Parenting revisited as nest empties

It took four phone calls to get her through the stir-fried chicken -- the first dinner my 19-year-old daughter tried to cook in her new apartment this week.

How much oil? How big do you cut the pieces? How many breasts will it take to feed four people? How do you know when the meat is finished cooking?

By the time I finished answering her questions, I had a question of my own:


What kind of mother have I been if my nearly-grown child can’t figure out how to use a wok, knife and wooden spoon to prepare a simple chicken dinner?

Maybe I’m making too much of this, but I’ve been obsessively reviewing my parenting recently, now that my second child is on her own and my youngest is a high school senior looking at colleges far from home.

I’m one year away from having an empty nest, and I’m still shoving worms down their throats.

Until now, it seemed like an outmoded concept -- the notion that a mother’s life unravels when her children leave home; that a woman’s sense of self is rooted in her caretaking skills.

But a poll of my career-woman cronies lets me know I’m not alone in this sudden plunge into soul-searching.

In its online “diagnosis dictionary,” Psychology Today defines empty-nest syndrome as the “feelings of depression, sadness and/or grief” experienced by parents after their children leave home.

And though its punch has faded in this era of working moms and boomerang kids, it’s still hard to spend 20 years viewing life through the prism of motherhood, and then move on seamlessly when the children are gone.

I’m in the “anticipation” stage, the experts say; the year filled with milestones -- the last birthday, holiday, graduation . . . or, in my case, the last Back to School Night. No more sports banquets, parent-teacher conferences or worry over curfew violations.

What’s wrong with an extra bedroom and a clean bathroom; nights spent sleeping soundly, rather than listening for the garage door to open? I think of all the closet space that will open up when I toss out the last crate of Halloween costumes and boxes of Beanie Babies.

It helps to have guides through a passage like this. And for all the time I’ve spent this month scouring books and online forums, my friends are my best source of advice and comfort.

They laughed me off when I worried that my daughter’s bumbling kitchen skills were a referendum on my parenting.

She’s cooking, one said. What’s wrong with that? She’s calling you, said another, whose son went off to college and dropped off the map. What she doesn’t know, she’ll learn, shrugged a third.

Nothing like a communal reality check.

And while I’m reconfiguring my private life, it’s time to take stock professionally. The newspaper business is evolving as well. So I’m going to tweak my column, to make it a better portal for conversation.

Beginning next week, my column will continue to appear in the printed version of the newspaper on Saturdays but not Tuesdays. Instead, I’ll be weighing in online during the week, on the California page at

Consider it a work in progress, just like our families, our careers, our lives. And I hope you’ll join me on the Web.