When the kids leave home, do dads feel it more?

  • Family
  • Thursday, 25 Sep 2014

Missing her: It's just as hard for dads when the kids leave home. - MCT

When kids leave home, is it worse for fathers?

My mother-in-law called the other day to see how I was doing. My husband and I had just taken our daughter – our firstborn – to college. Now, we were home, contemplating her room and the beloved detritus of her childhood – old snow pants, dog-eared Pendragon books, corkboard photo collages – and my mother-in-law wanted to make sure I was holding up.

“I know how hard it is,” she said, sympathetically, “on a mother.”

I appreciated the gesture, but was surprised that she thought I was the only parent feeling emotional about Anna’s departure.

After we said goodbye to her, it was my normally stoic husband who talked rapidly as we drove, assuring me – and himself – that she would be fine.

The empty-nest transition is harder on fathers than conventional wisdom might have us believe. Men’s experience of this life passage has changed dramatically from what they might have felt, or admitted feeling, 40 years ago.

I recently had lunch with a friend who was preparing to take his younger daughter to college, and he recalled how traumatic it had been to send off her older sister.

“I just missed her like hell,” he said, recalling how he would walk through the front door and get a strange, heavy feeling. Some primitive part of his brain alerting him that a family member was missing.

“What surprised me was the physical impact of her not being there.”

Academics who study masculinity agree that the empty nest has been altered for men. The departure of their children is more wrenching, more of a rift.

“I think it’s huge, and it’s largely unacknowledged,” said Scott Coltrane, a sociologist at the University of Oregon.

Fathers occupy a more central place in family life than they once did. Since the 1960s, fathers have more than doubled the number of hours they spend on housework and now do about a third of household chores, according to the Pew Research Center.

They have nearly tripled the time they spend with their kids, from 2.5 to 7.3 hours a week, a number that is sure to increase with the growing number of men asking employers for paternity leave and other work-life concessions.

Men are no longer the distant breadwinners of the 1950s, when two-thirds of kids under 15 lived in a married-parent household in which the father was the sole earner. Today, that’s true of just 22%, according to a study by the sociologist Philip Cohen released by the Council on Contemporary Families.

The number of stay-at-home fathers has nearly doubled from 1.1 million in 1989 to two million in 2012 – and 48% of fathers say they would stay home if they could afford it, according to the Pew Research Center.

Men’s identity is now invested in a more intimate, hands-on fatherhood. It even seems fair to wonder whether the empty nest has become a bit harder on fathers than on mothers, whether the sexes have traded places emotionally, in part because for women, the empty nest presents a chance to be not quite so exhausted.

Social psychologists talk about the departure of adult children as a time when one social role becomes obsolete and a new one must be discovered.

Back when most mothers did not work outside the home, the person whose role evaporated was the woman’s. The stereotypical empty-nester of the 1960s was a bereft housewife. It’s not that men didn’t miss their children, but that their central role of provider did not change.

Mothers today have also undergone a profound identity shift. Women make up nearly half the labour force in the United States, and have nearly doubled the average work hours per week they put in, from 15 in 1965 to 25 in 2011. Seventy percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the work force. Four out of 10 are their family’s primary breadwinner.

Yet mothers today spend more time with their kids than they did in the 1960s and still do almost two-thirds of chores associated with what’s called the “second shift”: meals, cleaning, taking kids to the doctor. They have three hours less per week for leisure than fathers.

Given this still incomplete gender convergence, the empty nest may represent a pure loss of a cherished presence to men, whereas it can bring sadness but also freedom and a certain relief to women.

And for women who have pushed aside their careers, the empty nest now offers an opportunity to double down on work and personal advancement.

It also imposes a marital reckoning. For Americans over 50, the divorce rate has doubled since 1990. Many are already on second (or third) marriages, which tend to be more fragile, often because of pressures around new extended-family relationships.

But, studies also suggest that the empty nest, like other big transitions of later-adult life – retirement, spousal illness – can destabilise marriages.

Many couples look forward to a new chapter and the chance to be alone together, but it can be disconcerting when things are not what they were when the two were starting out.

The rhythms of the household do change. But it doesn’t have to mean it’s worse.

Forty or 50 years ago, the overworked male breadwinner often did not have the time or the social permission to develop a close connection with the children he was supporting, and when an adult child left home, that chance could be lost.

Today’s men are more likely to have enjoyed the happy unscripted moments that create deeper bonds.

Fathers can reinvent the college parent-child relationship just as they reinvented the at-home one. My husband has found a new way to stay connected, sending our daughter a quick, cheery email every morning.

Last weekend, her university played his alma mater in football, and they had a dollar riding on the outcome. She won. A new line of communication has opened up.

Now, if I could only find a way to explain things to the dog who still lies, each night, outside a certain bedroom door. — International New York Times

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