After the Last Child

Lisa writes: “You will miss me the most.” my last child surprised me by saying, “Because after I’m gone it is going to be really, really quiet here.”  And there it was, the truth out of the mouth of a sixteen year old, a truth that summed up so much about parenting.  There is something special about eldest children.  We don’t love them any more than the others, but it is their very existence that changes us from self-absorbed young adults into doting parents.

Speaking for myself, no one person ever transformed my life so dramatically.  But my youngest son has a point, his departure will bring a similar, massive change to my life. My oldest child may have made me a parent but my youngest child will make me an empty nester.

babies, babies at the beach, toddlers, toddlers at the beach, siblings at the beach, little children at the beach, toddlers

Mary Dell and I began Grown and Flown because the transition to the empty nest is a slow one and the changes that happen to us as mothers and families are profound. For us the process began the day our eldest sons laid their hands on their freshly minted driver’s licenses and it will continue until our youngest children have someplace else to call home.

As we each have more than one child, the march to the empty nest is a long journey and the transition will take a decade or more, or just about the same amount of time that our kids were little. During this decade our families are adjusting and readjusting to our kids getting ready to leave, leaving, coming back only to leave again and, when we least expect it, come home again.  I feel a little like an air traffic controller, someone else is scheduling when they come and go, I am just trying to make it all happen smoothly.

But through these years of flux it is our youngest child who stands between us and our empty nest. This is the child who was dragged along to the activities of older siblings, may not have received the attention he deserved and was rarely the first to do anything in our families.  This is the child who was left behind as siblings endured the college process, found their places and moved on to life’s next stage. If a family has an audience, it is its youngest child.

When our older children wind down towards the day they leave, during that poignant senior year, there is a gripping realization that this is the child’s last birthday at home, the last time we will be watch them play with their team or the last back to school night when we will get to enjoy the excitement of their new year. When my youngest son begins the countdown it is not that I won’t go through this again with him, I won’t go through this again with anyone. He will move on and so will I.

But before our youngest children leave home something wonderful happens. Our oldest children are only children in their toddler years.  Our middle children may never have this experience but  our youngest child become a sort of only child on the doorstep of adulthood.  And for a year or two or five we have a special time to share with them.  What we may lose in enthusiasm and novelty we gain in being more relaxed and sure of our parenting.  With our last child we can be the parent we always hoped to be.

My youngest child watched me miss his brothers, he watched me adapt to their departure with pride and tears. But in reality, he is right, because just as his brother’s arrival did decades earlier, his departure once again changes everything. I will miss him the most.

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Comments

  1. I wish I had known you all before my nest emptied! I never thought of it as a slow and gentle process. For me, the pain came out of the blue the week before my youngest moved out to go to college. It caught me quite off guard, although I should have known better.
    Enjoy these many “lasts” with your youngest!

    • I don’t mean to diminish how much we miss them but the whole process seems like a long slow slope to where we will be. Thank you so much for all of your support.

  2. With only one child I knew it was always going to be a process of one day she is there and the next she isn’t. I keep teasing her about helping her move out but the reality is that I will miss her when she is gone. I didn’t think it would happen for another couple of years but she was talking about it on the weekend and I got a lump in my throat thinking about not seeing her every day. I wonder if this is how my Mom felt when I got married and left home ?
    Have the best day and enjoy the time you have together before he leaves.
    Love, hugs and positive energy !
    Me

    • Ahhh that lump in the throat. I get it every time my boys walk out the door to go back to University. It is the worst when I drop them in September…there should be a name for this.

  3. A lovely post, and so true. I made the mistake of going to see Toy Story 3 a couple of weeks before my eldest went away to university, and it was disastrous. Watching number 2 go was slightly easier, but I do have the feeling that number 3, the last, will be my undoing. Five years to strategize…:)

    • I found each just as hard and am living in fear of the last. I can see him changing before my eye, getting ready, becoming a person who can be far more independent. Filled with pride and dread! Thanks so much for commenting.

  4. oh lisa. you touch my heart every time. the best part of that time with the youngest child is that you are able to focus only on them once the others are gone. there’s a sweetness to that that is precious beyond words. You have the same moments you had with the eldest, just on the other end of childhood.
    perfect post as always.

    • You are far too kind…thank you for always being there for us, know we are out here reading you as well

  5. happyoutlook says:

    What a heartfelt post! It was wonderful to have a year with my youngest being a seemingly only child. And, like you, I counted down the lasts of everything. Now, I count down the days to when my kids come home on their college vacations. On Thanksgiving, I’ll give thanks for our empty nest being full of returning children.

  6. Beautifully written. Sounds like your youngest is enjoying his position and advantage right now as much as you’re savoring it. My youngest and I have a special bond because of those last few years we had just him at home. In many ways he’s wise beyond his older sibs. Maybe it’s because of his time as the family’s audience, as you coined it so well.

    • You are so right about the special bond with the youngest. Having a child alone for the teen years is so different than having a child alone for the baby years.

