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When the Empty Nest Fills to Overflowing

Every so often, usually during the holidays or a family festivity, my adult children come home and spend the night.  There’s a special feeling when all are present, accounted for and safe, at least for the night again, in the family home.

In the novel “The Arrivals,” the patriarch expresses that sentiment as he heads to bed in his house where his children and grandchildren are asleep:

“…there was something else he had forgotten, from his children’s youth, something he never articulated but now felt so strongly it was almost palpable: the peace you feel when you are awake in a house where children are sleeping.”

That peace doesn’t last in the Burlington, Vermont empty nest of Ginny and William Owen after their three adult children descend and end up staying for three months. The oldest, Lillian, 36, fleeing marital troubles, arrives with an infant and a toddler.  The middle child, Steven, 34, and his pregnant, workaholic wife, are sequestered when bed rest is ordered. The youngest, Rachel, 29, journeys from Manhattan to escape romantic and financial woes.

Taking place over three summer months, the novel is written from multiple points of view by author Meg Mitchell Moore, who captures the interior struggles and the exterior chaos of the multigenerational household.  This is the first novel for Ms. Moore, 39, the mother of three daughters, ages 8, 6, and 4.

While the novel must certainly resonate with Ms. Moore’s 30-something contemporaries, it also accurately reflects the feelings of 50- and 60-something parents who are called upon to help their adult children in distress. We know that parenting never really ends but at what point—if ever–do we stop providing a safety net? Ginny, a stay-at-home mom called back into active duty, has no doubt about her role, as she tells her husband:

“They are our children. They need us.  We should help them.  Why wouldn’t we want to help them if we can?”

Her rescue mission mentality is not shared by her husband.  When he hears the news that his daughter and kids will be staying for awhile, he laments the loss of the Saturday afternoon baseball game on TV, the Saturday evening dinner with friends, and an uninterrupted-reading of the Sunday papers. “The arrivals” disrupt his treasured routine. However, he does step up and manages to keep the chatterbox three-year-old entertained.

The novel also raises the question of how much responsibility we bear for our children’s happiness.  As we noted earlier this month, if we don’t take credit for our children’s successes, then why do we take blame for their failures?  And as  the cover story in the July issue of The Atlantic pondered (see the next article),

Should parents shield children from adversity? Why not let them figure it out for themselves?

Ginny has no question about her role: Mid-summer her husband drags her out to dinner, just the two of them.  (Her: “What will the others do?”  Him: “They will fend for themselves. The way that adults are meant to.”)

Despite the attempt to lift her spirits, Ginny is still clearly distressed about her children:

If they’re not happy—if they’re not capable of living on their own and being happy—it means I’ve failed. I should take it personally.  This is it.  I am sixty-three years old.  This is what I have done with my life.  They’re my masterpiece, and they’ve broken.”

In a recent phone interview from her home in Newburyport, Massachusetts, Ms. Moore said that the “masterpiece” line resonates with readers of all ages:  “The funny thing is that I expected that reaction of my mother’s generation but I’ve also heard that from many of my own friends even though their children are so young.”

Ms. Moore has created memorable characters with situations that ring true. One of the scenes that will resonate with both generations is when grandma Ginny, after weeks of changing diapers, getting up in the middle of the night with a newborn and soothing a cranky toddler, finally snaps and tells her daughter she’d like a little appreciation and gratitude. That scene prompted Ms. Moore to write a blog post aimed at her contemporaries with “Six Tips for Visiting Your Parents House with Your Small Children.” (Good advice for any adult children as toddlers don’t  have to be in tow for adult children to create, as my mother used to say, a “pigsty” in the family home.)

While baby boomer moms may wonder what they would do in an “Arrivals”  situation,  Ms. Moore, as a young mother, sees the homecoming from another angle. “I think the theme of the novel is somewhere in between you can never go home again and you can always go home again but it’s not like you expected.”  Indeed, the safety net may always be in place, but in burlap instead of 400-count cotton!

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