My “baby” graduated from high school last spring – he’s 18 – I should clarify. Waiting for the ceremony to begin, I snapped a shot of the stage and posted it to Facebook with the caption, “I’m teary.” Or so I thought—autocorrect had changed my words to “I’m ready.” For a moment I was mortified: Really, autocorrect? But the next moment I was cheering the tall, handsome, fully grown man who is the younger of my two sons, as he strode confidently across the stage to accept his diploma. My heart swelled with pride, and I began to wonder if auto correct was onto something?
The notion of “empty nest” is often associated with sadness, but the truth is that birds don’t have a problem with it. In fact, bird moms and dads encourage their fledglings leave the nest as soon as possible, while continuing to provide guidance and support. That sounds right to me.
My goal as a parent was to encourage my kids to fly—but they’re still my kids, and I’m still there for them even when they’re not living here my roof. A study out of the University of Missouri points to a lot of good coming from the way parent-child relationships change as kids grow into adults: Parents can be seen as mentors, rather than task-masters. But I don’t need a study to tell me what I already know. The fact that my kids are secure, healthy, and accomplished enough to venture out on their own means I did my job. And what do you do when you’ve done a job well? You savor the rewards.
In my case, I started with a long, hot bath with the bathroom door open. No need for privacy, no need to defog the mirrors. And did I mention I took this bath at 6:00 pm? For most of my parenting life, that was the time my kids tended to ask, “Is dinner ready, Mom?” Personally, it’s always felt a bit early for me. So, with dinner relegated to some vague notion of “when I get around to it” now, I enjoyed my soak for over an hour, at which point, with two hours of daylight left, I toweled off, threw on workout clothes and running shoes, and headed out to do my daily four miles. Heck, if I wanted to, I could do six. Or even eight. It didn’t matter anymore, because no one was asking me when I’d be back or why I didn’t work out in the morning like “the other moms.”
Back home in the twilight, I grilled myself a piece of salmon—my first home-cooked fish in I-don’t-know-how-long, because my kids can’t stand the smell. Afterward, I rinsed my plate and placed it in the dishwasher, pausing for a moment to admire the gleaming, clean, empty kitchen sink. Later, on my way to bed, I didn’t have to nag anyone to turn off his computer and get some sleep, or avert my eyes from the chaos of clothing all over the floor. I didn’t have to iron anyone’s shirt for the next day.
From the moment I brought my first child home from the hospital and for a period of 20 years thereafter, my house was no longer my own. There were baby toys and baby play mats and cars and trucks parallel parked around my living room, which eventually morphed into backpacks and papers and sneakers.
For two decades, there’s been food in my pantry you couldn’t have paid me to eat—from strained peas and pureed veal to white-chocolate-peanut butter and pasta shaped like bicycles. And then there were the socks—so, so many socks. There were bottle-cap collections, key chain collections, and paper mâché planets suspended from wire hangers by dental floss. And then there was the used dental floss on the bathroom floor. Crumbs on the kitchen counter, where Adam had made his famous peanut-butter-turkey-and maple syrup sandwiches—no plate, of course because “it’s a pain to have to put it in the dishwasher.”
How could he know, never having tried?
These last 20 years have been an endless cycle of load, run, repeat—from diapers to dishes to ironing button-downs. My life could be summarized in three words: do, undo, redo. There were times I felt the weight of the duties and responsibilities. There were times I wished it would all go away—the demands, I mean, but never, ever my boys.
This morning, I woke up to an empty house, plucked fresh towels out of the dryer, origami-ed them into fluffy white sweet rolls, and then carefully set them out in a pretty wicker basket, knowing the tableau will remain largely undisturbed for months. But wait. Was that a pang of regret? Should I have savored the mess while it was happening? Was I a terrible mother to be happy to have my house to myself? Then I remembered: My kids flew the coop because I taught them to fly. If I’m happy to be drinking a cup of coffee in my quiet house as I write this, it’s not about not loving my children. It’s about finding the good in their absence. It’s about realizing that when your smartphone auto corrects “teary” to “ready,” you should take note.
This post originally appeared on Reader’s Digest.