Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Empty Next Syndrome

Life after dependents have gone is freeing and disorienting

I have three children, all grown and independent. Whenever we spend time together we hint at our hopes that someday we’ll be together again, especially my youngest daughter, my long-time traveling companion and by now more my buddy than my child.

The other day, thinking about our chances of such reunion, I realized that, even if we did live near each other and saw each other a lot it will never be what it was.  She will never again be my dependent, never again beaming me the expectations and needs that helped define me as a father for so long.  I’ve had a dependectomy--my children’s ties of dependence upon me, now severed and removed. 

I love the freedom of cut ties and use my freedom well, or try to.  But a dependectomy can be hard.  I like my life tight and springy like a trampoline skin tied off to a firm frame.  My kids no longer depending on me is like torn tethering, the trampoline skin dangling where it once was held firmly. 

I’ve suffered dependicitis too, the sometimes searing inflammation of dependency, too many people dependent on me for too much. I remember once, sitting in our chaotic family room, wife and young kids in full noisy attendance, I pulled a blanket over my head, the only thing I could do to get away for just a minute.  

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And I remember a surreal night in my childhood, my parents slipping into their bedroom after dinner and locking the door. My three brothers and I banged and shouted outside their door for hours, outraged by our parent’s divergence from protocol, demanding an explanation for their insolence. None came.  They were silent, perhaps hiding in their bathroom, and the next morning giving no explanation either. That one night we put ourselves to bed, and discovered that we could.

Early childrearing years can seem in retrospect to be the “dark ages” of one’s life, us parents, the vassals of these feudal lord-like children, our time not our own. 

And not just retrospect.  As a young boy looking through picture albums of my parents raising my older brothers, I had a firm and foreboding sense of childrearing’s early years as a dark age, even as fresh to the world as I was.

Yes, it’s growing a family, a beautiful thing, young and full of potential.  But the diapers and the whining and the bickering unreasonableness of little children is taxing on those of us who cherish our mental lives, like living under the subway but worse, since the subway isn’t your problem. Your kids imperiling each other are yours to protect.  Our instinct is to pummel anyone who bullies our kids, which makes it confusing when our kids bully each other.  Their mutual bulling is good practice for them. They need to learn the futility of bickering and there may be no other way than lots of trial and error exercises in bickering’s futility.  But for parents who have struggled hard to graduate from those exercises, it’s a slow torture to be beckoned back into them.

Even as dark as the early family years may be with its searing dependicitis, there you are tethered snug and taut by those ties of dependence.  You know what you’re good for, or at least what you’re responsible for and there’s good in that.  I miss the dependicitis sometimes.  I liked being depended upon. 

As both of my parents migrated toward death I was depended upon again.  For a time they were dependent on me, their needs holding me firmly. Their last weeks in hospice were a rich mix of poignant emotions, co-mingled with what for me is an exotically sweet and rare sensation—total freedom from wondering whether I was in the right place. Being by their side was the only place to be. My free will was in check.  I belonged there, much as I belonged with my children when they were young, a liberation from the dread of not knowing where you belong really—freedom from the free willies, the anxiety of wondering where else you should be.

I meet people sometimes undergoing a sudden, unexpected and severe dependectomy in the loss of a partner and children at the same time. The kids graduate and leave; the marriage, having been held together in part by the children’s presence, falls apart, leaving the parent unsure what to do with him or herself. Empty Next Syndrome.

Come to think of it, I had one of those myself, in my case a dependectomy trifecta—my last child out of the house, my long-term partner suddenly gone, and my job ending, all within a few months, leaving my trampoline skin sense of self dangling flaccid like a limp and desolate rag.  I had projects that kept me going, but it was still a painful case of Empty Next Syndrome, not knowing for a time who and what I would be good for next.

Which all points to a surgical approach to one's ties, investments, commitments and dependencies, cutting the outdated dependencies while maintaining and stitching up the right ones.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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