(Male empty nest syndrome)

When the fledglings leave the nest, fathers grieve too, writes Warren Gray.

She said it. No doubt about it, she said it. Right across the table, in the course of ordinary conversation, in the presence of mom and dad, TO mom and dad, she said it.

What did she say?

On the surface, she said 'damn'. Somewhere in the middle of a sentence, tucked within a paragraph, she said 'damn'.

Underneath the surface, she said, "I'm an adult now. I'm off in college now and I'm developing on my own now, and I get together with my friends and say 'damn' from time to time, and now I'm saying it to you".

Her eyes met mine and told me that she understood exactly what she was saying. And she was waiting for my reaction. My reaction was no reaction, which was the reaction she wanted. It was my signal to her that the 'damn' was OK. Several other damns during the same conversation got the same reaction. Mercifully, her mom did the same. We accepted the fact that she was growing up.


Now, I know that in other households the use of much worse words by kids much younger than 18 may be acceptable. My daughter was far from using sailor language. My father, and the Cajun relatives I had grown up with, had made sure that I had heard the words 'damn' and 'hell' pretty regularly at a very young age. But I was not to use them. I don't remember ever using them, but if I did, I must have been punished, because I did not dare to use them in my parent's presence until - well, until, I came back from being off to college one semester.

Likewise, I don't remember ever punishing my daughter for using bad language, though we may have done so. It was something she knew not to do, an unspoken rule she had observed - until she returned home after a few weeks at college. Now she was signalling to me that she was a young woman who would speak her own thoughts in her own words.


The house we're renting has become huge these days. I know that it has grown. There are three bedrooms and a full basement. My 24-year-old son, who has been our yo-yo, moving in and out of our house, dropping in and out of school, for six years now, had been occupying the basement, but by mutual agreement, he moved out several months ago. My wife has kept her job in another state and commutes to it every other week, living in her own apartment there. And now my daughter has gone off to college, living in the dorm there.

So the house is really big every other week, when I share it with two unhospitable cats. I never go into the basement. But there's still a lot of space for one man - one father, one husband on hold. Being a husband takes different forms; it survives, but I feel my fatherhood slipping away. What does she need me for now? Money? Yes. Advice? Sometimes. Comfort? Occasionally. Support? Yes. But all these things appear to be slipping away gradually - except money. She needs them less and less.

She's only two counties away, but as I watched her go into the dorm with the last of her belongings a month ago, I knew that things would never be the same - that SHE would never be the same. I knew that she would learn new things and start thinking new ways and begin to challenge us. A few 'damns' are just the beginning.

The truth is that, so far, I'm proud of the way she's turning out.

She's continuing to use her musical and athletic talents, even though I know that something will eventually have be dropped along the wayside. She's giving it her best academically, and the results are good. She's blossoming into a well-adjusted and well-rounded young lady. I'm grateful that 'damn' is a four letter word she can use to signal her maturity. So far, she's held to our religious and political views; that will probably change, but a solid foundation is there, and I do not believe she will depart from it totally.

But the babies we raised are gone, not to return, living only in pictures and vivid memories. They came and left so quickly. It was our job to raise them so that they could leave. They'll be back from time to time, needing something, but they'll be on their own, and we've prepared them for that time which has now come.


In the meantime, there are times still when she comes to me for a hug or a snuggle. And times when she seeks me out, to the exclusion of all others, for advice in an area in which she thinks I'm still the best source. Will that continue? If it does, will I be equal to it?

I cannot help thinking of my Mom exactly 30 years ago. I was 18 and insisted on leaving my home in Texas to go to the University of Chicago. Now I have an idea of how she felt as she watched the train pull away from the station in Dallas.

I'm gonna call Mom.

To hell with that. I'm driving down to Texas to see Mom and get a bit of her advice, which I will not follow, and to enjoy a bit of her comfort and unconditional support.

And there are two stones on the bank of Pine Island Bayou. I'll talk to the stones and somehow let my Dad and Step-dad know how much I appreciate their support, their prodding, their support.

I'll let them know how much I love them. Better not forget to do that with the living too. Wife, daughter, son, mom, sister.

I love you, dammit!

Your children are not your children...
Your children come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

I feel the truth of this quote from Kahlil Gibran's 'The Prophet". My youngest child has hit 18, and I'm having to realise that she has her own ideas, her own individuality - most profoundly, that she no longer belongs to me. When they were young, I believed that I owned my kids lock, stock, and barrel. In reality, I had them on loan from God, as Gibran describes so very well.


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