One month. This is how long I have officially had an empty nest. In truth, it seems much longer. As if time, has slowed down some. And I have had extended stretches of moments, and the mental energy, to think about things on a deeper level.
Motherhood messes with your sense of time. When I look back on the almost 21 years I’ve been a parent, there are certain hours that are embedded deeply in my memory – those where you could almost literally feel the hands on a clock spinning faster; and those where every single minute felt like it was stretched longer and thinner, like Silly Putty, not breaking, and never coming to an end.
There were the nights where I sat in a rocking chair, looking down at a sleepy baby, willing time to stop for just a few hours, while I breathed in the stillness and pure innocence of one so new in the world. And there were the minutes of pure pain, trying to hold down a terrified toddler, as a doctor moved in to stitch together tender skin.
The heaviness of responsibility and concern is one hundred times greater than the pounds of baby that are placed into your arms after giving birth. The full starkness of this doesn’t wholly hit you until you are strapping that tiny being into a car seat and driving out of a hospital parking lot – where no nurse is within shouting distance to rescue you if something goes amiss.
You start off the succession of child life stages blissfully unaware of the reality of each progression forward: the extreme exhaustion of all night feedings, the unsteady toddling towards sharp edges and busy streets, the numbing repetition of certain tomes and games and performances, the surprising deceits and disrespect, and full circle around again to sleepless nights with teenagers in cars.
The weight of the mental energy expended is astounding, reflecting on the 18 years of a child growing up within a family. So much of the expenditure is worthwhile and valuable and meaningful. But a chunk of it is pure waste. Events and situations that in hindsight, were lost causes or never came to fruition. Or, more often, were never quite your burden to bear. In any and every case – you thought, you strategized, you worried, and you felt deeply – either the joy or the pain that your child experienced.
The big leaps of childhood, the instances where you as a parent are releasing another substantive length of that imaginary cord – that was once a shiny, twisted physicality – are the red-letter days. When they take their first solo steps, when they walk into that Kindergarten classroom, when they drive off alone, and when they leave for college.
Each letting go is a grand leap of parental faith. That you have prepared them well for this next stage, and that you have acknowledged their need to stumble out on their own, falter, and manage to get back up and keep moving forward. Each phase is a small lightening, and a nod to the universe that you are sharing them with everything out there, both good and bad.
This emptying of the nest is a chance to fully exhale, and turn the mental expenditure back inward, a re-setting of self. The lightness I have begun to feel has been both joyful and perplexing.
When I acknowledge the positive changes, either to myself or others, I feel the sharp pangs of Mother Guilt, the ones every mother has felt at some moment during her child’s life. I brush them off, knowing those feelings are useless, and plainly flawed. To put it bluntly, I’ve done my time (times two), to the best of my abilities, and I deserve to embrace this lightness and this renewed selfishness.
The lightening has manifested itself in various ways over the past several weeks. On a physical level, I have purged closets, drawers, and boxes throughout my home, resulting in countless bags of trash, recycling and donations. I have devoted more time to writing and exercising and cooking healthier meals – things that take time and require deeper thought than I have allowed myself to indulge in much, for a good number of years.
My brain, body and soul feel cleaner and de-cluttered in my empty nest.
And yes, of course I miss my children, with a fierceness that sometimes startles me. For me, the irony of offspring leaving the nest at the age that they do, is that is precisely when they have become fellow adults who are profoundly interesting, and engaging, and they are people you wish to spend time with.
But, it is also precisely the time that you come to the realization that they have reached a saturation point of sorts. You have imparted wisdom and instilled teachings and illustrated your worldview to them, and now it is time for them to proceed without you, and be immersed into the collective wisdom and worldviews of all others.
Your lightness becomes their flight and their own weight in the world. You are there for the occasional fly by and radio communication. And to feel the pride as you see them soar.
Your time is now your own. An entity that you can choose to manipulate in certain ways – per your desires, and with more choice in how each successive life stage will unfold from here.
A lightness of your being is entirely possible, and without limit.
More of your red-letter days await.