  7. Emily says:

    Another beautiful post…even though my youngest of 3 is only 9, I am already dreading the day he leaves our nest. He already seems wise beyond his years (that’s yet another benefit of being the 3rd child) and I could envision him saying the same thing that your son did. We got a taste of him being the only child when our other 2 went to sleepaway camp, and it was wonderful to have that time with him. This past summer all 3 of our boys went to camp for a month so we were empty-nesters for 4 weeks!

    • Four weeks, you really did get a taste. I remember a summer that my older two were gone. The youngest hated it. That is when he realized he would face this again when they went to college. He dreaded it all those years not realizing that because he would be a teenager, his own life would be much fuller.

  8. Sherri says:

    This is something I had never really contemplated, and yet it is so true. My son left behind his sister to be our “audience”, and when she leaves in four years? We are left entertaining the dog.

    Loved this perspective, especially as we head into a week when all chicks return to their nests — to raid the fridge.

    • Food is certainly the reason that they are coming home!! I find it so interesting to hear the different versions of our family from the different perspectives of my children. I too am facing the dog, an she is certainly going to miss them.

  9. Risa says:

    This is a lovely piece, Lisa.
    I’ve always said that my youngest was born to teach me patience and humility. My older kids were (more or less) a snap–outgoing, social, with larger-than-life personalities. My youngest had some issues–beginning with night terrors that lasted seemingly forever–and other stuff he eventually worked through. We had our challenges. But when his siblings left for college, he got to be an only child for five years, and I’ll always be grateful for that time. He came out from under the radar and really blossomed. His motto became “Never doubt me.” And we didn’t. When we dropped him off at college, I was so proud of him…and sorry for myself because I knew I would miss him so much.

    • Thank you so much Risa. And thank you so much for your story. Feel that tales like your have so much to teach younger mothers. Love that you have a link to your blog here for all to see.

  10. You made me cry. Beautiful post. I’ve still got three more years until I wave the first one off and another three again before my youngest leaves home, but the thought struck me recently, “what will I do when I have an empty house?” So much of my life is consumed by these children – I can’t even remember what I did before they arrived.

  11. Serena @ Thrift Diving says:

    Wow.
    I’m not even sure how you ended up in my newsfeed on Facebook (maybe from BlogHer?). And your theme (empty nest) isn’t even applicable to me, as I’ve got a 6 year old, an almost 3 year old, and a baby who just turned 1. But regardless, this post blew me away and left me with tears at 2 am. You’ve out a whole new perspective on something that I’ve always lead myself to believe would never be an issue for me: saying goodbye to my children when they leave. From hurried mornings, chaotic evenings, to exhausted night wakenings, to 10 minute loading times as I strap kids into the van, I’ve always imagined I would appreciate them growing older and “having my life back” once they grow up; time to focus on “me” again, and my crafts and my blogging.
    But this posts only uncovered the real truth: that no matter how chaotic and messy my life seems with 3 young sons, I will miss them. And I will miss the youngest leaving. It will be sad. And I realize that when life seems most hardest and most tiresome and most noisy, these are the things I must cherish and hold on to, because it won’t last forever. And these are beautiful times.
    Thank you for such a well-written post! In your newest follower. (Feel free to visit my blog, as well!). :)

    Serena
    Thrift Diving

    • Oh My Serena, thank you. What a wonderful comment and how happy we are that you found us. And we will visit you right now!

  12. Celia Dodd says:

    This was all so comforting! Everything in this post rings true to me, because my nest has taken a long time to empty too; my eldest left eight years ago, my youngest two years ago, and they have been the most challenging (and rewarding!) eight years of my life. Most people seem to assume the nest isn’t empty until all your kids have left , so it’s really reassuring to share other parents’ experiences of it as a gradual process, with relationships shifting and growing all the time. That’s partly why I wrote my book, ‘The Empty Nest’.

    I loved what you said about the unexpected joy of having time with the youngest, as he became like a single child. That also happened to us when our middle child boomeranged back to live at home for a year – it was so precious to have time with him on his own and to get to know him as an adult. For me that’s what makes the empty nest bearable – that it brings so many unexpected positive things as well as all the sadness – otherwise how would we survive?!

    • Means so much coming from you, Celia, as I know you have thought long and hard about this. Thank you.

  13. This is such a lovely post. I only have one child right now, but I can’t even imagine what it will feel like when he’s all grown up and leaving home.

    • I found this an many other aspects of parenting impossible to imagine, until I was living them. Natures way of keeping us in the moment?

  14. This made me cry! Very touching post. We don’t have any kids, but I know my Grandmother went through a lot of “empty nest” issues. Time just goes by too fast!!!

  15. Lovely post. My oldest just turned 16 and I am already envisioning the “lasts.” I do think that those last few years with the youngest will be good for her and for us. But, the whole idea of it – of our children leaving our home and venturing out into the world – it’s mind-boggling and scary and exciting.

    • For us the transitions started with the Driver’s licenses. That first huge leap of independence is the beginning and as you say, scary and exciting at the same time.

