Essay: Empty Nest

"Empty Nest," by Brenda Ferguson

“I can’t believe she’s applying to college,” my daughter says, voice trailing off in misery. “I keep bursting into tears. The people at work think I’m losing it.”

The “she” in question is my daughter’s only child — the girl about to fly the nest at the end of this school year. My granddaughter has been her mom’s complete focus since 1989 — from chickenpox to carpools, bad hair to bad dreams. Perhaps there’s a layer of working-mom guilt in play? What can I say without being tactless? My girl’s too close to the empty nest to see the possibilities yet. Little does she know!

I’ve been there, done that. I once called it my horrible year: It shook my foundations and rattled my relationships. In six brief months my daughter — the oldest — got married; my youngest son (my baby) joined the Army at 17 and left for boot camp without a backward glance; my father died when he fell from a ladder while trimming trees; and — a last small, camel’s-back-breaking straw — the family dog died of liver cancer. Quadruple whammy!

Two months later, still reeling, I left for a year abroad. My partner would work, but without a work permit, I’d fill my time keeping busy and being wifely. I managed — the only option — but bouts of emptiness snuck up and swamped me. I hiked five days a week. I watched soap operas after lonely lunches. I slept too much in the afternoons. I thought endlessly about us two, child-free again. Did we still like each other enough to spend so much unadulterated time together?

Was it time to adjust expectations down … or to dream big new dreams?

Our year away was the jolt I needed, a rite of passage. I came back with resolutions and energy — and a new appreciation of the man I’d married 25 years before. Yes, we still knew how to laugh and invent adventures.

The surge of creativity that came with menopausal hormones propelled me into a new career. I morphed from home mom into writer. My nest may have been empty except for rare holidays when family gathered, but my head was full. I lived and breathed writing class assignments and ideas for stories. The hours, days, weeks, reclaimed from mothering, were just what I needed for a new start.

It would be a fairy tale to say I am now rich and famous — life rarely works that way. But I’ve had enough success to stroke an ego that had become a tad ragged in the mothering years. I’ve learned much about myself — what I can do, what I don’t want to do, and how to say no. I revel in my extending family and our together times, but I’m also happy to see them go again. Life is good in this empty nest.

So how can I tell my daughter that without belittling the value of her last 18 years? I know now that mothering doesn’t end; it morphs. I loved the toddlers, I lasted out the teens, but I’m passionate about the mellow adult relationships that came next. I feel a jolt when I see red-headed tots acting up in the grocery store. But it’s nostalgia for remembered simpler times — times that weren’t simple when I was living them.

So I’ll say to my girl, “Hey, sweetheart, empty nest doesn’t mean empty life or empty heart, it merely means that you have to drain a little jaded lifeblood to make space for the next phase’s possibilities to flood in.”

Ann Cooper, past Brit and present Coloradan, is a teacher-on-the-trail and has written 10 nature books for children. Her poetry and essays have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Poet Magazine and Sistersong and in several anthologies, including Grow Old Along With Me (Papier-Mache Press) and An Intricate Weave: Women Write About Girls and Girlhood (Iris Editions).

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