The etiquette of the empty nest can bedevil even the most sophisticated parent. Take, for instance, the actress Alfre Woodard. Woodard said that when her son, Duncan, went to college in 2012, her depression caught her in a bind.
“Suddenly the thing that made my life vibrant and not like a showbizzy person’s life was gone,” said Woodard. “I was leaking. I not only lost Duncan’s presence, but I lost having a lot of big, smelly kids — his friends — in the house all the time. They used to play lacrosse in my driveway. I used to cook for them.”
Lest she make her son uncomfortable, Woodard tried to obscure her sadness.
“I would hide in the bathroom and weep into a wet face towel,” she said.
But then she worried that maybe she had overcorrected course and seemed unfeeling.
“So I told him, ‘Let’s cry together for a couple of minutes so that you know I’m gonna miss you.’ He said sure. So we stood there for a couple of minutes and then finally he said, ‘OK, Mom. I’ll be upstairs.'”
Parents have been crying into face towels for centuries. But empty-nest syndrome has gained especial piquancy in a world in which parents and their college-bound offspring are in the habit of texting one another a few times a day, and in which accounts of shootings on campuses are repeated on social media with a frequency bordering on the abject.
The pot may be further sweetened by a recent Pew Research Center study’s determination that, for the first time on record, the most common arrangement for people aged 18 to 34 is living with parents. So now those parents whose children do move out are alone in their aloneness.
For many empty nesters, landing on the proper spot of the Umbilical Cord/Cold Arctic Gale continuum can be tricky.
Some parents and students are tempted to use Facebook and Instagram as the world’s cheapest baby cam, though “some students say that no way do they want their parents on social media,” said Karen Coburn, the senior consultant in residence at the office of the vice chancellor for students at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Others say they like it because it means they don’t have to communicate with their folks as much because the parents get an idea of what the kids are up to,” Coburn said. “But one of the worst things a parent can do is to ‘friend’ one of their kid’s friends.”
Robert Lindquist, a freshman at the University of Connecticut who is majoring in digital media and design, has imposed a 48-hour-warning rule on visits from his family.
“It started out as a joke,” Lindquist said. “I’m going to school only an hour and a half away from my parents. It’s not quite as inconvenient as I’d intended.”
Lindquist said: “The rule applies to any family member. We have a term, ‘the Lindquist Confusion Factor,’ because I have nine aunts and uncles. They’re excellent people, but that many of them can be a little much if you’re not prepared.”
Asked how his parents reacted to the demand, Lindquist said, “I don’t recall them being overjoyed.”