Tag: family life (page 1 of 12)

My so-called empty nest


Dear Wendy,

alt="IMAGE-empty-nest-revolving-door-after-the-kids-leave"It seems a little bit strange to be writing about the empty nest when my youngest kid is sitting next to me playing Sims on her computer, but summer’s almost half over, and the new school year is only a month away.

Last year at this time I remember musing about my first year with no kids living at home—Adrian had been living on his own for about 10 years, Rachel had finished her first year of college, and I was feeling kind of cocky about having survived that dreaded first plunge into childlessness.

Well, temporary childlessness.

Because, as I now know, they come back. That was actually Lesson 1: this whole “going away to college” thing isn’t the real thing. Sure, we call it “the empty nest,” but it’s really more like “the temporary lull.” The real empty nest will happen in a few more years, when degrees have been handed out, jobs and first apartments acquired.

I know this, but I’m not thinking about it too hard. Call it denial, but I prefer to think of it as “living in the moment.”

Empty nest, full nest

Right now we’re in the revolving door stage, at least with our youngest child.

Our year has a particular rhythm now: we spend the summer preparing for the new school year. In early September we drive to Toronto and drop Rachel off at her college. This is a happy-sad time for all of us, and tears are usually involved.

On our return home, everything is suddenly intensely quiet, until Mitchell and I have time to adjust back into our “home alone” routine. But we quickly relearn what it’s like to live as a childless couple again—cooking for two, planning our days around our own schedules, running the dishwasher every couple of days. Of course, we see Adrian a couple of times each week, but he always returns to his own place afterward.

In October Rachel comes home for Thanksgiving weekend, which is always insanely hectic and much too short; then it’s a longish haul until her December break. We have a full month together, and then she’s off again, this time until mid-February, when she’s back for study break; Easter is usually about 6 weeks later; and then we’re making the trip to Toronto once more at the end of April, to bring her back home.

You see what I mean about the revolving door, right?

Right now, we’re in the middle of the pre-back-to-school planning stage, thinking about all the things we need to do before September: courses must be chosen, mountains of laundry must be washed, haircuts must be scheduled (because seriously, when you find a great hairdresser, you don’t mess around with that).

Rachel only has about 10 days left in her summer job (interning at an architectural office), and we’ll be off on a camping trip for a few days, and then it’ll be time to get packing in earnest.

For now, I’m enjoying the temporary chaos of having our youngest at home, but these days it seems that no matter whether she’s here or not, I’m aware that it won’t last long. Change, it seems, really is the only constant.





It shouldn’t happen to a dog

Dear Wendy,

Well, I just finished icing the dog’s back. And I don’t mean “covering with delicious chocolate frosting,” which would be not only demented, but extremely messy. Especially for a sheltie.


She thinks I’ve lost it, but she goes along with the gag. Good dog.

No, I mean “icing” as in “icing an injury.”

Maydeleh’s very good about it, really. Even though she clearly thinks I’ve lost my marbles, she sits patiently while I hold the icepack to her spine for the required 5 minutes.

You see, our wee doggie has reached the cusp of her golden years—she’s 9½, which translates to about 66 in human years—and she’s begun to suffer some of the aches and pains that flesh is heir to.

It’s not our dog’s first rodeo

Poor pup. She’s been through her share of health crises in the past few years.

First, there was the 2-inch bony lump that appeared on her front…knee? elbow? Whatever.

It developed seemingly overnight, accompanied by extreme lethargy, both of which had our vet looking deeply concerned. She started using words like “amputate” and “biopsy” and “specialists.” Not words you want to hear about your beloved pet, I can tell you.

At around the same time, we discovered that poor Maydeleh’s thyroid had given up the ghost, and her thyroid hormone levels had dropped to almost nothing. That’s when we started giving her Synthroid, which seemed to perk her right up.

Weirdest thing of all? When we took her back to the vet to get her thyroid levels re-checked, not only were they right back where they belonged, but the Mystery Lump of Doom had completely disappeared. It was gone, as though it had never been there in the first place. If we hadn’t seen it on an xray, we’d have wondered whether we were making the whole thing up.

Our vet actually got choked up with emotion when she told us, “It’s…completely gone! I’ve never seen anything like this!”

We all felt like we’d dodged a particularly nasty bullet.

That was then…

This time around, it started with panting and pacing.

Dogs pant. It’s what they do to cool off in warm weather: they don’t have sweat glands, so they have to rely on releasing their body heat via their tongues.

And our dog, as mentioned, is basically wearing a fur coat 24/7. Great in Ottawa’s ridiculously cold winters; not so wonderful during our brief but hot summers.

