I’m not sure when mothers started being compared to birds but from the moment we find out we’re expecting, variations of the word ‘nest’ start cropping up in conversation.
Paint the nursery and fold some baby clothes? “Aww, you’re nesting!”
Decorate for the holidays? You’re “feathering your nest.”
And then when your kids head off to college or beyond you are “empty nesters” because, of course, your ‘chicks’ have “flown the nest.”
I’ve gone through my own quirky relationship with the ‘empty nest’ during the nearly two years my daughter has been in college. For the most part, it’s been… pretty great. So great in fact, that one of my friends who has a son about to leave for school implored me to “write about the good parts of the empty nest. Everyone is so maudlin!”
And I tried to do just that. I sat down to write about all the things that I was loving- the freedom to come and go without a teenage schedule of activities to worry about. The quiet mornings to leisurely get myself out the door without fighting traffic for a high school drop-off.
The lack of Sunday night ‘blues’ because I knew that the week that stretched before me contained no ‘must do’ after work chores or commitments, leaving us free to dine in or out, or just have a dinner of wine and cheese if we felt like it, before settling in to some guilty pleasure TV for the evening. The way that everything from laundry detergent to toothpaste to cereal lasted longer.
Yes, for sure “empty nesting” was treating us just fine thank you very much. Or you know, for the most part.
Because what I’ve learned along the way is that the nest is not just your physical home. And when your children fly it’s not just the house that can feel empty.
While I relish my oh-so-adult home that never seemed cluttered or crowded, and a calendar that didn’t either, I sometimes miss my daughter with an ache that can feel as though my chest is caving in. I miss her when I pass the town athletic fields and see tiny players who weren’t even alive when she played what we now refer to as her “four unfortunate seasons of soccer.”
I missed her today when I stopped for an ice cream with my wife and watched two teenage girls wielding car keys and lanyards like badges of honor come in to drink coffee and gossip. I miss her when I reflexively check the cast list for the latest show at a local youth theater where she used to perform and realize I don’t know any of the names any more. I miss her on the very rare occasion I have to darken the doors of the local mall.
The nest our kids leave behind is more than the four walls of our houses, rather it is all the spaces our children occupied, which is what makes the whole concept of an ‘empty nest’ so weird and unpredictable.
Parenting blogs and books love to divide mothers into camps – and at this stage of the game the camps are either some version of reliving your youth as a wild and crazy empty nester or building a shrine to your child in the basement and crying yourself to sleep every night.
You can love the quiet order of your home and simultaneously miss the way things used to be. I have learned that I can feel completely full emotionally after a visit to my daughter where I see her thrive in her campus community, then come home and stand in her empty bedroom staring at the memorabilia she left behind- the yearbooks and honors cords, the photographs and the notebooks – and want to cry. I compare it to how you can love the elegance and calm of a grown-up holiday but miss putting out cookies and milk for Santa.
Mothers (and fathers for that matter) are more than birds caring for chicks in a nest of twigs and twine. Maybe we need to give the phrase ‘empty nester’ a break for a while and refer to ourselves as ‘temporarily child-free.’ Because as sure as the sun shall rise we know they’ll be home for the summer, for a break, or for a bit longer as they figure out where they’ll build their own ‘nest.’