They’re gone–today. The last two of my children, twins, have left home for college. I have known my youngest boys would grow up and move out for eighteen and a half years. As a concept, it is nothing new. It is not a surprise. But now that it has happened, it feels distinctly new and very much like a surprise.
I have more tools available to cope with this transition than my great-grandmother, my grandmother–even my mother. The internet is full of empty nest resources: blogs, books, and interviews bursting with mother birds detailing their new careers, new husbands, new pets, or new haircuts–things to fill the void. None of it resonates. I don’t want a new career or to leave my husband. I don’t want to get another dog and I don’t want to get bangs.
The plethora of empty nest tools don’t seem useful because I believe I am in shock. I knew, as a concept, that I wouldn’t be hand-washing baby bottles forever, that the children wouldn’t be un-trainable on the potty forever, that I wouldn’t be making sure they didn’t eat sand in the sandbox forever, that I wouldn’t be driving from baseball game to lacrosse game to basketball practice to theater rehearsal–forever. But it damned well seemed like it.
The societal expectation is that I should either be sad, hiding in a corner with a blanket or ecstatically happy, planning a trip around the world. This is so American, as is the phrase, “empty nester.” Since I am an American, I should feel right at home. What I feel is a something I don’t yet have a name for, a something that is describable only as an absence. What will my empty nest be filled with, this new hole punched in the Universe of time? What will I do with our old four-bedroom farmhouse that held generations of children, its rock-dotted lawn which in its one hundred and fifty year history supported horses, dairy cows, and crops of strawberries? This is what I ask myself. Other people ask me too. They ask, because I have a track record of being prepared for everything and having an outfit to match.
Throughout the summer when anyone from my in-laws to relative strangers at yoga class asked how I would fill my time and home once Spencer and Parker left, I shrugged, an unsatisfying gesture that encapsulated my inner turmoil. How could I say that my brain was frantically sifting through solutions to distract myself from their impending absence? I filled the final weeks before dormitory move-in imagining a myriad of solutions. Like turning our back yard into a peony farm, a pear farm, or an art installation comprised of large circles cut into the soil filled with different varieties of moss. I entertained myself with obvious farm names: “Empty Nest Peonies,” “Empty Nest Pears,” and “Oh My God, I’ve Gone Insane and Planted Large Circles of Moss Because My Children Have Moved Out and I Don’t Know Who I Am Anymore.” (The website would be simply, “The Empty Nest Garden.) One particularly bright August morning, after three iced-coffees, I considered opening a bakery selling only Bundt cakes covered in chocolate drizzle. (“Cake Hole.”)
I am not prone to drama. I am prone to planning. But, after raising three sons over twenty-three years, I am also prone to be a little tired. As quickly as the peonies, pears, moss, and cakes hatched, I kicked those empty ideas out of the nest. For the first time in my life, I have no plan. I am a mama bird without eggs, living in a nest un-feathered.
With the arrival of a baby there are, if you are lucky, baby showers and special maternity clothes and at least one person, your mother or a very close friend, who looks past all the baby brouhaha, a very astute person, who looks you deep in the eye, and addresses your unspoken fear and uncertainty by announcing that everything is going to be OK. That yes, the baby (or babies) is going to change things but you’re made of strong stuff and you’ve GOT THIS. Oh, how I loved my cousin taking one look at my exhausted face after birthing the twins and kicking each and every member of our well-wishing, celebratory family out of my hospital room. I recall with great appreciation the comment from our pediatrician at the first post-hospital check-up, “You’re doing a great job!” I glowed. I could really use a version of these now.
Growing up, I would sometimes overhear my mother’s friends proclaiming the wish to live on an island–alone. Then they would sigh. These were usually women who had little boys. I have had versions of the island–places I could hide. It has been a sun porch, an old leather sofa I tucked under the eaves in my bedroom, and during the preadolescence years, the bathroom where I would organize lipsticks by color in the hope that a small drawer of order would tame the testosterone-fueled chaos on the other side of the locked door. (It didn’t.)
Now that my entire house is essentially my own island, I am in shock. Our house includes a living room and a den. All of our sons are over six feet tall. Besides their bedrooms, while they were here, they also commandeered both the den and living room, sprawling on sofas. Now, there is now just me, my husband, and our dog. The three of us share a bed. The hard truth is that the three of us have been living on our island’s periphery for decades, giving the boys most of the space.
It is tempting to move. Clearly, we only need one room big enough for a bed, a bathroom that can double as a greenhouse for all my potted ferns, a tea kettle, a hot plate, and a washer and dryer. Then again, on an island for three, are clothes really necessary? Pretty soon I’ll be like some of the elderly ladies I see in the grocery store pushing a half-cart. In its basket: one head of lettuce, two peppered chicken breasts, and a quart of Ensure. Great. Besides internalized misogyny, now I have internalized ageism. I’ve leapt from vital to unvital with the purchase of two college food plans.
Absence is frightening. In America, having children is considered a blessing. Not having them, is considered, if not a curse–something close. Especially for women. And yet.
And yet, I wonder if the reason I have repeatedly rejected every bursting-nest idea (did I forget to mention opening a Bed and Breakfast? “Empty Nest Beds”) is because I want to fully embrace the emptiness without feeling like The Invisible Woman: the woman who is not actively mothering. I imagine we un-mothering mothers are like an Olympic track runner who has retired but is still super-fit and sees hurdles everywhere. The impulse to jump must be strong. I want, somehow, to resist the impulse to jump, to over-mother my newly grown children in a huge, tight embrace of protection and love and so I resort to trolling their Instagram feeds. I aim to be the sort of mother who allows mistakes to be made by my newly winged boys and by me. I aim to welcome the absence not as a void to be filled but as a glowing circle that I melt into like a tight muscle yielding beneath a massaging hand.
It’s worth a shot. But check in with me in a year, I’ll probably have a puppy and bangs.