Brand building through storytelling

What it really takes to empty the nest

My son was in his mid-20s, with a desirable job and a couple of direct reports, when he packed his briefcase for his first business trip and realized as the limo pulled up at our door that something essential might be missing. If he’d been living in his own place and not in the bedroom to ours, I would have missed the sounds of worry: first much pacing and slamming of drawers, then the sheepish question “Mom, do I need a passport to fly to the U.S.?”

At the time all you needed was a driver’s license but Ben had never bothered to pass the test. Which left his passport, last seen several moves and many overstuffed garbage bags ago. I could see where this was heading: missed flight, disappointed client, irate boss (“You’re old enough to represent us in Chicago, you should damn well be old enough to know where your ID is!”).

I was about to do a hands-and-knees sweep of Ben’s room when good sense kicked in. Whose problem was this, for God’s sake? Not mine. Even so, I held my breath, intent on every sound from the other side of the wall.  I listened, nerves tingling, for a shout of relief. After one last fretful clatter that failed to unearth the passport, Ben announced that he’d be off without it. “Bye, Mom!” he called, sounding irksomely chipper for a lad about to be hauled on the carpet. I was the one who agonized. All day at my own job, I pictured my son losing his. How can you do this to me? I kept thinking. Why can’t you start living like a grownup? I needn’t have worried: Ben charmed himself onto the plane with a smile and a years-old student card. Looking back, I have to ask: If I really wanted Ben to grow up, why couldn’t my mind and heart let him go?

When my generation came of age, we left home at the first opportunity. Why bunk in with staid old mom and dad when you could be smoking up in Tangiers? But increasingly, we’re more cool to our kids than our parents seemed to us. We’re all so comfy together, we don’t feel the need to split up. Kids who leave home to work or study come home to regroup when relationships end or job prospects dwindle. It’s enough to make you wonder if there’s any such thing as the empty nest. As Marni Jackson writes in her timely and illuminating memoir Home Free: the Myth of the Empty Nest, “Just when you think your job as a mother is on the wane, the circuits all light up again.”

Jackson’s story proves the point. She and her husband, a film critic, deferred parenthood until the brink of middle age and have one child—son Casey, who shares their taste in music (Etta James), books (Allen Ginsberg, Sylvia Plath) and music (This is Spinal Tap). He’s their friend and sidekick until, at 20, he drops out of school to hit the road like his hero Woody Guthrie (and like Jackson herself in her own footloose youth). En route to Mexico via thumb and bus, he e-mails home and lets it slip that he has just spent the night sleeping on the ground behind the “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign. Dad gives him top marks for resourcefulness. (Well, of course. Men weren’t raised to be tireless nurturers.) Mom throws a fit—never mind that in her 20s she biked through Guatemala. Instead of falling victim to maternal anxiety, she probes it with exquisite candour.

Reading this book is like sharing a bottle of wine with a witty and generous-hearted friend who’s not afraid of her own ambivalence and bafflement in the face of a life-transforming passage. Better make that two passages: her mother is dying as Casey ventures forth into adulthood. Elegantly quotable insights abound—on the continuing loneliness of motherhood, on boomer idealism rechanneled into raising hothouse children, on what it really means to grow up when mom has stage-managed every play date and chauffeured you to every karate class lest you be snatched by a lurking pedophile.

Childhood has never been so cushy—or adult responsibilities so burdensome and omnipresent. Writes Jackson:  “[Growing up] needs to be rebranded so we don’t see it as the rather boring part that comes between youth and death….Adulthood arrives with a shadow of compromise and capitulation instead of a sense of expansion, adventure, or growth in wisdom and stature.” Jackson sees this view as specific to young men. I don’t agree, but that’s a minor quibble.

And speaking of young men, I defy any mother not to fall in love with Casey, who cautioned his mom as she began this book, “You can’t be mothering in the writing.” (This is a guy in his early 20s?)  Jackson doesn’t tell us how astute, considerate and self-aware he is, and she takes pains to point out that “the desire I have to make him (and us) look good immediately gums up the narrative and makes the writing soft.” (Memoirists, are you listening?) She lets Casey reveal himself through his actions and words; in fact, she gives him more than three pages to explain what he was seeking on the road and what he learned about himself. A lot, that’s clear: “I saw all kinds of people, with all kinds of lives, and all kinds of stories, but whenever I’d stop to talk with someone, the question eventually came up—‘What is your story?’…Did I have a wife or children? Where was my family? What…was I doing so far from home?”

Mother and son are singing the same song in harmony. She knows he needs to find his own way but can’t quite bear to let him go. He craves adventure but feels the tug of home.

Casey’s 26 by the end of the story, with a place of his own. As the mother of a two-time boomeranger, I wouldn’t bet that he’ll stay there. But if he ever comes home to his parents, I doubt he’ll expect them to do his laundry and cook his meals while he loafs on the couch drinking their beer. They’ve raised a loving, respectful and responsible son. To quote what’s probably my favourite line in :Home Free, “Family is a jalopy, not a Porsche, but it takes us down the road.”

Click here to read another family story about a missing passport (what is it with the men in my life?). 

Posted by Rona

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