The emotional challenges are further complicated by the huge logistical issues that loom when the empty nest refills—like how to provide adult children with health insurance. One of Siclari’s three kids doesn’t have it, although she’s painfully aware of the devastation that poor health can wreak: In 2005 her youngest child was a passenger in a car that was hit by a motorcycle traveling 100 miles per hour. “She broke both femurs, both knees, her right foot was severed, and her head was smashed like a pumpkin,” says Siclari. Her daughter recovered, but only after spending months in the hospital. At the time, she was covered by her parents’ insurance, but since then, she has had patches where she was without any coverage. Just recently, she went back to school and now has insurance that way, but Siclari’s son, who also lives at home, is still uninsured. “Most of the jobs out there don’t offer benefits,” says Siclari. And she and her husband—he is a CPA, she is the volunteer president of a charitable organization—can’t afford the thousands of dollars a year it would take to buy a policy for their son or add him to theirs.
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of stress out there. Jane, who does buy health coverage for her son, at a cost to her own savings, found herself snapping when he borrowed his father’s favorite coffee thermos and left it in his room, forcing her husband to tear the kitchen apart searching for it. “Sometimes a thermos isn’t just a thermos,” she says. “When kids are younger, there are no boundaries; they eat off their parents’ plates. But that’s supposed to end at a certain point.” Her son’s forgetting to bring back the thermos was a reminder of their continuing inability to achieve a kind of separation. “He’s trying to be a grownup, and he really wants to work,” says Jane, but the return of the unthinkingly self-centered child is also unquestionably part of her new reality. There are times, she admits, when she wants to tell him, “You’re eating all the food! Leave some for everyone else!”
Despite the difficulty of having to negotiate a new relationship with their children and renavigate their financial landscape, many women report that they like having their kids around. Twenty-somethings are usually better at carrying heavy boxes, tweaking the router, driving at night and finding the best new music than their parents are, and the bumpy process of generations learning to coexist can have surprising payoffs. For starters, parents get a ringside seat to the maturation process. “Some of it is little things,” says Lori Bezahler, a nonprofit executive from Brooklyn whose 22-year-old stepdaughter is working long hours without steady pay to try to break into film and TV production. Bezahler’s husband is a labor activist, and she respects the way her stepdaughter can now assert herself in discussions about her lifestyle. “She stands up to him about her hours, as an adult who has decided, not as a kid who has to justify herself,” says Bezahler. “I really admire little things like that . . . which are actually huge.”
Mills says that when her daughter moved back home after four years of teaching in Africa, “we each had our own ways of doing things, and we were used to having our own space.” The daughter made it clear that she expected Mills to make some changes: using cloth napkins at dinner, for instance, and passing up any product containing high-fructose corn syrup. “At first I thought, Oh my gosh, give me a break,” Mills says. But she decided she needed to be “more empathetic” with her daughter’s beliefs. That didn’t mean letting her daughter win every point as much as it meant cultivating an open attitude and finding common ground—in their case, quite literally: The two tended a garden together, and Mills’s daughter has taken over some of the cooking. “It has been a good experience,” says Mills.