Lost and Found - A Story of Empty Nesting
After dropping the youngest child at college, adjusting to a different way of life brings insight and opportunities
In August, my husband and I moved our son into his freshman dorm. This wasn't our first rodeo when it came to college drop-offs. We had already experienced it twice before with my two older daughters.
I knew that the last hug would be emotional and I purposely wore sunglasses that afternoon to hide the inevitable tears. The moment was, of course, bittersweet; a mix of pride, excitement, gratitude, anxiety and sadness.
When each of the older two left, there were still "kids" at home. Our lives changed but also stayed the same.
Our son let go of our embrace and headed toward his orientation group. When he started a tentative conversation with his peers, we knew that was our cue to leave. Our work here was done and the rest of the journey was his alone.
Together my husband and I walked back to our car and although we had taken similar steps before, this time was different. When each of the older two left, there were still "kids" at home. Our lives changed but also stayed the same.
That day, my husband and I became empty nesters. We were saying goodbye, not just to our son, but to a part of our lives, and entering a new one.
What Is Lost
After drop-off, my husband and I went away for a few days before returning to our home.
When we returned, initially, the change wasn't as profound as I expected. High schoolers aren't home a lot. My son was out the door early each morning and his days were jam-packed between school, sports, friends and homework. Even in the house, he spent much time in his room or the basement playing video games with friends. So at first, it felt like he was having a hectic few days, or at least I convinced myself.
But after a week, the quietness became more pronounced. I missed the sound of my son's voice, the thud of his heavy footsteps on the staircase and the door slamming each time he left and re-entered. Not having him around made me miss his sisters, too, even though they hadn't lived here for years.
My husband and I had bought this house for our family. The kids filled this house up, both literally and metaphorically. Often I'd remark on how they left their stuff everywhere, never hung up their coats or put away the laundry I washed, folded and neatly stacked in their rooms.
Now there was less stuff and less noise. Somebody had turned the volume of the house from high to low. The kids' conversations, their laughter, their bickering – it was all gone.
For 27 years as a stay-at-home mother, my routine and schedule revolved around my children. Even when I started freelancing, I did most of my work when they were at school. I felt untethered.
Suddenly my time was solely my own. I didn't need to be up when the kids left for school or available in the afternoon if someone needed a ride. There were no basketball games, back-to-school nights or track meets to attend. I didn't have to get dinner on the table at a set time (or hear complaints about the menu), keep the fridge fully stocked, or make sure that I washed the soccer uniforms for the weekend games.
There were no small interactions with other parents at volunteer shifts or in the bleachers.
This unconnected feeling extended to the community. I was no longer on the school calendar or getting weekly newsletters from my kids' PTO Board.
There were no small interactions with other parents at volunteer shifts or in the bleachers. If I wanted to see people, I had to make a plan.
It made me wonder, were these other mothers my friends, or my work colleagues at a job where I was no longer employed? We had moved to the suburbs because that is where we wanted to raise our kids. But now they were full-grown. Did I still belong here?
What I Found
I realized I needed to allow myself to feel these feelings of loss. It was possible to feel grateful and happy that the kids were leading independent lives and sad because I missed their presence and my sense of purpose. A part of my life I loved was over and it was therapeutic to acknowledge that ending.
Being an empty nester meant I had more ownership of my life. That prospect was both exciting and frightening. Taking care of the kids was no longer my primary responsibility. They were no longer a reason or a convenient excuse. I now had time to do things I had put off, like write more, travel, or work out more consistently.
I didn't have to end my work day when the kids got home from school; I could start then. I could make salmon for dinner because it no longer mattered that my daughter hated the smell of fish. Or I could even forgo making dinner entirely without guilt. I could eat a bowl of cereal while bingeing Netflix if I wanted to, especially when my husband worked late at the office.
The best realization I have had these past few months about empty nesting is that it hasn't been all that empty.
No kids at home meant more time alone with my husband. We had to get used to a new rhythm, just the two of us and it's been nice getting to know each other again. We are not sure if we will stay in the suburbs but we have time to talk about it and explore our options.
We both miss the kids a lot, but we also are enjoying having more time to ourselves. We took a vacation, and instead of worrying about five people's needs, we got to do what we wanted. Next, we are going away with a college friend and her spouse. She and I haven't been able to go away together since we were single over thirty years ago, but we can now.
A more flexible schedule means more time for long phone conversations and impromptu midweek dinner dates with friends. It was especially helpful when my dad got sick in the fall. With no kids at home, I could see him often those last few weeks before he died, to sit and talk to him unrushed with no distractions.
They Do Come Home Again
The best realization I have had these past few months about empty nesting is that it hasn't been all that empty. My son has been home several times, including a long winter break and my daughters have come for many visits too. I love when we are all together, but I also have an opportunity now to spend time with each of the kids individually or with my husband, too.
Making dinner for the kids feels like a treat instead of a chore because I don't do it daily. I'm more tolerant of messes in the house because they are temporary. I take in the noise, the laughter, and the bickering, more fully knowing it will be quiet again.
The kids, too, are kinder, more appreciative and more communicative. Time away from one another and maturity have made us all realize how much we love each other.
We may not live in one space, but we are still a family — each living full, independent and happy lives, including me.