There is not great advice out there on transitioning to becoming an empty nester. All along I’ve not been a fan of the term ’empty nest’ because of the word ’empty’. It’s not empty because you and/or your spouse or partner and maybe some pets are still live in said nest. Maybe something like ‘lightened nest’. My nest is lighter. A term with a more positive connotation would be preferable. My nest has changed but it isn’t empty.
Starting clear back in 2009 when my oldest daughter graduated high school, I had started reading books, articles, blogs and whatever I could get my hands on about transitioning into this lighter nest time in my life. Considering that my youngest just moved out last year in 2018, nine years later, I’ve had quite a bit of time to do research. I’ve even conferred with my therapist. But the advice you get is about all the same. Grieve that time in your life, but not too long and definitely don’t talk about it.
That’s the thing about being a parent, you spend an awful lot of time keeping your mouth shut and honestly, I get tired of it. Not that I want to tell my adult children what to do or run their lives (though I’ll be honest, I have to catch myself out of habit and well, you want the best for them), but I want to be able to honestly express my feelings. Not to make my kids feel guilty but so if they have families one day, they will know that this time in your life is a bittersweet one. So that other parents out there feel that they are heard as well.
There are many things I don’t miss about being a parent. All my time is dedicated to another person and my calendar was full. I don’t miss having to have meals on the table every day. I don’t miss a messy house or dishes left in the sink. I love having freedom to do what I want when I want without (outside of kenneling the pets if we travel) outside of my job. I don’t miss all the noise and the fighting, I like the quiet. I love having my washer and dryer free all the time and I’m not waiting on someone to unload one or the other. I love having a home office and an exercise studio/guest room. I love that my life is now my own after having my first child at the age of 20. And maybe someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll turn the studio/guest room into a room for grandchildren.
But I’ll admit, something very important is missing. I’ve tried all the advice they have suggested which essentially is: Fill all your time up with something else. Get a new hobby or go back to an old one, travel more, volunteer, go back to school, go after that career you’ve always wanted, start a business, join a club, make new friends and so on. In theory, that sounds like solid advice and maybe it truly works for some but it hasn’t really worked for me. I don’t sit at home doing nothing and feeling sorry for myself, especially since my husband and I work opposite shifts off and on during the month so I’m home alone quite frequently. I already had a dozen hobbies, we travel about the same, I am going back to school in less than a month, I’m not a club person, maybe I’ll make new friends but I’m an introvert and not horribly social to start with and well I don’t have some new career I’m dying to start. In short, I’d been living my life alongside raising my girls. The more independent they became, the more time I devoted toward my interests.
Last fall, I signed up with a local organization much like Big Brothers/Big Sisters to be a lunch buddy for an 11-year old fifth grade girl I’ll call Madison. Though you were to go just twice a month to eat lunch with your ‘little’, I usually went once a week when I could. Here I was in the middle school my three daughters attended and that once was the high school from which I graduated. I could still show you my locker in high school, #111. I’ll admit, I’ve tried different volunteering activities and this is the first one that I really enjoyed and looked forward to doing. I finally found something fulfilling. Toward the end of the school year, the coordinator determined that we were a ‘match’ which means Madison and I can now spend time together outside of school with permission of her parents and of course, when she is available. Though it took some back and forth (Madison’s parents are divorced and she floats between the homes) and some phone tag but the other day, we finally had our first day out.
I took Madison to meet my oldest daughter and while there she met a few of her friends and my daughter’s cat. Then we visited my middle daughter and her three cats and three fish tanks. Though my youngest was at work, she lives with the middle one, so Madison got to meet her two cats as well. She loves animals and wanted to meet my daughters she’s heard so much about. Our last stop was the local coffee/chocolate house downtown. We each picked mango smoothies (with whipped cream) and walked down to the river to sit on an iron bench I sat with my own daughters when they were little. I told Madison stories about my girls bringing bread down to feed the ducks/geese (which you’re not supposed to do now) and how my middle one would come and fish trying to catch these ginormous catfish that live in this murky river. She told me stories as well about her family and things she’s done.
As she’s talking, I glance over at her, her feet up on the bench, oversized sunglasses on her face, my heart seizes. I realize how much I miss these moments with my own daughters when they were younger. I have an ‘AHA’ moment right there happily hanging out with Madison and I realize all the empty nest advice I’ve read or been given, doesn’t even touch the one key thing I’ve been missing. It was as if the last puzzle piece of what I was struggling with finally clicked! into place. Everything finally, finally made sense.
I went from Super Hero to Pinch Hitter as my kids grew up and moved on with their lives. I’m still close to my daughters, I still see them frequently, we still spend time together. We’ve had a few growing pains and bumps, but mostly things are good. We’re still a close-knit family though everyone’s schedules are a bit challenging to get us all together. But I’m a pinch hitter now. Once in a great while, they need me but they are independent grown women. I talk to them at least once a day via messenger app. We have a group chat and individual chats. That’s one blessed thing about technology that we didn’t have twenty-five years ago. We can be in touch, just like we were when we all lived together. Just less crowded and we aren’t fighting.
I had been chiding myself because I believe that I shouldn’t ever feel sad about having a lighter nest. “You started out with no kids and you were fine back then. You had a great time, you weren’t sad and down.” But parenthood changes you. I’m not the same person I was at 19-20 or in my teen years. I’m trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I’ve become a different person who has rounded out their life.
When your child(ren) are born, you put on a cape and become their super hero. You’re responsible for all their care, they are completely helpless. As they grow, there is usually a pretty intense love affair between you. First smiles, first laugh, tiny fingers gripping onto one of yours, wrapping their arms around your neck, you saving them from all sorts of scary things, they become attached to you at the hip and then for a while they don’t like you but then they come back. You’re the first person they show things to and you walk with them as they learn about and explore life. So many kisses and hugs and bedtime stories. So many sweet moments tucked into all the hair-pulling exhaustion and frustration and then one day, it’s all gone even if you have a good relationship with your adult kids. But it’s changed as it’s supposed to but no one really tells you that you’re left a bit empty. Maybe that’s how the word empty came into play.
It’s a process, going from Super Hero to Pinch Hitter, usually a gradual one but you’re now a bit player in their life. What annoys the crap out of me is when people, well-meaning as they are, tell you ‘well that’s how it’s supposed to be, they are supposed to grow up’. No shit. Thanks so much for that. But no one tells you that no matter what you do, even if you’re happy to not be caring for someone and to be on your own again, that you miss all the love. Not that you and your adult kids don’t love each other but they aren’t running up to you four or five times a day and wrapping their arms around your neck and giving you sloppy kisses. No one is looking up to you daily (though this wanes as they get older). You’re not the hero anymore. Maybe a little, but it’s more in the background. You’ve been pretty much retired and even though I volunteer and spend time with someone younger, it’s not as if she’s my own child so it’s different. She’s happy to see me and excited to spend time with me. Now the only people who are excited to see me outside of Madison, aren’t people at all but my pets (thank god for them right?).
After I took Madison home, I drove back to my house in deep thought. It made sense now. I can do all the things on the list of ‘what empty nesters should do’ and it’s not going to replace the sweet love and moments I had with my daughters. Even if I worked all day with kids, it’s not the same. I’m guessing this is why people are so happy when they become grandparents. They get their Super Hero cape back, at least for a decade or so. Or maybe with grandparents, you get to keep it longer? But this makes sense to me, this is why going back to school, delving into 200 hobbies, starting a business, etc. doesn’t quite make you feel whole (or at least me – I can’t speak for others). But acknowledging what is really going on with me, helps. I can be gentle with myself and not chide myself for struggling a bit. There is a reason I am struggling and even though my girls are productive and amazing grown ups, I’m grieving parts of parenthood that can’t be fixed by anything. It just is.
I’ve had my cape cleaned and it’s tucked neatly away in my closet in case I need it some day. But until then, I will allow myself to feel what I need to feel. I will be gentle with myself and understand that it’s not something you ‘fix’. That there isn’t a book or article or blog or maybe even therapist who is going to tell you that it’s really okay and not suggest shoveling a lot of activities into that missing piece. It’s okay for me to be sad and sometimes feel a little unneeded because the truth is, I’m not needed as much. My feelings are valid. I’m not being silly or a pathetic person, I am being human. It’s okay if sometimes I feel like I’m not as useful as I once was or miss reading bedtime stories, and all the hugs and kisses. There is no shame in that. It’s okay to be sad sometimes while being relieved you don’t have to cook dinner every night.
Bottom line: Being a parent changes you. You’ll never be the same person again but that’s alright.