Fathering an empty nest
by Neil Chethik
1996 Lexington KY - It was supposed to be a time of great joy. After 18 years of successful fathering, Murray Scher was sending his daughter off to college, an intelligent, well-adjusted young woman ready to meet the world. So why did Scher feel like his best friend had just died?
It was, he learned later, the empty nest syndrome.
Like most men, Scher never thought he would experience such a thing. The syndrome was something mothers went through, a feeling of emptiness when their children left home. But as Scher discovered, fathers can suffer it too, in a different, but equally poignant, way.
"Mothers tend to feel both pain and relief when a child leaves home. She's usually had so much responsibility," says Scher, 53, a psychologist from rural Tennessee. "But for fathers, who may have escaped the day-to-day tasks of raising their children, there's less relief. A child leaving home simply means losing a wonderful presence in their lives."
Scher first became aware of the impending loss when his daughter was a senior year in high school. Rather than dwell on it, though, he tried to ignore it. That worked until the day he loaded up the car to drive Elena, his only child, to college.
"I can still see myself trying to put her bicycle on the rack and feeling this rush of sadness, this pain," he says now, six years later. "It was crushing. My thought was: She's going to be gone in a few minutes. She'll never come bouncing through the doorway again. She's making a transition that's irrevocable."
During the 10-hour drive to Washington University in St. Louis, Scher was somber. And things didn't get much better when he returned home.
While his wife seemed to handle Elena's departure with calmness, Scher spent the first few months anxiously buying things for the house. "I was literally attempting to fill up the nest," he says. "It did not work, and it was expensive."
His inability to shake his gloomy mood frustrated him. "In a lot of ways, women are more realistic," he says. "They know children need to grow up and leave. Men have these pleasant fantasies, and then we're shocked by the reality."
Gloom turned to depression as the reality sunk in that his daughter was gone forever. Scher found himself wishing he could live his young adulthood over again. It's not that he regretted the first time around; he had simply enjoyed parenting so much that he wished to do it again. "I wanted my kid to come sit on my lap for eternity," he says.
And burying himself in his work was not an option. Like many middle-aged men, he found that his career was on "automatic pilot," he says. He was successful, but he didn't feel very inspired. He asked himself: Is this really what I want to be doing?
Eventually, a year after Elena left, his depression began to lift, but only after he recognized that his daughter's departure was indeed like a best friend's death. Elena was not only his daughter, but she represented for Scher the hope and promise of the future. She was his connection to the exuberance of youth.
"Young children are optimistic and faithful and endlessly full of the joy of living," he says. "When they leave, some of the promise leaves" with them.
Today, he revels in his daughter's successes. She graduated from college two years ago and moved to New York City for a job in an art auction house. His energy for his own work has returned; he recently spoke at a conference about his empty nest experience, and then wrote about it for The Journal of Men's Studies.
"I do feel closer to death and have struggled with that," he said in the Journal article. "Although I am not yet finished with that struggle, of late I am more aware of how much I have left to live rather than how close I am to death."
Of the approximately 2.3 million students who graduated from high school in June 1991, about 1.4 million of them began attending college four months later. - Source: The World Almanac
Neil Chethik is speaker, author and expert specializing in men's lives and family issues. He is the author of two acclaimed books: VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think About Their Marriages, Their Wives, Sex, Housework and Commitment (Simon & Schuster 2006), and FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come To Terms With the Deaths of Their Dads (Hyperion 2001).
Previously, Neil was a staff reporter for the Tallahassee Democrat and San Jose Mercury News , and writer of “VoiceMale,” the first syndicated column on men's personal lives. His writings have appeared in hundreds of print and web publications. He is currently Writer-in-Residence at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington , Ky. , where he lives with his wife, Kelly Flood, and son, Evan.