It’s been almost two weeks since Mark and I embarked on our empty nesting adventure. My tears have dried. I’m starting to enjoy increased freedom and diminished stress. Fun is being had. A book — a library book, no less — has helped me shift into drive. I checked out non-fiction writer Melissa Fay Greene‘s No Biking in the House without a Helmet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
Greene is a brilliant storyteller. I first encountered her work in Praying for Sheetrock (1992), a lyrically written chronicle of the legal and political fight to bring civil rights to rural Georgia. She belongs in the same class of writers as Tracy Kidder, Buzz Bissinger, William Finnegan, and Susan Orlean. Orlean presents herself as a woman in a ballsy – sexy – edgy way. Greene doesn’t trade on her looks. She’s a public mother, a wife, a person deeply concerned with raising children (not with jetting off to exotic locales to commune with a fertility goddess).
In No Biking, Greene describes how she and her husband, Donny, went from a family of four (biological) children to nine (through international adoption). She’d hit her early forties and no longer had very young children at home. Her oldest was well into high school, and she thought, “Why not?” Greene got pregnant, but the pregnancy ended in miscarriage. She’d already done the hard work of choosing to expand her family, so when she learned of Romanian children languishing in orphanages, she convinced her husband and four children to make room for one more.
As she began her adoption journey, she stuck to one guiding principle: she would only consider healthy, older children who had started their lives in families where they’d had a chance to bond and love. From Romania, Greene moved on to Ethiopia in the height of the AIDS crisis. There, over time, she adopted a daughter and three sons, two of whom are biological brothers.
Greene argues passionately in No Biking for the power of family. She exults in the beauty of raising children and the basic pleasures of having growing kids underfoot. It’s not all smooth sailing for Greene and her husband, though, especially as the oldest kids leave home. Greene realizes a bit too late that those older kids, the boys especially, have provided a pecking order that has kept the younger kids in line and relatively free from conflict. Their absence produces a dearth of order and fun, leaving the family in a state of crisis.
Greene also realizes that no matter how many children she adopts, she can’t avoid the pangs associated with children’s inevitable departure. She has launched her two oldest sons and finds herself sitting, alone, at a gate in the Cleveland airport:
It seemed especially unfair for these goodbyes to hurt so much, since the working THEORY was that Donny and I would AVOID the pain of empty nest by continuing to FILL the nest. I sadly phoned Donny from the waiting area. “I don’t think our plan is working. We’re getting all the pain of empty nest anyway…” “I know,” he said. “But we don’t get to go to Paris.” (280)
Raising children, Greene asserts, doesn’t diminish a woman’s intelligence or capacities. Raising kids takes patience and skill, not to mention organizational prowess. Without these, parents can wind up turning a family into a “group home.” Her account left me feeling joyful. There really is something profound to celebrate. And there is also something profound to mourn.