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What Empty Nests Really Look Like

A photographer shows parents' emotions in the rooms their children left behind

By Chris Hewitt | March 4, 2014

The first thing you notice about Dona Schwartz's portraits of empty nesters is how empty they aren't.
 
Part of a series called Empty Nesters, Schwartz's photographs show middle-aged parents in rooms their children moved out of.
 
They are, indeed, empty of children but they're chock full of musical instruments, stuffed animals, prom dresses, trophies and posters of rock bands. It's as if these left-behind items are shadows of the room's recent occupants, reminders that saying goodbye is rarely as easy as we hope it will be.
 
"You might walk in and see an article of clothing or a toy that would prompt a lot of reflection about that child," says Schwartz, a professor at the University of Minnesota, specializing in visual communications. "Rooms are full of memory prompts and that may be why it can be hard for some people to take the empty rooms apart."

(MORE: Turn to Animals to Fill the Void When Kids Leave Home)

‘Under-acknowledged Transition’
 
Empty Nesters is part of a two-fold project. The other half, On the Nest, shows expectant parents in the rooms they are preparing for the arrivals of their first children.
 
What struck Schwartz, 58, as she made the portraits and interviewed her subjects was how differently on-the-nesters and empty nesters are viewed by society. The arrival of a baby is greeted with cake, games and party favors, but nobody throws a shower for a parent whose "baby" is leaving home, 18 or so years later.
 
























Karen, 2 Years

























Kathy & Lyonel, 18 Months

























Leola, 3 Months
 
"The transition is pretty major and under-acknowledged," says Schwartz, whose portraits can be viewed at donaschwartz.com (she intends to make a book of them) and whose work has been exhibited at venues including the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.
 
"People bring food and presents for the baby, all of these things to affirm this transition you're about to make," says Schwartz. "But when you've finished the job — in a way, because parents are never really finished — nobody gives you a pat on the back, throws you a party and says, 'Here's a new car or something, a gift for a job well done.'"
 
Two Kinds of Stuff
 
Perhaps that's why many of the empty-nester rooms appear to be confused. Are they exercise rooms? Storage lockers? Offices? In many of the pictures, it's clear the occupants didn't want to think about what to do with the room once it was no longer needed for a teenager's Ramones posters and Air Jordans.
 
"People have talked to me about how their kids left for college almost as if they were leaving for coffee, as if they expected to come back a couple hours later, and how odd that is," says Schwartz.

























Lollie & Alan, 3 Months


























Pam & Bill, 2 Months


























Peter, 3 Years

(MORE: How to be a Great Long-Distance Parent)
 
"In the comments on the photographs, a lot of young people talk about what it was like for them to move out and how shocked they were when their rooms were changed or not changed," says Schwartz. "There is a kind of recognition on the parts of younger viewers that, 'Oh, this was a big thing for my parents. They felt something about it. They had to deal with that stuff that I left.'"
 
Schwartz is talking about the emotional stuff, as well as the stuffed-animal stuff. Parents may or may not be ready to transition to life without children underfoot, as the photos hint.
 
Some parents leave the rooms as-is for months. Others remodel, but leave talismans of the children who used to live there. One photo shows a woman sitting on a colorful bedspread with a dog and her son's graduation cap on the shelf next to her.
 
Still others move on hurriedly to create guest rooms, art studios or sewing rooms. “They changed the room as quickly as possible so they knew their kids wouldn't come back," says Schwartz.
 
Re-discovering Self

Schwartz says it's no surprise to see empty nesters at loose ends. "Kids take up a lot of time and energy and concern. And when they're gone, it's all about you suddenly," she says. "'What do I want to eat? What do I want to watch on TV? You get to think about your own needs and desires and how they relate to your partner's. Suddenly, it's just the two of you."
 
For couples who became parents when they were young, it's the first time their schedules have been their own. And then the question is — What is their own? What do they want to do, not just with that empty room, but also with their lives?

























Robin & Bob, 9 Months

























Younsu & Kyunghan, 1 Year


























Amy & Andy, 2 Years

(MORE: Rediscovering Old Passions)
 
That’s a sobering contrast between empty nesters and on-the-nesters, says Schwartz.
 
"When you make this transition, you're a lot older. You may be thinking not only about what you want to do but how much time you have left to do it," she notes. "When you get to this threshold, you have a more realistic sense of a lifetime. It doesn't go on forever."
 
Go Easy on Yourself
 
Sobering, yes, but it's also an opportunity for parents to figure out what they really want. Schwartz thinks a good way to begin that process is not to place demands on yourself.
 
"My advice is to honor what you feel. Really know this transition is a big deal and people experience it in multiple ways," says Schwartz. "There's a car advertisement where the parents drop the kids at college and then go home and high-five, driving off into the sunset on their own adventures. That may be how some people experience it, I suppose, and that's fine. But many people have mixed emotions. Some people are happy, some people are sad, some people aren't sure what to think."

























Carol & Charles, 9 Months

























Chris & Susan, 7 Months


























Gloria & Alan, 5 Years

Throw Your Own Party
 
Schwartz has one other piece of advice — throw yourself that party that nobody else offered to host.
 
"I'm not going to lie. We did do that,” Schwartz said. She waited until after she took her own picture with her partner, Ken, in daughter Lara’s room.
 
“After I finished the picture, which was the last picture I needed to make for the project, we decided we were going to celebrate."
 
So she and Ken, alone in Lara’s old room, popped a bottle of Prosecco. No children were invited.
 
Chris Hewitt's writing about movies and theater appears in papers throughout the country. In addition to Next Avenue, his work has appeared in The History Channel magazine and MSNBC.com. His old bedroom is now crammed with photo albums depicting his parents' world travels.