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Empty-Nesters Savor Their New Freedom

On a brilliant October Saturday, six women have gathered at a lakeside home in suburban Minneapolis for an unusual party: an empty-nester's brunch. Earlier this autumn, each one launched her last child in college. Now, after traveling to campuses from Arizona and Iowa to North Dakota, Ohio, and New York to help their offspring settle in, these women have come here to celebrate this milestone - to reflect on the busy years of childrearing behind them and talk about the new horizons that lie ahead.

In the past, celebration was not the mood typically associated with an empty nest. More often it was portrayed as a problem: the empty-nest syndrome. At-home mothers, according to old stereotypes, faced a loss of identity and a hard question: What's next?

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That negative image was probably greatly exaggerated. But as women increasingly combine careers and children, the "syndrome" myth is vanishing - fast.

Just ask the half-dozen women gathered around this dining-room table. With 14 children among them, they include two teachers, a legal secretary, an office administrator, an English professor working on her PhD, and a former teacher currently at home.

Speaking for many in their generation, they say that while they miss their children, they are savoring their newfound freedom and quiet. They're also reveling in what they call "my space," not only physical space in a now-emptier house but mental space for thinking and reading. They enjoy sharing activities with husbands but also like being alone. A men-only fishing weekend now and then? That suits them just fine.

"The day is long gone when you're expected to do everything together," says one of the guests. "It's OK to go off and do your own thing." Echoing another shared sentiment, another woman adds, "There's not a hole in our lives. We don't have to rethink our identity."

For three hours their conversation ranges from children and careers to hopes and dreams and even retirement, an event still 15 years away for some. Unlike generations before them, these women are far less likely to view retirement as a long-awaited promised land. When the former teacher's husband was out of work for several months recently, for instance, both discovered the limits of constant togetherness.

"If my husband retires, I'm going back to work," she tells the group with a laugh. No wonder McCall's abandoned the famous motto it used during the 1950s, when it billed itself as "the magazine of togetherness." That cozy imagery may have suited the mood of the postwar times, but it also created unrealistic expectations and pressures for everyone - couples and children alike.

Change never exists in a vacuum. New roles in women's lives produce changes in men's lives too. In the case of empty-nesters, fathers and mothers may have different scenarios, but both have a newly blank sheet of paper to fill.

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For now, for these parents in Minneapolis, there are children to e-mail and call, books to read, adult-ed classes to consider, and above all, incomes to earn to keep pace with those stratospheric tuition payments. For now, they can also count on one reassuring certainty: Their children, tethered by the bonds of love to caring families, are like bungee jumpers on a cord. They'll be back. The nest may, in fact, never be truly empty.

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