So at first I didn’t think much of it when Maydeleh would start panting for no apparent reason. But when she started panting and gasping all night, every night, in our air-conditioned bedroom that’s not even a little bit hot, I started to wonder. She’d also started having a lot of trouble getting up and down stairs, and a couple of times has actually stumbled and fallen backward. Not at all her usual thing.

Then, one night a couple of weeks ago, she was panting so loudly, and getting up to change positions so frequently, that neither she nor I slept at all. (Mitchell snored blissfully through it: advantage deaf guy.)

This is when I knew we needed to get her to the vet again. As the vet poked at her back, Maydeleh winced visibly—a big deal for a sheltie, since these little dogs are deceptively tough and hate to show signs of pain. We left that visit with a bottle of doggy painkillers, and instructions to ice her back three times a day.

For the past couple of weeks, poor Maydeleh hasn’t been allowed to chase her ball (the activity that gives meaning and joy to her life), and has had to submit to thrice-daily icing sessions.

Lately, whenever we sit down with the ice pack, Ralph saunters over and joins us; it’s as if he knows his long-time buddy isn’t happy, and needs his support. Or he’s just bored. Hard to say, with cats.alt="IMAGE-dog-cat-icing-back-after-the-kids-leave"

For her part, Maydeleh sits stoically through her icing. It does seem to give her some relief, but she’s really not back to herself yet, so she’ll be seeing the vet yet again this afternoon.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it’s another “magic disappearing lump” situation, but I don’t know how realistic that is. I mean, how often does that happen?

I’ll tell you, though: this little dog couldn’t be more loved. I’ll let you know what happens.






Are you lonesome tonight? How loneliness can make us sick

Dear Wendy,

As usual on Sunday mornings, I was listening to CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition yesterday, when a particular segment  caught my attention. The topic: loneliness.


Loneliness (Photo: Ktoine, via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ve all suffered form it at one time or another—most empty nest parents, for example, will talk about the gap their grown children leave behind when they leave for college. And anyone who’s suffered the death of a close partner, or a divorce, or simply a move to a strange city will attest: being lonely pretty much sucks.

According to John Cacioppo, who directs the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago, chronic loneliness can have some pretty severe effects.

Not just on our psyches, though if you listen to popular music you’ll realize that loneliness provides seemingly endless artistic inspiration: Eleanor Rigby, I’m Mr. Lonely, Alone Again (Naturally)…not that I recommend that last song, which makes me want to slit my wrists, but you get the idea.

Loneliness and health

In fact, chronic loneliness can affect us physically. Loneliness can lead to unhealthy changes in our cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems, leading to an increased risk of health problems including infections, heart disease, and depression.

Cacioppo said his team of researchers found that extreme loneliness increased an older person’s likelihood of premature death by 14%…which makes extreme loneliness about twice as damaging as obesity. Now there’s a sobering thought.

The loss of a spouse

As I listened, I thought about our own parents (of course I did). I think we all expected that given our mother’s fragile state during the last decade or so of her life, she’d die before Dad did. In fact, I remember thinking that once Mum was gone, Dad might find it easier to kick his own alcoholism, and maybe have a few years of sobriety ahead of him.

And then Dad confounded us all by dying suddenly and quite unexpectedly, a month before their 50th wedding anniversary…leaving our mother completely alone.

We kids had all moved to different parts of the world—Rotterdam, Hong Kong, Ottawa—so even if Mum had been the sort of person to reach out for help (which she most emphatically was not), it would have been hard for us to drop our family commitments and fly thousands of miles to her side.

But she never asked. In fact, she rarely called at all. I phoned her often at first, but then she stopped answering my calls, and eventually I gave up trying. I told myself maybe she was busy, out doing things, rebuilding her life.

While I knew she’d be lonely without Dad, though, it turned out I had no idea just how lonely and desolate she’d be. Of course, they’d been together almost all their lives, and I think they’d forgotten how to live without one another.

One way to combat loneliness is to focus on other supportive relationships, but Mum wasn’t really the trusting, confiding sort, so she had few friends and no real confidants. She rattled around in their house for about a year, getting sicker and sicker, until her sister found her, disoriented and physically deteriorated, and took her to the hospital.

Just 14 months after Dad died, our mother followed him.

To me, it seemed only natural. They’d been together so long, they were such a fused unit, that it seemed almost impossible for one to exist without the other.

What can we do?

All of this makes me think about the importance of nurturing close, caring relationships with friends and family, as well as with our husbands. We humans are social animals. We might like to be alone at times, but in general we do better when we live as part of a web of meaningful relationships with other people.

