Eat like slobs? Yes. Walk around the house naked? Sure. Swear like sailors? Of course! After tearfully bidding good-bye to their college-bound kids, Ann Leary and her husband discovered that the empty-nest syndrome was, well, for the birds.

By Ann Leary
Updated July 08, 2016
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Couple dancing in the kitchen
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When we dropped our oldest child, Jack, at college for the first time, we were all very cheery while we unloaded the car. My husband, Denis; our daughter, Devin; and I helped Jack carry his stuff up to his dorm room. We marveled at the closet space and groaned at the thinness of the mattress. Eventually we found ourselves looking around the room with forced smiles.

“Is that everything?” Denis and I said, over and over again. “Maybe we left something in the car. That can’t be everything.” We had arrived at the moment we had dreaded, not just all summer but for the past 18 years. It was time to say good-bye to our son’s childhood. “What about your winter jacket? What about your soap?” I cried. “I feel like we forgot something.” But it was all there—all the stuff of this boy. His guitar, his sneakers, his sheets and towels and shaving gear, his great sense of humor, his optimism, his grace and kindness, his intuitive wisdom, his big, generous heart. There it all was. There was nothing else for us to do. It was time to go.

Two years later, we had to deliver Devin to her college. Again, I was overcome with emotion when I realized the moment had arrived. It was time to say good-bye. “Why do I feel like we forgot something?” I kept saying. “Let’s check the car one more time.” I remember sobbing as we drove away. I remember Denis pulling the car over. After a few minutes, I said, “I’m OK. You can keep driving.” But he didn’t say anything. He didn’t start driving.

“You can go. I’m fine,” I sniffed. Then I heard a strange sound, a loud hacking and choking sound coming from his direction. I looked over and saw that the man had buried his face in his hands and was bawling like a baby.

“She just looked…so small,” he said, and I knew what he meant. Devin is on the tall side, but she looked so tiny and vulnerable when she walked away from our car. There she went, up those cold stone steps that led into that monstrous, Gothic-looking dormitory. There she went, with her backpack and cell phone, her wisdom and humor, her quick, inquisitive mind, her sweet smile. She was born with an old soul, with an uncanny knowledge about people. She always loved animals and all fragile things. She could walk when she was nine months old. Now she was surrounded by strangers. Why had we taught her to walk? We drove home so slowly. We dreaded returning to our empty house, but eventually, of course, we were there.

I watched a Seinfeld rerun as I cooked our dinner that evening. My eyes were swollen, and my nose raw from crying. When the meal was ready, Denis shuffled into the kitchen and automatically turned the TV off. “Wait,” I said. And then I uttered the words my husband had waited 20 years for me to say: “Let’s watch TV while we eat.”

And that’s when the fun began.

In our home, while the children lived with us, television had been banned during mealtime and on school nights. We had family dinners every night. This was a time to talk to one another—to connect. That first night of our empty nest, and every night that followed, Denis and I didn’t ask about each other’s day or discuss current events. Instead, we laughed at the TV with mouths full of food. We slouched over our plates and rested our elbows on the table. We ate with our fingers if we felt like it—and we usually felt like it. When one of us needed the salt, we lurched across the table and grabbed it without asking for it to please be passed. We rolled our corn in the butter. We slurped the last drops of soup from our bowls. We still placed our napkins on our laps, but not because it was polite; it was because we made such a mess and wanted to protect our clothes.

That was just the beginning. Within days, our house became a sort of hedonist temple. We swore, not just by accident when slamming a finger in a drawer or stubbing a toe. We swore all the time. One day, I needed to get something out of the dryer, so I ventured out of our bedroom in my underwear. After I did my usual red-faced dash to the dryer, I stopped. Why was I being stealthy? The people who reacted to my body with retching sounds were gone. The one who liked me in my underwear was charging up the stairs to get a closer look.

Before long, we walked around our house as naked as jaybirds. We had sex whenever we wanted, wherever we wanted. We sang loudly with music—our music. We danced, not as if nobody were watching, but because nobody was watching (and laughing). We gossiped about our friends, made fun of people’s accents or the way people dressed. We were petty and closed-minded again! We weren’t aware of how hard it was being good, until we no longer had to be good. It had been exhausting. Now we were free.

I’m sure many people don’t alter their behavior much when they become parents. I think those are people who are naturally altruistic, conscientious, and polite. We’re not really like that. But for 20 long years we tried hard to act as if we were. We wanted to set an example for our children—a good example. For instance, whenever I gossiped on the phone with my sister, I’d have to change the subject if my daughter walked into the room. It wasn’t just because I didn’t want her to hear what I was saying; I didn’t want her to hear me saying it. Because gossiping isn’t nice. Eventually it became easier to just not gossip very much.

Denis and I had to act like better people, and over time it became less of an act. If we lost at tennis or Scrabble while playing with the kids, Denis and I had to smile and congratulate the winners instead of sulking and accusing each other of cheating, as we had always done before we had children. Eventually, by pretending we were good sports, we became good sports. (Well, everything is relative. We tried—that’s my point.)

During the two decades that we raised our kids, my husband and I were better people. We weren’t perfect, of course, but we worked at being the best people we could be. Our two children deserved better than us—we knew this as soon as they were born. So we worked hard at being better. Now I understand that this wasn’t just good for our children; it was good for us. But it required a lot of work. So we’re in semiretirement. When the kids come home to visit, we put on our clothes, clean up our language, and turn off the TV during dinner. They know we swear like pirates and slouch around in our underwear when they’re not here. They know that we’re lazy, petty, and sloppy. But we try to rein it in when they’re here. It’s good for us to try to be good during these visits. Just for old times’ sake. Just for the children.

Ann Leary's latest novel, The Children, was published in May. She is also the author of the New York Times best-selling novel The Good House, as well as Outtakes From a Marriage, and An Innocent, A Broad. She and her husband, Denis, live in northwestern Connecticut.