The woman wept into her cell phone as she pushed her shopping cart recently in a big-box discount store. “It’s like a death,” she wailed. “I’m glad for them that they’re in college but it’s grief like they died.” I wanted to wend through the aisles of the store in pursuit and tell her “Yes!! It feels terrible, and then a little better.” Living in the Empty Nest brings a sharp and surprising pain. Every mother I know who is currently saying goodbye to an 18 year is stunned with how intense – and unexpected – the pain is. We were not prepared for this, not warned (as almost all else in parenting, I suppose). I wanted to tell the weeping woman in the store:
It’s a Death: The Empty Nest does bring up feelings of death. It’s the end of an era and there are a million reminders that it’s over: the refrigerator that is now nearly barren, the car stays clean, the DVR contains only educational material. It’s the end of being a hands-on mom. We’ve gone through phases of mothering before: from hands-on with a baby to sometimes hands-off with a toddler, another step removed with a tweenie, banishment with heightened surveillance during high school. But this is the only step we’re taking alone, doing it without them. Redefining the relationship, the roles, is tough enough, but layering on the loneliness of a life without your child makes it a tall order.
And of course now that the children are out of sight, mothers I know have an underlying anxiety. Primal anxiety, because a mother senses danger whenever her children are not there. Mothers will tell you that they sleep better when their teenagers or even adult children are in the house. And there’s also the real anxiety that perhaps your kid isn’t terribly practical, or street-savvy, or good with money. Mothers can imagine them lost in the city, injured behind the wheel, stalked, beaten… the nightmares go on.
And in case you think this hits only the meddling kind, any parent will tell you that there’s another loss: the season finale of a fascinating part of their lives. Children are endlessly entertaining in what they do, say, emote. They’re the best of reality TV and every parent’s most intriguing hobby. Even when they’re a pain, when they’re in trouble. They’ve been center stage, the always-on kid channel blaring 24/7. And then somebody cut the cable.
It’s Like a Breakup: Every mother I know will acknowledge that their child is the love of their life, the most intense, satisfying love ever. When my son was born I felt as if I was infused with love on a cellular level and while I know that it was actually because of the post-partum hormone flush, this still feels like an apt description. Now that your children have left you behind, there are no daily hugs, no affectionate kidding, no laundry or favorite food, none of the tremendous amount of tenderness given and taken in parenting and it hurts.
It’s a Re-prioritization: Non-parents glibly say how nice it must be to have time for ourselves again, and it is, but what’s surprising is that suddenly nothing feels worth doing. Everything feels empty, frivolous and pointless. My Feral Parents friends and I have been shocked by this. We were paralyzed by indecision and ennui, by a lack of genuine interest in anything. Then, over coffee, we realized that after two decades (per child) of using our children’s needs as the yardstick of what’s important, of course nothing would measure up. We had parented -- something that was of critical importance, supreme importance -- and now we’re faced with what feel like little hobbies.
It’s a Rediscovery: Confronting the Empty Nest is a brave act of rediscovery of the self. If I only have to grocery shop for one, what would I want to buy? Would I watch football if left alone? And the biggest question: what on earth am I going to do with all this free time? Struggling with all this rediscovery is impacted by the skewed prioritization and the feeling of pointlessness. Ennui is a lousy state in which to discover anything. And yet we’re in a frenzy to find something, because the gaping maw of unstructured time, alone in a quiet house, is a primal fear of being cut off from the pack.
It’s a Stare-Down with Middle Age: With children on your hands you have access to all sorts of fun, silly places and when your children are gone you may be glad that you don’t ever have to see another animated film or eat another slice of pizza, but when you look at your new life it seems filled with only work, just bills and cleaning, and when you go out to the places you used to go you’re suddenly twenty years (at least) too old for the club. That is, when you have the courage to go out at night, alone, with no idea of where it might be fun to go. Act your age? What is that, knitting? Bowling? A night at home with a single bowl, a spoon, and a pot of soup big enough for four, or what turns out to be endless meals of the same? At every milestone we look ahead and what do we see? Other than Venza commercials of happy middle-aged folk running hand in hand to concerts, we see the shuffling elderly, the lonely widows.
Oh dear, what a heartache. I’m sure this is just the first in many blogs about this new era of The Empty Nest. I’d love to receive comments and hear how you’re handling it as well, and what you think of the more universal topics all this brings up. Until next entry, blessings to all – Jess