The Empty Nest . . . And Other Myths of Rightsizing

Our dogs: The dark brown one is Bhakti, the small one is Cecil and the brown and white one is Bodhi.

Our daughter and son learned about procreation and the circle of life by witnessing, firsthand, the birth of seven St. Bernard puppies and, sadly, the stillbirth of one, in our playroom. My daughter, a lifelong animal lover, was probably relieved when she eventually moved to a college dorm and discovered for the first time that furniture and text book covers didn’t have to be permanently infused with dog hair and drool.

Once our children left the nest, I anticipated more time to myself and a little extra money to play with after our bills were paid each month. Not so when your household includes multiple pets. Early baby boomers like myself are the culprits responsible for an unprecedented surge in pet spending. After all, the generation accused of being helicopter parents needs something to hover over.

Meal prep for my kids was actually less expensive and less time-consuming than the current state with our pets. As a young parent, I had no qualms sneaking in a Happy Meal now and then; no child’s health suffered. These days my pantry is stuffed with enough cans of quail, rabbit and duck to bring out the inner vegetarian in the staunchest of steak lovers. We incorporate raw meat, ground eggshells and coconut oil into our dog’s meals. We brush their teeth. As long as I’m not eating ramen and cold cereal for dinner I’m not complaining.

It doesn’t end there. We’ve purchased pet health insurance. Baskets overflow with toys in my living room, and a cat tree takes center stage next to my flat screen television. We took our first long road trip in 20 years last fall, and meticulously selected hotels and destinations so that our dogs could enjoy two weeks on the road with us. The cats stayed at a spa.

Parallels are often drawn between raising children and owning pets, but I must profess that I draw the line at calling myself a dog parent. My pets are a comfort to me, like good friends should be. Living in a wooded area of rural Pennsylvania, when someone comes up my driveway I appreciate that my dogs announce their arrival (although my Shih Tzu’s attempt to go home with the satellite TV tech slightly hurt my feelings). I abhor seeing dogs riding in baby strollers and I cringe when I hear of Bark Mitzvahs, or the rules of competitive parenting that some dog owners proselytize like a badge of honor. I simply smile and nod my head.

The thing is — we laugh deeper and often, watching the antics of our pets. My dogs don’t roll their eyes at me like my kids do when I dispense advice (even when it’s good advice). And they don’t make fun of my references to 1970s pop culture. My dogs and cats will even sit through an entire black and white movie with me. While it’s true that I frequently trip over two huge dog beds before I get to crawl into my own at night, I’m grateful to fill my days with something more than work deadlines, household chores and television. Living in the company of pets compels me to walk more, play daily, take joy rides and offer a hug just for the sake of it. I also get to hang with humble people who laugh about their furry companions as well as mine.

My schedule and budget may be a lot less flexible than other households after children have moved out and started their lives, but here’s my reality. Our house is quieter now that my kids are gone and there is more time to spend with our cats and dogs, who have always been a part of our lives. My empty nest is simply the next stage of our lives, not a syndrome that requires therapy or a cure. It is not a hole that needs to be filled. Our pets didn’t replace our children. Doting on them simply makes us happy.

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  • Hildy Morgan April 16, 2017 at 12:06 pm

    Great article by Phyllis Cohen. I loved her attitude and I loved the fact that she rejected the term empty nester” in all it’s bizarre ramifications. To me it’s always been a term belittling women – after all, if they don’t have children to raise, the term implies, then they go a little crazy-headed and are very unhappy and do sad and crazy things. Phyllis is not substituting her pets for her kids. She just likes her pets and is plenty busy. And she did not fall apart when her kids went to college and then on their lives. She still had a life she loves. Good article. Good writing!

  • Marcia Mishaan April 14, 2017 at 7:28 am

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