This week I decided to post my very first book review on The Never-Empty Nest.What could be more a propos than reviewing Brad Sachs’ Emptying the Nest, about “launching your young adult toward success and self-reliance?”With my young adult twins half in and half out of the house, I obviously have a keen interest in the subject and a personal stake in negotiating this challenging transitional stage in our family life.
As a psychologist and father of three young adult children, Brad Sachs has the right credentials and experiences to offer parents helpful advice. Sachs is also the author of well-known parenting books, The Good Enough Child and The Good Enough Parent.So far, so good.However, I was still a bit skeptical (as I always am). Could this well-qualified “expert” offer me any ideas on the best way to handle my 23 year old twins, a daughter on the autistic spectrum and a son with ADHD? I had my doubts about whether my kids would fit into any of his five categories of struggling young adults: progressing, regrouping, meandering, recovering and floundering. Other than generic sympathy, would I be able to relate to any of the families whose issues were resolved in treatment with Sachs and used as examples in his book?
The answer is a resounding yes—but not necessarily in the ways I expected.Sachs begins with an insightful and compassionate analysis of why today’s young adults are having such a difficult time. Early on he acknowledges “a swelling generation of students who are accustomed to having their parents conscientiously play the role of their educational advocate, because the students have experienced learning challenges, attention deficits, autism spectrum disorders, and other neurological and psychoeducational difficulties.”So, yes, I was hooked on page 10, realizing that Sachs was addressing families like mine.He also talked about the revolution in psychopharmacology and how these medications may cause young adults to lose faith in their own inner strengths as they grew overly reliant on external help. Hmm…this definitely rings a bell.And instead of blaming the tough economy, Sachs believes that “many young adults have simply not been expected to practice financial self-sufficiency and restraint during adolescence, which hobbles their capacity to do so as young adults.” My twins both fit into that category (clearly our fault and not theirs).
As I considered Sach’s five categories of struggling young adults, I could see both of my kids as a combination of meandering and floundering. (Great news, huh?) According to Sachs, meanderers are young adults who are moving ahead with their lives, but their growth is “more wayward, more often proceeding sideways, or sometimes even in reverse, rather than directly forward,” as seen with those who are Progressing or Regrouping. The flounderers are those who “have not yet summoned the capacity to leave their parents’ house and remain developmentally marooned, frustrating both themselves and their parents…They remain adolescent in behavior and outlook, and thus they bring on themselves the kind of parenting that adolescents require, leading to a strained climate and high-octane clashes because the parents no longer want to raise an adolescent and the floundering young adult is tired of being treated like an adolescent.”EXACTLY!
Emptying the Nest breaks down the tasks of understanding—and then facilitating—the launch of young adults struggling to be independent in a way that is both simple and illuminating. Sachs presents this complex subject in what my daughter Sarah would describe as a series of “small manageable bites.” Grieving, Interdependence, Overcoming Fear, Identify Without Becoming Identical, Developing a Personal Philosophy are each covered in sections no longer than two pages.In my opinion, the best of these sections was “Creating a Temporarily Toxic Home Environment.” Here Sachs describes the needs of many young adults to “spoil the nest so that it becomes a little easier for them to spread their wings and fly away from it,” and easier for the family members whom they need to leave behind. If the young adult creates enough conflict and tension, then flying away feels more like a relief than a loss for both parent and child.I guess that’s why Max has kept his room messy enough to drive even the most laid back parent into a crazed fury.
Sachs also asks the reader to think about what type of family you have.Is yours a “Centripetal Family” that causes young adults to feel overwhelmed by their loyalty to their family, unable to break free because of guilt?Or do you have a “Centrifugal Family,” where the child feels neglected and pushed out of the nest regardless of whether he’s ready? If neither centripetal nor centrifugal describes your family, Sachs suggests a blended third type: “The Mission Impossible Family,” where the parents hang onto the child at the same time as sending him out into the world.Rather than being truly independent, the young adult is allowed and encouraged to depart, but only with specific “marching orders,” including the need to report back regularly.While it may be beneficial for parents to ask themselves these questions, my guess is that the majority of Sachs’ readers are “Mission Impossible” families—the most complicated and troubled group.Cold, scientific terms like “centripetal” and “centrifugal” belong in a physics textbook, not a how-to book for stressed-out parents. Periodically, I would confuse the terms and reread them, feeling irritated and slightly illiterate. (Aren’t I stressed out enough?) In an otherwise warm and direct style, this was my one small criticism.
My favorite parts of the book were the last two chapters. Offering lots of good insights and advice, “Enduring Intimacy,” talked about the challenges and opportunities in a couple’s marriage when their young adult children leave the nest. Aside from the sections on centripetal and centrifugal marriages, I found lots of helpful and inspiring suggestions: Grieving and Forgiving, Redefining and Reimagining Your Relationship, Communication and Renewal. Particularly comforting was the advice to parents to forgive themselves, in addition to their young adult, for being less than perfect.Sachs saysit’s difficult to avoid seeing the various milestones in your child’s development as some sort of referendum on your parenting, especially during early adulthood, since this is when all of our efforts are supposed to finally come to fruition and pay off.When these efforts don’t pay off—and the author guarantees us they won’t—we will scour our past trying desperately to figure out what we could have done differently to have created a better outcome.A better idea, Sachs suggests, is to open up to all that we still can do as parents and as people.
In the last chapter, “Dancing to the Music of Time,” Sachs offered more reassurance and comfort.“It is extremely difficult to get parental love right, to be certain we are appropriately ‘in tune’ with our children,” regardless of their age or stage of development. We just have to hope we’ve been “good enough” parents, (echoing the author’s earlier book) “to stir in our children the capacity to rally their resources, call forth their strengths and overcome their liabilities when life becomes frustrating, difficult or overwhelming, as it inevitably will.”When the nest emptying process is not going well, Sachs says the parents “should not harden into a position of resentment and indignation,” but try instead to open our mind and hearts to allow a larger perspective to emerge.Both parents and children must use their collective imagination to solve the problem and find a creative solution.
It all sounds great, but I still haven’t evolved into Henry Kissinger in my nest negotiations.
Marguerite Elisofon is a New York City writer and the author of My Picture Perfect Family, a memoir about how her family navigated life with a child on the autistic spectrum before the internet and support groups existed. She also blogs about parenting young adults and disability related issues in The Never Empty Nest. Her writing has been featured in a variety of publications, including Time and NY Metro Parents magazine, and her family’s story has been featured by the NY Post, Fox News, The Daily Mail, and on Jenny McCarthy’s Dirty Sexy Funny radio show. A Vassar graduate, Marguerite was born and raised in New York City, where she still lives with her husband, Howard, in their mostly-empty nest. She is available to speak about a wide variety of issues relating to twins, parenting, and autism.