Even before she was born, our daughter was our priority. My husband and I married late in our lives, propelled toward each other largely by a mutual urge to procreate, and we saw in the other the qualities necessary for raising a child: stamina, humor, intelligence, kindness, good health, a durable beauty. We hurled ourselves at the strictures of parenthood without a shred of ambivalence, and the life we built was designed to accommodate her, starting with the apartment in the excellent school district and ending most recently with the adoption of a black-and-white kitten who sleeps in her bed.
From go, we have included our daughter in our grown-up lives. On a road trip down South when she was 4 months old, I nursed her in the bathrooms of soul-food restaurants. We slept in elegant rooms with four-poster beds and put her down in nests we created by lining dresser drawers with bath towels. This dynamic continues to this day: Our daughter is abreast of our finances, our illnesses, our professional travails, and when decisions come up — where to go on vacation, new bathroom fixtures — she expects to have a say, to be kept in the loop.
We have little experience, really, of being a couple, so few years logged of just us two, and so it’s hard to say what we’ll become without the daily weight of parenthood. I don’t fantasize about another relationship or a different man or a different life. But I worry, sometimes, that we are both temperamentally single people — stubborn and defended individuals — and that her physical absence will release us from our shoulder-to-shoulder camaraderie, that we’ll become unbound. Without her, will we revert to what we were before, two solo readers, immersed in our thoughts? Or will we become something else, together?
The delights of marriage in the Empty Nest are many, my friends all assure me, and first among them is the rediscovery of unbounded time: the freedom to wander — without worrying about bedtime or babysitters or homework or curfews — into a new restaurant and order wine and dinner and dessert, to tack an extra day or week to a business trip — even to take separate vacations and reconvene at home. Most appealing of all (to me) is the sense of transgression I hear in these stories, as if in middle age these friends are getting reacquainted with their former, more rebellious selves. A woman I know says that since her children went away, she and her husband have cultivated an interest in mixology. Another is demolishing her children’s bedrooms in order to create separate spaces for her husband and herself to (separately) do as they please. But my favorite story comes from a woman whose last child just left for college. When her kids were at home, screens-free family meals were sacrosanct. These days, she and her husband will occasionally sit down for dinner on the couch in front of super-crap TV. What a pleasure it must be to cast off the charade of model adulthood — and to have a partner by your side with whom to transgress.
What a 15-Year-Old Knows About Her Parents’ Marriage
My mother is always very charmed by my father. They’re not a big PDA type of couple, but the hierarchy in our family is obviously Mom, Dad, me, but she’s a little bit like, “Ah, yes, my court jester.” She’s pleased by his presence. They like each other. My dad is very funny, and my mom likes to be around his very funniness. My dad had a lot of problems with organization when he was my age, and he’s still pushing that ball up that hill. And my mom is kind of a control freak, and so my mom will text him to remind him to pick up the dry cleaning or to feed the dog. And he’ll be like, “What dog?” She’s very committed to making sure that the whole ship of our lives runs smoothly. When my mom does that to me, I’m like, “If you don’t stop bugging me, I’m never going to learn how to be independent.” But my dad’s solution was definitely like, “Instead of learning how to be independent, I’m going to find this woman to control my life, tell me what I should wear.”
My parents are very like, “Here is our marriage, and here is our relationship with you, and they are completely separate.” Their romantic interest and intricacies are kind of between them and them. I think that when I have kids, that’s the way I’d like to do it. In the 15 years of living in this apartment with them across a hallway, I’ve never heard them having sex. I’ve been like, “When do you guys have sex?” My mom’s like, “I’m not talking about that with you, my daughter.” Every summer, my mom is like, “I think you should go to camp. And I think it’s possible because they’re like, “You need to get out of the house.”
The last big fight I remember them having was a really long time ago. I don’t remember what it was about, but I remember my mom throwing something on the ground and screaming “I hate you” and coming into my room and dragging me out of my room and going out to my dad. She was like, “I want you to see this.” And going up to my father and saying, “I don’t hate you, I love you, but I am very mad.” They’ve been going to marriage counseling for almost as long as I can remember, so I very rarely see them fight. That all happens behind closed doors. But by this point in the 15 years of their marriage, they’ve settled into a very tight, good rhythm. Like any person that you live with, there are little things that you scrape about. I think that they’re not the type of people who are ever going to get divorced. They’re very solid and they’re very grown into each other. Do you know how a tree grows around a sidewalk? It’s like that.