A mother's first year without children at home

We bought our first house when our second child was born. That spring, a pair of house finches built a nest in a hanging basket on the front porch. I watched the female’s long vigil over her eggs from a rocker while I nursed my son and my toddler daughter played on the porch. I felt solidarity with that mama bird—so much so that I didn’t even mind the destroyed flowers or the bird droppings on the porch railing.

But it wasn’t long before the eggs hatched, and as soon as the chicks could fly, the birds were gone.

My own baby boy fledged last fall, off to college in New England. His sister left two years earlier. Over the past year, my husband, Dennis, and I have often been asked about our new lifestyle. “Ah, empty nesters,” people will say, often with a mischievous twinkle. “How’s that going?”

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Keeping it light, I joke about the benefits. That constant jumble of shoes by the front door that could grow to a mountain when my son had friends over? Gone. Laundry? Reduced by more than half, even though the population of our home is only down a third. The dining room table gleams all day long, free from the flotsam and jetsam of teens on the run: keys, half-eaten granola bars, crumpled receipts, thrift-store finds, hastily removed shin guards. And since neither of my kids drives at college, a whole category of worry has been removed from our lives.

Dennis hates being called an empty nester, defined by absence. He says we should, instead, call ourselves “free birds.” And we are, in many ways, more free. We go to more concerts and movies than we did in the past. We eat dinner when we feel like it, usually late. We talk to each other more.

But the reason we like to eat so late is that we both work so much. We’ve allowed our jobs to colonize our newfound free time. It’s easy to fall into this pattern.

Unlike the finches, we’re not driven by migration and repeat procreation. We have to make up the next phase for ourselves. Filling our hours with work makes it easier to ignore our changing family life. Because the problem with starting a new life is that, first, you have to let go of the old one.

***

I married, got pregnant and moved from Washington, D.C., to Des Moines, Iowa, all about the same time, joining my husband as he negotiated a career change that would move us across state lines twice more in the next two years. With all that relocating, becoming a stay-home mom made sense—and luckily, we could afford for me to do so.

I didn’t know then that I would stay out of the full-time workforce for more than two decades, but I loved being with my children. I loved the physicality of the early years, which drained my energy but felt so natural and fulfilling, as if our bodies were still joined in some invisible way. I loved the elementary school years, when they grew and changed so quickly that each day was an adventure of discovery. I loved the middle school years, when I had to wrestle privately with their social and academic challenges and teach myself to let them find their own answers. I loved the high school years, when they began expressing their own opinions and branching out in directions we’d never anticipated.

I loved what we were building together: a family unit, with shared memories and birthday rituals and mealtime traditions. Only we know what words we shout when we enter a new state during our long car trips to visit family in New York and Massachusetts, or our secret name for the Hocking Hills trail where we like to take hikes on Mother’s and Father’s Day. And I relished my own indispensability: the keeper of phone numbers; the maker of lunches; the finder of lost hairbands and homework assignments. Sometimes, even, the knower of secrets.

Yet it occasionally bothered me that I was falling behind my working-mom peers professionally. I didn’t fully disengage from my pre-mom self—I continued to write and publish throughout the kids’ childhood, and once they were in school, I worked part-time. But those things came second. I didn’t think about how fully I was investing myself in something that would eventually end. These kids would grow up and get their own lives. They would not need me. This family unit would disperse. And then where would I be? Who would I be?

***

The first few months of our post-kids life flew by. The very same week our son received his college acceptance email, I received an alert from LinkedIn describing a job at this magazine, Columbus Monthly, where I’d been freelancing for years. By the time we dropped him off in New Hampshire nine months later, I was neck-deep in deadlines. I did shed some tears during the drive back to Columbus, but then it was back to work. I didn’t have time to grieve. I didn’t even put away the clothes he’d left strewn on the floor. A year later, the room is still a jumble. His sister’s room, too, remains unchanged, filled with discarded clothing and artifacts of her younger self.

At Thanksgiving, he came home again, his long school break lasting seven weeks. I saw more of him during that time than I had when he was a busy high school senior. It was delightful, and it almost made up for the absence of our daughter, who was studying in France and missed spending Thanksgiving with us for the first time. I was growing used to missing her, and besides, she was coming home at Christmas. Oh, so this is how it is, I thought. They don’t really leave, just go away and come back.

So the sadness I felt when January came and they both were back at school knocked me flat, like an unforeseen hurricane. Suddenly I knew the truth: They never really come home again.

The spring dragged in a gray haze. We talked about moving to a smaller place; a less family-oriented neighborhood; a hip, contemporary apartment, maybe. Or a house in the country. A place we could start fresh. But we didn’t do anything about it; instead, I spent hours evaluating my relationship with the community where so many of my social bonds related to the kids and their activities. Do I really belong here? I wondered. Should I get new friends?

I lived for our weekly Skype call with each kid. Once or twice, we patched them both in so we could all be “together.” It wasn’t the same.

During that period, we traveled to Paris to visit our daughter, who had an apartment there and a whole flock of Parisian friends. We saw that she’d created a new and complete life for herself, albeit a temporary one, and we’d had nothing to do with it. It’s the kind of thing that should make a parent intensely proud, but it made me feel lonely.

We tried, without success, to arrange a family vacation in June, as we always had. But our son had a summer job and our daughter had an internship, and they couldn’t schedule time off in sync. My window of opportunity, too, was more limited because of my job. Those family-holiday days were over, it seemed.

***

Our son was home all summer, working as a camp counselor and living in the house in a slightly different way. We didn’t pester him to know what time he’d be home each night, and he, in turn, seemed slightly changed: more talkative, more open, more considerate. Our summer together was easy and comfortable. We discussed things that never came up during those weekly Skype sessions. The mountain of shoes came back, but I didn’t mind them as much, and he put them away when I asked him.

Midsummer, he took the Chinatown bus to New York to spend time with his sister. And as the end of summer approached, he and Dennis went on a three-day backpacking trip together. After that adventure, our son suggested an excursion just with me. I was surprised and touched. We took a drive to see the Serpent Mound (my choice) and, on the way back, visited three antique malls (his choice—he was looking for unique dorm-room décor).

I began to see that our family—any family, really—is not only a unit, an entity that needs to occupy the same location to exist. It’s a set of interwoven, individual relationships that are growing and changing, as they always have.

Although she didn’t plan it, our daughter made an 11th-hour decision to come home on two occasions during the summer, and I was grateful. The four of us did a Mother’s-Father’s Day hike, choosing a date when both kids were here in Columbus rather than an actual holiday. We hiked at our traditional location with the secret code name. I can’t tell you the name, but I promise we used it.