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Dad Next Door: Feeling Nestless

A little encouragement from across the fence


My latest project is to learn how to paint portraits. The other day, I brought a snapshot of my daughter Juliana to art class, to use as the basis for a painting. I took that photo last autumn. She was standing in the Arboretum: relaxed, dappled with sunlight, and cracking just the hint of a smile.

For me, painting is a kind of meditation. The mixing of colors, the cleaning of brushes, the contemplation of shape and shadow: all of it carries me away from the problem-solving and logistics that fill most of my day. Painting is more about seeing and feeling, right here and now, than it is about thinking. Knowing that, I shouldn’t have been surprised that in the middle of class, my eyes welled up with tears. Three hours of staring into the face of someone you love can do that — especially if they’re about to leave you.

At my house, this is the summer of the nearly empty nest. And like most of my life as a parent, it’s not going quite as expected. The summer before my older daughter Maddie left home, the only way I knew that she still actually lived with me was the shifting pile of clothes on her bedroom floor. She went to her job during the day, and out with friends at night. When she actually left for college I missed her, but in truth I’d been missing her for quite a while. 

Juliana is different. She never really felt the need to push me away. Most evenings, she’s content to curl up on the couch, a few feet from me, reading her book and pausing now and then to text her friends or mess around on Facebook. If I go into the kitchen to make dinner, she sometimes relocates and reads there. We don’t talk much. Mostly, our connection is just the animal comfort of living in a pack. It’s hard to believe that our pack is about to break apart.

When my kids were young, I couldn’t imagine that this day would arrive. Their dependence on me was so complete, so all-consuming, that losing them would have been like cutting off a limb. The “empty nest” was a mythical Valhalla of leisure and rest — lauded in songs and lore, but not of this world. I get the feeling that the real empty nest will be a much more complicated place.

It’s often said that the Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity.” It’s a handy rhetorical device for advice columns and motivational speeches. But as is often the case, the translation from Chinese to English is a bit more ambiguous. The part about “danger” is fairly straightforward, but the other character might be better translated as “tipping point.” 

When we reach a fork in the road, it seldom comes with convenient signs pointing to danger and opportunity. Instead, we are left with a sense of precarious imbalance, and imminent, unpredictable change. That’s where I’m standing today. And right now, I’m acutely aware that all I can take with me, no matter which road I choose, are the things I can carry on my back.

So what are those things? What will be the focus of my life after its gravitational center spins off into an orbit of its own? I have a strong community of family and friends. I do satisfying work with good people. I am in love with an amazing woman. Those relationships will stay with me and sustain me, as they always have. But one relationship, in addition to the one with my daughter, will inevitably change: my relationship with myself.

When you become a parent, you accept a new identity. You give up a part of yourself in order to become part of something new. And for a couple of decades, our connection to our kids becomes a fundamental element in how we see ourselves, and how we are seen by others. The challenge of the empty nest isn’t just the loss of one’s child. It’s the loss of one’s self.

As the big day approaches, I’ve been wondering whether or not to offer Juliana some sage advice as she ventures out on her own. Unlike Maddie, she might actually want to hear it, which kind of amps up the pressure. I’ve been thinking I should tell her that her first job is to find out who she really is. If she can figure that out, and stay true to it, the rest will take care of itself. 

Or maybe I’ll just keep my mouth shut, and try to take my own advice.

Jeff Lee lives in Seattle and sneaks adoring glances at his daughter when she’s not looking.

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