Marriage, kids, and the empty nest

When I was a young teen, many girls dreamed of the perfect prom and their wedding day, but I dreamed about having a family of my own. By the time I graduated from high school, I was entertaining other ideas too. I wanted to be a writer or an environmental scientist. I wanted to live in a cabin in the woods. I wanted to learn to ski and rock climb and ride horses. I wanted to be strong and fit and independent.

I married young, and almost immediately after becoming a wife, my dreams of becoming a mother began to fade. Once I had a husband, having children lost its appeal. I earned my degree, became a writer and lost interest in skiing, horseback riding, and rock climbing but worked hard at being strong, fit, and independent. Life felt complete and I began to think that maybe I didn’t want children after all. I was very happily married. Why mess with a good thing?

We celebrated our tenth anniversary with a second honeymoon, but the year delivered some devastating losses and I began to think that maybe our life wasn’t complete. Maybe there should be more than weeks spent at the office and weekends spent together, more than movies, restaurant meals, hiking, shopping, and holidays in New York City. Maybe I was ready to dive off a cliff into unknown waters and surface into a new life. Maybe I was finally ready to take a big risk, open my heart, and make the ultimate commitment.

And so the two of us dared to do what so many others do unthinkingly or accidentally. We became parents. First a son, then a daughter. As expected, it changed everything, including our marriage. In those early years, we were perpetually exhausted, emotionally and physically, and it took a toll. We lost so much in terms of intimacy, and yet we gained an even more profound connection as we worked as a team. The kids were a source of joy but a source of stress too. They made our world bigger and smaller in equal measure. We stayed home more and traveled less and yet life felt rich in entirely new ways. We taught them about life and they taught us too. We became better people in the process. When I look at all the choices I’ve made in life, the decision to be a parent is the best one I ever made.

Now my husband and I are a few years away from an empty nest, and I wonder how that will feel for me personally and how it will affect our marriage. We have been a four person family unit for so long that I honestly can’t imagine having empty seats at the table.  And while I think we have perfected family life, I’m afraid my husband and I have forgotten how to be a couple, how to focus on each other, how to live together as husband and wife and not as “Mom and Dad.”

I know we will never be the way we were before; I just wonder how we’ll be together. The parenting years have divided and united us, highlighting our differences as well as all we have in common. I know he loves me but does he want to be with me? Am I still someone he’s interested in? When conversation is no longer about our kids and logistics and extracurriculars and school schedules and the calendar, what will we say to each other? Will we find a way back to true intimacy and rediscover the romance that was at the heart of our relationship for 15 years?

I’m not sure. We’ve been operating as partners, not lovers, for a long time. I think the empty nest will either bring us back together or send us farther down separate paths. The empty nest might involve much more than realigning priorities and schedules and accepting my children’s independence. It may mean the end of my marriage–or a new chapter in a mostly happy life together.

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