Friends, family, spouses—it turns out they’re critically important, not just to our emotional health, but to our actual physical survival. Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?



Special Delivery: A birth announcement


Just chill, okay?

Dear Readers,

Well, it’s finally happened—the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Wendy is a grandmother, and Karen is…a great-aunt? Hey, how come great-aunt sounds so much more elderly?

As Wendy put it in her official Palace announcement on Facebook:

Kirsten was safely delivered of a son at 16.16 today.
Kirsten, Aaron and their child are all doing well.
Lars Iversen and I are thrilled for the new family.

“Today” being yesterday, by the time this blog post goes up. But yes. Everyone is healthy and resting comfortably, the baby is beautiful, and we hope to have pictures for you shortly.


Karen and Wendy

The ultimate cheat sheet on teenagers: 7 things your teen wants you to know

Dear Wendy,

A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing the Dreaded Teen Years.


Teenzilla will eat your head for lunch. Then she will fail to clean up after herself. (Photo: A. Robert)

Once again I was struck by the terror in some parents’ voices as they contemplated their sweet little munchkin turning into Teenzilla—as though adolescence is an automatic ticket to histrionics, epic battles of will, and smelly laundry.

Okay, I’ll grant you the smelly laundry.

But seriously, I was puzzled. I know I sound like a prat when I say, “My kids were both great teens,” because so many people really have gone through the Teen Wars and have the emotional scars to prove it.

But I also know that it’s possible to minimize, if not completely avoid, screaming matches and angst during our kids’ teen years.

I’ve talked before about my basic parenting premise: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. (Come on, baby boomers, you know this one—follow the bouncing ball!)


(Photo: Joris Louwes, via Flickr)

But today I thought I’d offer a cheat sheet for parents whose wee ones are about to enter adolescence…and for those who are currently hiding their heads under a pillow, sucking back wine and wishing the whole messy hormonal sturm und drang would just disappear already. Ready? Here goes:

  1. Teens want you to be proud of them. Seriously, they do. And by “proud,” I don’t mean you think they poop vanilla ice cream. That’s just delusional.
    No, they want to know that you think they’re good people. They want to now that you approve when they get it right, and that you’ll still love them when they mess up. They don’t need you to brag to your friends about them; they just want to know that you can see they’re doing the best they can.
  2. Teens want you to be straight with them. They don’t want you to lecture at them about sex or drugs, for example—they want you to give them the facts, without embellishment or exaggeration. They want to know they can come to you for information, and that you won’t freak out and enroll them in the nearest military college to scare them straight. Just the facts, ma’am.
  3. Teens want you to set a good example. Let’s face it: teens can smell hypocrisy a mile away. I remember Mum and Dad, both raging alcoholics, trying to tell my 16-year-old self that smoking marijuana would cause me to become a heroin addict and probably a prostitute. And I remember the contempt I felt for their booze-soaked words.
    And keep in mind: you might think your kid doesn’t notice when you break your own rules. Trust me. They notice.
  4. Teens want you to understand that the times have changed. Their worlds include texting, sexting, twerking, cyber-bullying, binge drinking, earlier and earlier sex…things you and I couldn’t have imagined back in the Disco Era. Yes, you were a teen once, and yes, some things don’t change. But trying to pretend you know what your kid is going through these days? Bad plan. Here’s my advice: don’t talk about your youth. Listen to theirs.
  5. Teens want you to set limits…but not too many. Here’s an exercise I used to use when I counseled families as a social worker: stand in the middle of a good-sized room. Close your eyes, and stretch your arms out. You can’t touch a wall…what does that feel like? Notice how your heart starts to beat a bit faster, your breathing speeds up. That’s because you can’t find any boundaries.
    And that’s how teens feel when they don’t know what’s expected of them. I’m no fan of helicopter parenting, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of letting your kids know your expectations—and the consequences for breaking the rules. On the other hand, don’t set so many rules that you stifle your teen’s ability to grow. If you’re puzzled by how much is too much, sit down and talk to your teen. Remember, you’re in this together.
  6. Teens want you to understand that it’s tough becoming an adult. Their bodies aren’t the only thing that’s changing; their brains are undergoing enormous developmental shifts too. Their cognitive skills are growing by leaps and bounds, but their ability to predict outcomes for their actions tends to lag a bit behind. The transition from child to adult is hard work on all fronts, and your teen needs validation that they’re doing okay.
  7. Hugs are rarely a bad idea. Many a difficult parent-teen conversation has been defused with a hug. Go ahead—it’ll help both of you.

Okay, I called this the “ultimate” cheat sheet, but can you think of things I’ve missed? Let me know!



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