  16. Oh, this makes me cry! My oldest is 10 and I dread the day that he leaves home! Thanks for a beautiful post!

  17. Such profundities here, Lisa. You’ve touched my heart so and reminded me of the final year with my youngest. (And as my daughters are very close in age, it was only one year.) You’re spot on about the youngest seeing the parents go through heartbreak at missing the older kids who have flown. To this day, my youngest is the most sympathetic to my emotions and needs, something uncharacteristic of her until after the other two had moved on. I believe that last year together did it.
    Of course, once the little one had flown, the oldest moved home for a bit. So have heart—you just may have one or more return. :-D

    • You give me hope! I don’t think we realize what a special time it will be with our youngest until it is upon us. I never thought about what impact these years will have on a youngest, thanks for sharing.

  18. Carpool Goddess says:

    Beautiful post. I loved your line about how your first child made you a parent, but your last made you an empty nester. Our youngest started college this past August, and it was a difficult transition for us. Sending the oldest off was difficult too (the first cut is the deepest), but the younger one marks the end of an era of parenting “children.” They’re adults now. We still parent, but in a different way. It took several months to get used to the quiet, but we are adjusting. Thank God for my blog, or I would have gone crazy.

  19. Jane de Beneducci says:

    What a beautiful post, I was so moved. It brought so many memories to mind of our mini men watching their older brothers, with patience and love as they got to do things first, seemingly always quicker, faster, smarter, and now it is their turn to shine. You told me so many years ago that it would pass too quickly, I was forewarned and I feel blessed for that nugget, I was able to treasure the good and smile at the bad moments. Thank you for your wisdom.

    • I only told you so that I could remind myself. It is something you, I and every other mother needed to remember…so happy if it was any help. And so happy that you are here.

  20. What a wonderful and retrospective post. It’s hard for me to think about this. My two are only 5 & 6 and I will truly miss the noise and laughter in the house when they get older and “fly” off.

  21. L. Hauver says:

    Thank you for describing exactly what is going on in our home. Having this time with my youngest of three has been a gift for his parents and I hope, for him.

  22. I’m in that last year now, but doubled.
    When it made economic sense for the older son to go to the small college nearby and stay home to save money, the younger son caught up – and accelerated the process. Now the older will move on to a large university with credit hours and an associate’s degree, and the younger son – who has taken college courses for his high school senior year – will go to a separate university with credit. And both will live hours away, on separate campuses. So I am gripped with the realization at every turn, that this will be the last event for him… and this will be his last… —
    I’ve busied myself with going forward to the next chapter in my own life, but much of the time I think it is all distraction from thinking of the quiet… of downsizing grocery shopping… of not hearing the garage door open with an arrival, or the pantry door squeak from a growing boy sniffing out another snack.
    And as much as I hope to enjoy this empty nester stage, I cannot help but hope that it doesn’t last too long, but gets filled soon with weddings and new family members and grandbabies.

    • We know exactly what you mean! So wonderful to have our lives, and see them move on with theirs, but there is so much to miss about the busy family life. Thanks for sharing your story.

  23. As I look forward to my sons coming home from college at Christmas (they didn’t as Thanksgiving), it is indeed a long and odd recurring process. Adjusting to the departures, that time when one had flown and the other was preparing, readjusting as they return, only to leave again. I have several more years of the comings-and-goings; I cannot decide whether or not I am free to “fly the nest” myself, as I am the Holder-Down-of-the-Small-Fort, otherwise known as home.

    A beautiful, poignant post.

    • I think of it as air traffic control, but yes Holder-Down-of-the-Small-Fort sounds right too…

  24. Cathy says:

    Glad I found your blog. My youngest left a year ago to pursue a dance career in LA. And I miss him now more than ant time since the first week he left. The funny thing is I never thought about this time arriving. We had five great years of lots of together time as we traveled together while he trained and competed in dance competitions. Then one day he left and our years of special weekends, auditions, dance school research and very proud moments came to an end. I have always worked full time in a creative job I love so I thought when he left, I would finally have time to sleep and focus on me and work harder. And boy do I. But i miss focussing on him and his achievements. They were much more exciting than mine. I guess it’s time for me to grow up a little.

  25. Kelsey says:

    I left for army basic training last year after high school and my mom did not do well while I was gone, and neither did I. I am the last child, and we are really close, so being totally cut off from communication except snail mail was awful. I know she still really misses me and we talk everyday, but I know she won’t ever tell me if she upset or depressed, I don’t know what to do for her :(

  26. Love this post. I have been evolving into an “empty nester” for the past 7 years. A long time but it takes a looooong time to grow comfortable with this role. I so agree with you that the first born child is who identifies us as a mommy and so when he leaves, we feel as if we are now a “grown-up.” But with me, I still held on to the fact that I was still “young.” Hey – I still had a 12 year old son (my then baby!). Now, that baby is almost 20 (sob, sob) and also out of the house. In the mean time my other sons have moved out to college or to get married. And I’m really…and empty nester. (sort of). The oldest 2 are married with kids (yay – grandkids!). The next is living at home…working, in school, etc…and the 2 younger ones are in college out of town. My main goal is being a great mom of adult kids and kids-in-law…and grandkids! Thanks for your extremely relatable blog and post).

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