I became newly independent this past Independence Day, but I didn’t celebrate. On July 1st, my husband Bob and I joined the ranks of empty-nesters when we dropped our son Luke off at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. His departure was early (6:00 a.m.) and abrupt (60 seconds to say ‘goodbye’), and the separation feels permanent. Luke is no longer ours, I’ve been told by those in the know. “He belongs to the army.” Ouch.
We are not a military family. Luke’s decision to pursue this path was his own, based on a very personal and urgent “calling.” Our three older children went to (or are still attending) regular colleges with 9-month calendars, extended and frequent holidays, and summers off. Luke’s schedule will be much more restrictive.
The older three checked in with us regularly, sent us photos of their campuses, face-timed from their dorm rooms with their roommates and friends. We got a short, timed phone call with Luke on July 22nd and a brief visit with him on August 18th, during which, we watched him eat and sleep off weeks of deprivation and exhaustion in the fancy hotel room we reserved.
While his brothers’ and sister’s drop-off days were bittersweet, Luke’s felt just plain bitter.
I should have been prepared. In my long practice of helping women return to work, dozens, perhaps hundreds, have come to me feeling unhinged after their youngest child has departed for college.
Back when my four were little, I promised myself I would not let myself become one of them – those empty-nesters who fall apart. I have my business, my hobbies, many leadership roles in the community, friends; I would be fine. Not!
The fact is, for me and for many, being mom is the best job we’ve ever had and losing it (at least in the day-to-day sense) feels, as one dear friend described it “like getting a big, fat pink slip.”
I’ve been preparing for an empty nest now for years – every time my children mastered a skill or fended for themselves, they were inching out on their own. The emptying out and letting go process is, by design, gradual. So, why does it feel so abrupt?
This house that six years ago felt crowded, feels cavernous now. These walls that once enveloped chaos and noise – loud and relentless – are still and peaceful. Sometimes, I close my eyes and imagine the sounds of childhood. The clanging of cereal bowls and the stomping of heavy feet up and down stairs, the dragging of backpacks, the squealing of bus wheels, the playful laughing and the not-so-playful taunts of siblings rushing out the door in the morning. And then the same sounds, in reverse, six hours later when the school day ended.
I miss the chatter, the yelling, one talking over the other to get my attention. And, oh how I miss the singing – joyful and unrestrained. I miss the incessant closing and opening of doors and drawers. I miss sticky floors and smelly cleats. I miss the daily hum of the washer and dryer. It has all been replaced with quiet and cleanliness and order – things foreign to me after 24 years of mothering. And things I never particularly cared about anyway.
Children create a unique rhythm to the day – swells of noise and activity, interrupted by brief moments of quiet, form an ebb and flow that is predictable and reassuring. Without that rhythm, without the tethers of dependent children, I feel a little rootless.
But I’m forging ahead and I’m in good company. I’m fortunate to have a new business to grow and am inspired by my empty-nester friends who are starting their own businesses, going to grad school, working on the novel they never finished, selling their paintings, teaching at community college and more. In addition to the support of my husband and friends navigating this new chapter beside me, I have others a chapter ahead of me planning weddings, welcoming grandbabies, and assuring me that I’ll get used to the quiet – and even come to like it.
And, of course, I have four “kids” (Bob hates when I call them that!) who still need me, and an old mini-van always game to shuttle me wherever they are. My nest may be empty, but my heart is full.
Susan Rietano Davey is the mother of four young adult children (Tucker, Jackson, Hannah and Luke) and co-founder/owner of Prepare to Launch U, a complete online course for women returning to work after opting out to care for family (www.preparetolaunchu.com). She lives in Avon, Ct. with her husband, Bob, and their dogs, Sophie and Coach.