“Where are you going for spring break next year?” a friend asked me in late October. It wasn’t an odd question. Back when our kids were younger and still at home we often had spring break plans in motion by the fall. Plus when you live in Minnesota, pretty much all you think about from October to April is escaping the cold.
“I have absolutely no idea,” I told her. “I don’t even know if we’ll all be together for Christmas in two months.” I made it sound like it was no big deal, like I was fine with the uncertainty and complete upheaval of order that has resulted from both my girls being grown and flown. I’m not sure which one of us I was trying to fool.
For years I ran a tight ship when it came to planning.
Some back-story: For years I was a planning machine. Dinners for the week? I had them figured out by Sunday. Birthday parties? The itinerary of games and activities was in the works a month ahead of time (the fact that it was always shot to hell 30 minutes in didn’t ever seem to teach me anything). Family vacations?
I’d leave the details to my husband because I had major shopping to do for coordinating outfits for my girls. Their piles of sundresses and swimsuits — with matching hair accessories, naturally — would be placed, side-by-side, in the hallway at least ten days before I needed to pack. After school activities? There was a driving schedule taped to the pantry door at the beginning of each month. Was I a bit out of control? No! I was totally IN control, and that’s exactly how I liked it. (But I mean, sure, I was nuts.)
When my oldest started college I began to loosen the reins.
When my older daughter started college, I began to loosen my hold on the reins I’d been gripping so tightly for 18 years. It began with Thanksgiving break. “I have a test on Tuesday night so I can’t come home until Wednesday. And the bus doesn’t arrive until 8 p.m.,” she told me at the beginning of October (hey, she’d lived with me for 18 years; she knew it was information I’d need that early in the game).
“Won’t your professor let you take it early?” I exclaimed. I began to panic at the thought of having only three days to do all the pre-Christmas things I’d planned — traditions she’d be missing. “Yeah, that’s not how it works,” she said, but of course I knew that. I just didn’t want to accept how little time with her we suddenly had.
The upheavals just kept coming. When we’d hug goodbye we didn’t always know when the next hello hug would be. I’d stare at calendars for hours trying to find a weekend somewhere in the middle of the 8-week span between breaks where we could see her face and treat her to a decent meal, a comfortable bed, and a shower she didn’t have to wear shoes in.
For me, having a plan and a set date on my calendar somehow alleviated the pain of the separation just a little bit. Without one, I felt lost. But academic schedules, work schedules, outside commitments, and outrageous airfare were all often more powerful than my best laid plans, and I had to slowly, reluctantly start to surrender my grip on the controls.
Being flexible got a bit easier as the years went on. (That sounds convincing, right?) Besides having to go with the flow more, I had to learn to accept the loss of the knowing: knowing who her teachers were; knowing what her assignments were and what grade she earned on a test; knowing her friends; knowing what she ate for breakfast (knowing if she ate breakfast); knowing what time she got home on Friday night; knowing what she wore to school; knowing if she had a bad day before she told me about it.
By the time my daughter graduated from college I was (sort of) used to this loss of knowing and to the uncertainty of our family’s schedule. And then she took a job out of state and my younger daughter began college in another, and everything went to hell. Our tight knit family suddenly had no idea when we’d all get to be together from one season to the next, and until very late in the game didn’t even know if we’d get to see each other for Christmas this past year (we did, but due to one girl’s work schedule had to celebrate the weekend after, which threw me for a bit of a loop originally but ended up being completely wonderful).
I had to again give up the driver’s seat once more, but this time in a much more permanent way.
I abhor the uncertainty in my empty nest, but have learned to live with it.
And although I might seem like I’m fine with it when you ask me what we’re doing for spring break and I tell you I don’t know; I hate it. I abhor all this uncertainty. I know I’m supposed to go with it and adapt to the change — and I’m doing a fairly decent job of it on the outside — but I still hate it. I crave the days of knowing. I ache for the years of plans and trips we could schedule months in advance: trips where my whole family would be together. I long for the control and the certainty that’s long gone.
The other day my college freshman and I were talking about how hard it would be for her to return to school when Christmas break is over because we’ve both gotten so used to her being at home. “I need to look at a calendar,” I said. “I need find a weekend when I can come visit you before spring break.” (You know, the spring break ten weeks from now that we have absolutely no plans for because we have no idea where the older daughter will be working … and if it’s a place that might possibly have a beach.)
“I’ll be able to handle you going back a lot better if I know I have a visit planned,” I told her. “Yeah, me, too,” she said earnestly.
I smiled. It’s nice to have someone who understands.
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Michelle Newman spent 23 years as a stay at home mom to two daughters and most of the past seven writing about them. Even though they’re both now grown and flown, she’s learning that life in an empty nest is still full and the material just keeps coming. Besides telling stories on her blog, youremyfavoritetoday.com Michelle has had essays published in several humor anthologies, on various parenting websites, and has also written for EntertainmentWeekly.com. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram