My not-so-empty nest and the dirty little secret that no one talks about

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Ever since my daughters entered high school, I was preparing myself for the dreaded “empty nest.” While it was years away, I worried about how I would adjust to the reality of kids in college and no more time-sucking chores to do.

Even though I have been a working mother in a two-income household, family always was a priority, and I was devoted to caring for our daughters. So, I did wonder how I would adjust to the hole left in my daily calendar when our girls went off to school, graduated or moved on and launched their own lives.

But here’s the dirty little secret that no one talks about until it happens. After decades of marriage and three years of COVID quarantine, I’ve got a different problem: I can’t get my husband to leave the house.

It’s a topic of conversation among my girlfriends, all of us looking for some solitude but instead faced with our husbands, always in their sweatpants, happily hanging out around the house.

Of course, COVID was the trial run, the big disrupter, for being at home. My husband, pre-COVID, was a human tourism brochure, constantly digging up great activities we could go to. Most of them were things we did together but since we weren’t holed up together at home, it didn’t feel stifling.

The COVID pivot

But once COVID hit, all those activities came to a screeching halt and my husband proclaimed that with all the books, CDs and vinyl from his youth along with tchotchkes he’s collected over decades, he could be more than happy to stay home forever and read, listen to music and peruse his collections.

Maybe I have done such a good job of creating a comfortable nest that my husband just doesn’t feel the need to leave. Perhaps COVID caused him to re-evaluate just how important it was to get some fresh — and possibly contaminated — air.

Maybe, like so many men his age, he doesn’t have enough friends — Jane Fonda has expounded on that of late, explaining to anyone who will listen how vital her women friends are to her well-being, while all men want to do is sit next to each other and watch sports or cars or women from afar. And she’s right, women have friends that are soul mates, advisers, co-conspirators. Most men haven’t thrown each other that emotional lifeline.

The timing is unfortunate. I’m working less than full time at this stage of life. Now that I’ve gotten accustomed to my children being gone and look forward to some time to myself, my husband has had to rethink his motivation to get out of the house every day.

Still working, but from home

The fact that he continues to work, but now fully from home, hasn’t helped. After stressful workdays I understand that he also needs some downtime.

Many men are at the stage of life where a decision about whether to retire is also on the table. But here is a word of warning to husbands considering that as their next chapter: Check your Rolodex for friends you want to spend time with because we can’t be your constant companions.

Maybe it’s a “Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus” kind of thing. But after watching all the episodes of “The Sopranos” for the first time recently, I feel that if only there was a Bada Bing club — without the Bada Bing. Maybe someone should start a Daddy Daycare to literally take care of Daddy.

Guys of a certain age need a place to meet and schmooze, a clubhouse where someone can make them a plate and just create an inviting space to shoot the breeze. I have no idea what they would talk about, though.

See: ‘It’s just a nice place for an old guy to go, I guess’: Men’s Sheds offer camaraderie and connection

Women know that building deep friendships has paid huge dividends as we all have gotten older. Long-married spouses need more time with their friends — a respite from too much togetherness at home and an opportunity to discuss something beyond what’s for dinner.

I did gently mention a few weeks ago to my husband that he rarely leaves the house these days and maybe he could take an outing one afternoon a week that didn’t include me.

“What do you mean I never leave the house?” he said, incredulous. “I went to Ralph’s just the other day.” And proud hunter-gatherer that he is, we’ve got the boxes and cans of unheard-of sale items we will probably never use to prove it.

Also see: Am I lonesome? ‘I’m fine. I’m fine.’ How single men can prepare to age alone.

Growth of gray divorces

I have found women are often more adventurous, even as we age. We are less willing to just hang back and “relax.” For an increasing number of women, gray divorce has become a term that sociologists are noticing, as more older women have chosen to approach their senior years alone.

See: Gray divorce can be financially devastating — especially for women

For others, independent travel is an answer. There are so many blogs, Instagram and Facebook
accounts by women traveling alone that we are practically our own demographic. In my independent solo travels, I have encountered many women who got tired of asking their reluctant husbands to come along and have happily set out on their own.

Once you arrive in a strange city, it is totally liberating to explore when you don’t have to check in with anyone else about what to do when, how to get wherever, or what time or what to eat each day. And it’s easier to engage in conversations with strangers when you are by yourself. I find I’m more open to those encounters when I’m on my own.

See: This 82-year-old woman ended up traveling alone in France for three weeks. It turned out pretty great.

Dolly Parton’s secret

I heard a story recently from a photographer who was photographing Dolly Parton. The soon-to-be-married photographer asked the performer her secret to her long marriage. Parton’s answer: “Travel a lot. Separately.”

While it’s important to get away, for me, who never described myself as a homebody, it’s essential to have some alone time that doesn’t involve leaving the house. As we age, the one thing that is certain is that the future is unpredictable.

There may come a time when leaving the house is not a safe or viable option. While we are healthy and active enough, let’s give each other the space to enjoy one of life’s guilty pleasures — moments of solitude at home where you have a chance to think, regroup, dream and sometimes to just do absolutely nothing.

The added bonus will be that the time we do spend together will be all the more interesting, with new adventures to hear about.

Iris Schneider has been a journalist and photographer since the 1970s, starting in New York City while teaching at PS 97 on the Lower East Side. She became a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times in 1980. Her work can be seen on her website or on Instagram (@schneidereye). 

This article is reprinted by permission from, ©2023 Twin Cities Public Television, Inc. All rights reserved.

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