THE ALMOST-EMPTY NEST
Suzanne told me before my firstborn son left for college that I would get through it, I would be fine, and in time, I would even come to welcome his independence.
I didn’t believe her at the time, but she was so right.
Her only child—Julia—had left the year before that, and she was living proof.
Gail survived the departure of her first two children many years ago, so that was old news to her. At that time, her younger children were preschoolers. Like any challenge, Gail stares it down, accepts it as a fact of life, and goes on. She simply does what has to be done.
She does, however, feel it more than she lets on. I know this about her. And the older she gets, the harder it gets to not let it show. Oh, she is still tough as nails, don’t get me wrong. She’s just a little softer on the outside now.
She has always been mush on the inside, and that is a good thing.
I wear my heart not on my sleeve; more like on my collar. Or like a tattoo on my forehead. I once cried during a presidential inauguration on television.
Perhaps some mothers would have cried at my son’s snafu during graduation, but I managed to laugh—and I truly thought it was funny.
Every graduate, after they walked across the stage, was handed a yellow rose to take to their mother or other significant adult. The graduates before him did just that, offering heartfelt hugs along with the beautiful flower. Joel picked up his rose, and proceeded to sit back down among the rows of graduates. A fellow graduate likely nudged him, reminding him “You’re supposed to take that to your mom.”
So he got back up, searched and found me, and leaned in from the aisle across about 5 chairs, handed me the rose from a distance as I headed toward him for a hug, just as he turned and quickly headed back to his chair in the front of the auditorium. The blurry quality of this picture shows just how fast it all happened:
That’s my boy. He apologized later, and gave me one of his best hugs ever.
As my firstborn prepares for his fourth year away at a state university, Joel is preparing for a year at a local vocational training program. He will live at home for one more year. He will be independent, but he won’t be gone—yet.
I am thrilled. I’m not quite ready for emptiness. But I am ready for—as we say in the rehab field—modified independence. It will be the best of both. He will be here, but he will also be on his own.
His sense of humor is a gift to anyone in his presence. If you thought the graduation incident was funny, well, he didn’t even mean to do that. If you can catch him at the right moment, in the right mood, he will break out his impersonations. Any character, any dialect, as well as the voices of many famous people can be heard coming from his mouth.
He is a funny guy, and I look forward to more laughter with him. Then, perhaps after a year of training, I will be ready to let the last one go—at least out of the house.
It’s supposed to happen. They are supposed to grow up and move away from their parents. This is what we work so hard for, for all those years. For their first 18 years, we knock ourselves out to teach them all we can, and show them how to do things on their own. And then we are devastated when they do just that.
Damn hormones. Or soul-wrenching motherly love. Or the bittersweet Grand Design.
They, like all of us at their age, need to move forward to the next phase of their lives. We were ready at their age, and they, too, are readying to leave.
Gail’s fourth and last child graduated as well. She was born on my husband’s birthday, and, like my last child, will be attending a program close to home. She will drive half an hour to her mother’s alma mater every day.
Her oldest sister, Gail’s firstborn and honorable attorney-at-law Kate, was the graduation speaker.
Gail and I, unlike Suzanne, will not quite have an empty nest. But kind of. They will be under our roofs by night, but yet they are out in the big world on their own by day.
I have convinced myself that I am getting the best of both: they are gone, but still here, too. My husband agrees. So does Gail, and her husband.
Fourteen years ago Matt graduated from high school.
Three years ago Jude graduated from high school.
Joel’s graduation completes the trifecta.
There is a lot of fun out there waiting to be had, and my name is on some of it. Gail’s name shows up too, as does Suzanne’s. Adventure awaits. More of the same kind we’ve always had, and perhaps—who knows—other kinds may find us too. We are open to that.
I work with many patients whose spouses are present for therapy. They are visiting in the hospital room when I’m there, or they are at home with them when I am in their homes for home health, or perhaps they bring each other in for outpatient therapy.
I am struck every time I hear it spoken, and I always stop to think about this, and why it happens the way it does: so many of these patients and their spouses call each other not by their first names, but by “Mom” or “Dad.”
Clearly, they are married to each other; they are not parents to each other. Yet, they call them by their parental name. I always wonder this: was parenthood their only identity? Do they think of themselves only as parents, and not as individuals married to each other with a unique identity apart from that as a parent? Did they not have the luxury of thinking of themselves as a separate entity apart from their children? Was their devotion to their children greater than mine to my children, because I don’t now, nor do I ever foresee myself calling my husband “Dad,” instead of by his first name. He is not my dad. My dad is the only person I ever called or will call ‘Dad,’ and he is gone. Neither do I foresee him calling me “Mom.” His mother is alive and well, and that is her name to him. My parents called each other either by their first names, or perhaps a term of endearment, but not by their parental names. So too do my in-laws. My husband and I use these endearing terms sometimes too.
When I am talking to my boys and referring to their dad, I do call him “Dad,” or sometimes “your dad” to them. I think perhaps it was simply easier for these couples to simply continue to use the names “Mom” and “Dad” after all those years of doing just that with their children. But I still wonder if they ever think of themselves as anything besides parents. Perhaps I am over-thinking this, but I do notice it, just like I notice a lot of things in human communication. It is my job, and forgive my psychoanalysis if it appears that is what I have done. I am simply trying to make a point about one’s parental identity.
So back to our kids: The passive parenting has begun. Gail spent 34 years in active parenthood, I have spent 21, and Suzanne spent 18, for a total of 73 years. That’s a long time. Our parents spent 33 years from the firstborn to the last to leave. Suzanne tells the story of asking Mom if she was going to miss our youngest brother when he was preparing to leave home. If I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure she said without hesitation: “No. I am ready.”
Gail was second to leave, I am guessing that was a little tougher. I was fifth to fly the nest, and I don’t recall giving a flip about how Mom and Dad felt about me leaving. I only recall being so excited to arrive at college, and when they dropped me off, I didn’t look back. I don’t know if they did or not. One of our older brothers was at the same university for his last year, so I wasn’t quite alone.
Suzanne was next after me, and next-to-last. She went to the same university I did, but I had just finished. Again, it was probably a bit easier. So by the last one, they were experts at this after having been through it seven times.
Several of us—myself included—drifted back in and out again when we were in transition. They welcomed us until we got our footing again, and left once more.
Joel is sitting next to me as I write, taking care of some form of business on his computer—the one I hijacked for last week’s post. (By the way, my new charger arrived in the mail from Amazon, and obviously, it fired up and charged my computer again.) He and I are plugged in separately, but we are together still. Perhaps this will be the new normal as he transitions into his year of post-secondary education, then into the big world. His next oldest brother will be back at the same university for his senior year. Their oldest brother continues to live just 100 easy miles down the road in Wichita with his delightful family.
Our nest is almost empty, but our hearts will always be full with them as our children. I know in my heart this is how our parents felt, too. Our nest is blessed. Full nest, almost-empty nest and someday, perhaps, empty nest, we will keep them in our hearts forever. And this is how it supposed to be, this is what we worked so hard for all those years for.
Let the next phase begin.