of faceted stones, around their necks, on their wrists, in their ears.
Tags: Parenting and Families
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