I finally managed it–lunch with a young friend who is a new empty nester. She’d already made it through the send-off, through the first visit home, winter break, and is now almost at the freshman finish line/summer re-entry.
So the conversation at our lunch was predictably about how it’s gone. And as J. talked, it all came rushing back to me.
It was a lifetime ago. It was yesterday.
Our initiation into empty nesthood came more than three decades ago, and will forever stand out as the beginning of the end–and the end of the beginning.
It seemed that we’d been bracing for this monumental parenting moment since the day our firstborn tumbled into our lives–and yet it still slipped up behind us while our backs were turned.
Of course all the telltale signs were there: The college application process, the discernible pulling away as Jill declared her independence in so many subtle–and not so subtle ways. Jill was with us–but also absent.
Jill was setting sail even in so many ways before we had gotten to the dock.
And then came that absolutely inescapable morning when we drove on highways and turnpikes from suburban New Jersey to New Haven in Connecticut, where a venerable university beckoned.
And after the ritual unpacking and the setting up of a dorm room the size of a closet, there we stood, dazed, anxious and altogether overwhelmed, not knowing how to say goodbye.
In a second, it was over. Done.
That was the toughest one, that first. That was the leave-taking that whispered that our on-site parenting days were numbered, and that soon enough–before we were ready–the cycle would be complete. One down–two to go.
Amy’s leaving was less traumatic. Her college was not only my own alma mater—it was 18 miles from us. And of course we ended up seeing her far less than we’d expected. Those 18 miles might have been a continent. Amy was out there on her own.
As I told my friend J., it turned out that the hardest moment of all was saying goodbye to Nancy, our youngest. That moment came when she walked away from us and into a crumbling college dormitory called Holworthy in Cambridge, Massachusetts–308 miles away, but who was counting?
I’m eternally grateful that she didn’t see two forlorn adults holding on to one another for dear life. For us, it was a leap into another cosmos.
When we finally got home after a miserable, silent ride, and I saw Nancy’s empty room, I shut the door and didn’t open it again for weeks.
Initially, we couldn’t grow accustomed to the noise of absence, a stillness that slides along the walls of our house to this day. “It’s really different without the kids,” my husband and I used to say to one another in voices husky with loss. And we wondered how we’d ever readjust to life without homework and car pools and trips to the mall for jeans of a precise cut and color that had to be gotten before tomorrow’s dawn broke.
The very things we thought we’d never, ever miss turned out to be those bafflingly yearned-for in that initial period of shifting gears. I’d be hard-put to explain why.
And I’d wager that even the best marriage partners feel vulnerable in this empty domestic landscape, suddenly facing one another across the kitchen table. The sharp focus is sometimes a little blinding.
But here’s the joyful news that J. will soon discover.
There IS life after kids. Full, wonderful, satisfying, relatively carefree life.
There is pleasure and fulfillment in refocusing, regrouping and remembering why you ever decided to have kids in the first place with that person across the breakfast room table.
You do derive warmth and pleasure from daily life, and it’s incredibly sybaritic to dash off to see a movie without having to worry about anything or anyone.
That terrible stillness never vanishes, but it surely does subside. It’s even welcome.
When it comes to parenthood, the miracles–and the ironies–never cease.