By the time my sister left the house and headed for the same large state university I had enrolled in two years previously, my mother was officially an empty nester. Not just any empty nester, she was a single empty nester. Still working full-time until she was sixty-five and able to draw her federal pension, she had two dogs, three cats, and no children to hold her back. Originally apprehensive about leaving her behind, my sister and I left home in equal parts excited about our new-found adult freedom and guilty for leaving our mother. Surely she was spending her evenings alone, swilling chardonnay while weeping copious tears into our baby books and treasure chests of macaroni art.
In fact, she was just fine. Actually more than fine, she was having the time of her life. By the time Parent’s Weekend rolled around for my sister’s first semester, my sister could report back to me that our mother was online dating, had joined a women’s hiking club, and hosted a bi-monthly true crime book club. And she wasn’t about to let the pesky animals we considered our dearest childhood friends hold her back if the opportunity to travel presented itself. Having quickly realized the college girls two doors down would house sit for beer money, she packed her bag weekend after weekend for yoga retreats, spa getaways, and reunions with out of town friends.
Admittedly my sister and I were pleased but we also felt a little betrayed. Wasn’t our mother supposed to be having trouble adjusting to a child-free life after being saddled with two girls for over two decades? Why wasn’t she devoting her new-found leisure time to preparing care packages full of baked goods and school supplies like our hall mates’ mothers? And most importantly, why did it seem like she was enjoying herself at home more than we were at college?
Sure I had hit my stride by junior year but my sister and I both experienced tumultuous and disappointing freshman years. For starters, the state university where we both began as freshman was huge and it was difficult to find a niche let alone a way to distinguish yourself from the thronging masses of other confused, homesick, Ugg wearing freshpersons. It was hard enough to make it to all your classes let alone become actively involved in a social life. I had even rushed a sorority out of sheer desperation before giving up and making plans to move into the women’s studies hall.
And our love lives were pathetically lackluster by comparison to our mother. The university we attended was three-quarters female and the very entitled male quarter knew they could be as selective as they wanted when it came to the ladies. This was a place where a boy who was decidedly a dud could make it all the way through high school without girls giving him the time of day only to find himself surrounded by the state’s most talented and attractive women, all competing for his affection. Several of us finally gave up and started making frequent trips to a smaller all-boys college just outside the city so we could stand a chance at finding a date.
Our mother, on the other hand, was cycling through a seemingly never-ending stream of eligible bachelors, taking her time and weeding out suitors based on height or undesirable football team preferences. Should a gentleman make an off-color joke or fail to pull out her chair at dinner, she could easily decide not to return his calls for a second date, confident that there truly were more fish in the sea.
By the time we returned home for Christmas break the first year my sister was in college, our mom had started seeing a nice man fairly regularly but “didn’t want anything serious to tie me down.” Her clubs and trips and classes were just as frequent and she was having the time of her life. My sister was finally coming to the same realization I had two years previously and had begun the process of applying to transfer universities. Tired of being on the phone every Sunday afternoon listening to a rundown of our mother’s full weekend while she, yet again, had nothing to report, she’d decided to try a smaller all women’s liberal arts college up north.
Were we disappointed that our mom seemed to be having the time of our lives? At first but our jealousy gradually gave way to genuine happiness as we established ourselves in colleges better suited to our personalities, made friends and started going on the occasional date. And as time wore on and our friends continued to report how heartbroken their parents were about their absence, we could cheerily report that mom hadn’t been around to talk that weekend because she’d recently taken up horseback riding again after almost a decade and had decided to try a new Thai cooking class.
Our friends reported feelings of guilt when they were home for a break. Arriving home to childhood bedrooms left in exactly the same condition as the day they’d graduated from high school, they were greeted with jam-packed itineraries planned by parents desperate to spend as much time together as possible. By contrast my sister and I could console ourselves for the fact that our bedrooms had long ago been converted to a craft room and meditation room, respectively, by knowing that with the exception of a mani-pedi day followed by brunch, our mom would be happy to see as much or as little of us as we wanted. Free to catch up with old friends who were in town, or to head out with mom and her women’s self-defense class, we felt simultaneously loved and liberated.
Did our mother beat us at freshman year? Yes and no. This is the way I imagined my mother’s life in her empty nest but the truth is that like any other mom she struggled to see her daughters leave her behind, ultimately succeeding in building a new life for herself.
Photo credit: Auburn Alumni Association
Olivia Williams is a full-time attorney turned stay at home feminist, freelance writer and mother of two. She enjoys craft beer, yoga and reading Victorian novels in the bath. Follow her on Twitter @oawillia.