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The Empty Nest Revisited; or Three Can Live Cheaper than Two

My daughter is packing to leave home. Again. And everyone is happy. Mostly.

But before I knew that the end was in sight, I would sometimes worry about things.

We’re happy because she has the opportunity to go to grad school in a neighboring state focusing on urban ecology. Mom and Dad are especially happy that another daughter and her husband already live in that city. Doreen is happy because she is ready for a new phase of her life.

The three of us mostly got along very well and consider these “extra years” together as a gift. But before I knew that the end was in sight, I would sometimes worry about things. I won’t miss feeling pulled and torn between the interests and needs of daughter and husband, or guilty if we went out on a Saturday night and she was left home alone. I better understand the statement of a colleague years ago who was very ready for his adult daughter to move out so he and his wife could have “more privacy.”

We’ll probably miss Doreen even more than I imagine. I expect to start hearing mutterings again from my husband about “oh they grow up so fast and why do we raise kids anyway to just leave?” We will treasure the adult friendship we shared plus the practical extra labor help in gardening, canning, freezing, mowing, and starting a strawberry bed, herb garden, blueberry, and raspberry bushes (the blueberry died, the raspberry thrives).

The bigger question is why do we in North America take it as a sign of failure if our kids end up living with us for a period of time? In many, many countries of the world, multiple generations live in one household. Kids expect to live with their parents at least until they are married and then in some cultures, a wife is expected to join her husband’s extended household (which raises gender issues but that’s another column). Two years ago I had the opportunity to interview singer/composer Ken Medema about him and his wife moving in with one of their sons as a way of sharing expenses.

Both Doreen and we as parents have benefited from this arrangement financially. For her first year at home she got a free pass on rent—as we did for our oldest daughter who lived at home for a year after college. We set one-year-after-graduation as the end date for free rent. Doreen was working full-time with a decent job, and while not making huge amounts of money, she could certainly afford the amount we agreed upon. Her check was a significant help to us since it coincided with cutbacks in employment for both my husband and me (fewer hours/salary for both of us). She also paid a share of the electric and phone/Internet bills. We paid for most groceries but sometimes she bought things either that she wanted or that we shared in the household. We didn’t always reimburse her, figuring it went towards groceries. She definitely lived very cheaply with us, for which we’re glad, as she saved towards future car, education, and housing expenses. She was pretty frugal with the exception of flying to Paris for a week at New Year's with her friends one year, and some other smaller splurges.

We negotiated on a meal-by-meal basis who paid when the three of us ate out: sometimes she paid her own meal, sometimes we treated, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to our other daughters for Doreen to get lots of paid meals out with us. I share these details not to brag on our daughter or us but for an idea of how we made the financial piece work, resulting in no long-lasting hard feelings on any side (I hope). As parents we didn’t feel like she was taking advantage of us; I don’t think Doreen felt like we were ripping her off; and I hope her older sisters don’t think we were spoiling her.

I wouldn’t trade these four years for anything but we do look forward to not feeling guilty like when we leaned on her for pet or house sitting when we went away, or negotiating rides to town together so as to not waste gas but also working around our different errand needs, or when I cooked food she wasn’t so fond of. She won’t miss being at our beck and call for “can you get me this or that or can you lend a hand with this,” nor dealing with parents who increasingly seem to need their TV set turned louder and louder. We will miss her general “digital native” know-how in the computer, DVD, hooking up stereo equipment department.

I sometimes wonder why some of those living in retirement complexes don’t pair up and room together in apartments that have two bedrooms and two baths—especially as siblings or cousins. The savings would be huge. They say “Oh, we could never get along” or “we both want our independence and privacy,” but perhaps some of us need to adjust our expectations along those lines in a future world that will likely have serious economic and environmental challenges. Maybe we need to consider not only carpooling and more use of mass transit, but home-sharing and food-pooling.


Has your “nest” filled again—now or in the past? Send stories or comments for a possible future column to or Another Way, Box 22, Harrisonburg, VA 22803.  

Posted 5/17/2012 7:00:00 AM

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