This fall Jayne B. and her husband Mark dropped their youngest son off at college in Boston. After twenty-five years of raising kids, they were officially empty-nesters.
In the following interview Jayne talks about what it was like to return to her newly quiet northern California home, and about the emotional ups-and-downs of adjusting to life without kids around. She reflects on the past twenty-five years, including her decision to leave a stable career to start her own business and the things she’s loved most about being a mom. She also answers the charge, made by her oldest daughter, that the rules around the house had gotten a little loose by the time their youngest son was in high school.
[N.b. You can read an introduction to The Parent Interview series here.]
1. Describe the scene and what it felt like to arrive back home after dropping Scott off at college—your first moments at home with no kids.
It’s not the first moments that catch you. It’s about two weeks later—when you realize for the first time in twenty-five years of raising children that you are pouring milk that has gone bad down the drain. It has gone bad, of course, because you no longer need to buy two gallons a week for your 18-year old and his tribe of friends. That’s when it hit me. And standing at the kitchen sink I found it a little hard to breath for just a few minutes. I was not fully prepared for this, it came much too fast. But then I remember that this is exactly how it is supposed to be and I am so proud of Scott and CJ and Allison.
2. With Jay and Wally both very young and Caroline still in school, sometimes it feels like we’re in the crucible. Was there a time as parents you’d describe as your most busy/intense/stressful?
Mark and I started our own business in 1988, just after CJ (now 23) was born, and by 1995 it had grown to about 50 employees. By then we had three children under 9, and getting out of the house each morning was a serious production. About the same time, and just to keep things interesting, we bought a 100-year old fixer-upper that needed so much fixing we couldn’t actually live in it for a year. It was certainly the most challenging time in our marriage. Our mantra (often repeated under our breath when we could hardly speak to each other) was: “Three kids, a dog, a cat, two rabbits, and 50 employees. We just cannot screw this up.”
3. You left your job to start a business when the kids were young. What were your reasons for doing that, and what was it like to take on the uncertainty of starting a business with a young family?
Allison was 2 years old and CJ was 3 months old when we started Essex Environmental. It was 1988 and I just could not see how it was possible to have the family life I wanted while working in a corporate job. I needed all 24-hours in the day to balance my work and family, and the 8am-5pm corporate schedule just wouldn’t work for me. Back then, flexible work schedules were just becoming part of the discussion, there was a lot of management resistance, and the technology was really not developed to provide the mobility and flexibility we have now. So, it was not that hard a decision at the time. And for many years Essex was really a part-time deal—the real gift it gave us was the ability to grow the business at our own pace.
Oh, and as to the uncertainty of starting a business with a young family—it is pretty darn scary. But we were young and we really didn’t have much to lose (ask Allison and CJ about the “poor stories”). It seemed, at the time, like the only thing that made any sense.
4. Allison reports that you were a lot stricter with her than you were with Scott. If she’s right about that, do you attribute the difference to birth order? Or to Allison being a girl and Scott a boy? Or to something else?
Can we claim exhaustion?
She is probably right, and I think it probably has more to do with birth order than gender. We were pretty strict with both Allison and CJ and are probably less so with Scott. I think it’s a combination of realizing your family values are solid and the first two came out just fine, as well as the fact that Scott has had to, as the youngest with a gap of five years, grow up a little quicker to keep up.
It also seems to me that we (including Scott) learned a few lessons along the way from the trial and error of Allison and CJ, so there were just some things that were never asked or offered (like no, you cannot have a new car of your own when you turn 16, and no, you cannot take a road trip with your friends the summer after you graduate from high school, and no, don’t even think about staying overnight at a hotel after the junior prom). So maybe it seems like we are more lenient because we have not had those battles with Scott—he already knew the rules of engagement.
5. How would you describe your approach as parents—what values or priorities informed the decisions you made?
Wow, big question and I don’t know that I have a really clear sense of this. Here’s the simple answer: We loved our kids from before they were born. We tried to make sure they knew that every day— we were always on their side and would do anything to keep them safe and free from harm (including things they didn’t always appreciate at the time). We placed a high value on education, and on treating people well, and on taking care of each other. We encouraged them to explore, to work hard, to believe in themselves and each other. As parents, we also took good care of our own relationship—which reminds me of something my dad (who has been married to my mom for 64 years) is fond of saying, “ The best thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” Not bad advice.
6. You and Mark are very enthusiastic about kids and family, so I wanted to ask—what was your favorite part of raising kids, and what do you think you’ll miss most now that all three are out of the house?
I loved all of it (ok, except potty training and driver training).
We had, for many years, a print hanging on the wall of our kitchen. It is still upstairs in the “kids” TV room and I can almost recite it by heart. I don’t think I can say it any better than this:
“There are lives I can imagine without children, but none of them have the same laughter and noise.”
7. And finally, though you’re now empty-nesters, your youngest is still just 18—do you feel like you’re still actively parenting, or do you feel like you’ve finished the job?
I hope we’ll never really be done. Our relationship with the kids has changed and grown, but I think our role to love and support and help guide them goes on for a lifetime. But here’s the best news. Our kids, Allison, CJ, and Scott, have grown into really great people that we just enjoy. They are funny and warm and smart and caring. They are kind to us and to each other. The bonus is our family continues to expand now—with Ryan and Anna and all the wonderful friends and family they bring to our lives (including you, Caroline, Jay, and Wally) . So while the house has gotten quieter, and I don’t really like that very much, our life is richer for all that our grown children bring back to us.
Additional posts from the “Parent Interview” series: