“Lord, give us what you have already given.”
Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa
At a baby shower in October, I talked with a woman whose younger son had just left home. He graduated from college a few years ago, so this is not that departure. This is a son who has gone and come home and now, finally, has gone away again.
“There just aren’t any opportunities for him in our town,” she explained. So he is off to a larger city to find a job in his field. Off, as we might read from a fairy tale, “to seek his fortune.” He is on his own now, “coming of age” as it were, as he must, as this mother wants him to. What parent doesn’t want to see her child thrive in the world?
Her older son, she explained, moved away years ago. He’s in Chicago and doing very well, she is happy to say. She and her husband are grateful for and proud of both their sons.
They are also trying to become accustomed to this: life with their children grown and gone.
Her throat closed. “Would you please write about this?” she asked, her voice lowered and keen. “There just doesn’t seem to be much about it out there.”
I don’t know if there is much written about it or not. I haven’t looked, busy–as I have been–with sending my own children out into the world. Two weddings in two years, and these only two years (give or take) after each of the grooms graduated from high school. Their empty bedroom still holds their furniture; their posters are still on the walls.
I haven’t found time or heart to do anything different with the room yet. But Emma has a bedroom here, albeit an unoccupied one. She graduated from high school in May and in September left home for six months, two and a half of which are spent.
Not that anyone’s counting.
“There doesn’t seem to be much about it out there,” she said, but I don’t know if that’s true. Surely there must be books about this transition in life, the whole “empty nest” thing. So many people go through it.
In fact, I have known many people to go through it: nearly everyone who has children. Seems to me my own parents went through it years ago–not that I noticed. I was too busy in those days to wonder if they were sad or missing us. I was married, making a new home with my husband in our apartment, finishing up school and thinking about my life ahead.
If asked, I would have said that my parents were absolutely fine.
I would write about it, I want to say to my friend’s friend, returning to our discussion at the October baby shower. I would write it about it, but what is there to say? One’s children growing up and moving out is the way of things. It’s how they must go. Why comment on it?
Yes, it’s a change. An ending. But it’s not a death. It’s not remotely comparable to those real tragedies abroad or close to home: not a story of horrors in a refugee camp or a school shooting, not a terrible injustice that forever upends all one holds true and good and right.
No, we anticipate the empty nest. We know it’s completely natural. Maybe it makes us sad–but it’s an ordinary sadness.
Life with children was an ordinary life. Breakfast, lunch, dinner, just as now. But also on those ordinary days there was school and time for play, sports practices, music lessons, games and concerts and recitals.
We developed routines to make it all run smoothly. During my children’s youngest years, I got up extra early to exercise. When I was teaching full-time, I often stole free class periods to go to the school’s gym. I knew the time with my children was short and, especially in those years, they needed me so much. I wanted to be available.
Routines shifted. We used to tuck them into bed at night. And then came the nights when I lay in bed half awake, listening for the car to pull into the driveway. There’s nothing like the sleep that comes when you know that everyone is home.
Now we have no way of knowing whether or not our children are in bed, because they don’t sleep here. We don’t need to know what they are doing because they don’t need us to know.
Which is not to say that they don’t need us. There are ways in which our children still need us–and one of these is that our children need us to thrive on our own. They need us to be stable and happy and moving along in the world. They need us to be able to proceed without those routines that were built on their needs.
This is difficult, because for twenty or so years, our thriving hinged on their thriving, on meeting their ordinary needs in ordinary ways on ordinary days.
Now we need new ways of being.
On our first night at home after Emma left, Bill and I stood together at the front door before we went up to bed. He locked the door and looked at me. “No one else is coming home,” he said.
If I were to write about the empty nest, I would say all of this. But I can’t write about it–can I?–because I have so much to be grateful for.
All of my children are still alive, of sound mind and body. They are making their way in the world. Not only that, but two out of three of my children currently live right here in my town. If I needed to, I could get to either of their homes within fifteen minutes.
Each of these facts is a gift. For any one of my children, it could have gone some other way. It still could.
In the face of such gifts, is it fair to be sad? To be sure, Bill and I are adjusting, but we are adults. We can handle this. We need to get over it already, move forward in gratitude.
Once I asked my mother how she felt about her children growing up. “Didn’t it make you sad?” I asked her. At this point, I was a mother myself, facing the specter that is now my reality, the empty nest that I can’t bring myself to write about.
My mother’s answer was so wise: she said that she was sad, but that children must grow up; it’s the only way. Any other possibility–a child somehow frozen in her development, stuck perpetually in any phase of childhood–however adorable it is–would be all wrong. “It’s like a record player with the needle stuck in a groove,” she said. Dissonance and static. Loss of (so much) purpose and meaning.
Ask any parent who has had the process interrupted. They know.
Yet the truth is that our children in this house framed our days. Nearly all the decisions we made were necessarily tied to them. I took them to the library because they needed books. I took them to the grocery store because they needed food. And people would comment to me as I steered my shopping cart (daughter in the baby seat, two young sons clinging to its sides), “You sure have your hands full!”
And I would answer–every time–“Happily, yes.” Because I loved having them with me in the grocery store. Even when they quarreled (and they did). Even when they asked for things they couldn’t have (and they did). Even when they did not listen to me (and they did not). I loved having them with me in the grocery store because I loved having them.
I knew that their time with me–with us–was fleeting–but it was so ordinary. It was full of frustration and exhaustion and occasional, terrifying doubt. It was full of making meals and cleaning them up again, of doling out snacks and doling out screen time and fighting back fears in the middle of the night because one or another of them had presented with something that might be a symptom of something terrible.
I knew–in this context– that the time was fleeting. But how–again, in this context– does one manage an understanding like that?
And when it all inevitably–even appropriately and beautifully–disappears, how in the world does one write about it?
At the baby shower, we sat in a circle and offered, one by one, a word of advice for the mother-to-be. And so came the perennial encouragement: “Enjoy every moment.”
How many times has a young parent been told this? A parent who hasn’t slept in weeks because of the baby’s teething or newness or stubborn resistance of sleep? A parent whose child’s terrible two’s have extended well into her four’s? A parent who feels themselves on the edge of mental or emotional frenzy because parenting is actually the most difficult thing they’ve ever done?
It is impossible to enjoy every moment of parenting, because not every moment is enjoyable.
Happily, another shower attendee, given her turn to offer advice, gently amended the earlier counsel. “Don’t feel like you have to enjoy every moment,” she said. “That is impossible.”
And yet, there it is: “Enjoy every moment.” I’ll tell you why we say this: to a person, every parent I’ve ever known will tell you that it goes by far too fast. They may very well remember how difficult it was to parent children-at-home, but so many of them nonetheless would wish to have it back.
Last week I made Christmas cookies with my mother-in-law, and as we worked side-by-side in the kitchen, she remembered doing this with my children, young teenagers, in this same kitchen a few years ago.
She remembered other times, too: when they were very little and would sometimes go to her house. “I would rent a movie for them and we would make cookies.” She recalled this aloud as she rolled peanut butter dough into perfect balls. “They would spend the evening with me.” And in the next breath: “I want those days back again.”
Christmas is in one week, and this is the first Christmas in twenty-three years that we will wake to a house without children.
I’m not going to write about the empty nest, but I’ll admit that this Advent has been a sad one for me. In truth, I keep forgetting that it’s Advent. I’m taking care of the Christmasy things (gifts, cards, mailing packages), but without any children here it all feels a little half-hearted.
At dusk in previous Decembers, I used to send my children scurrying around the house to turn on the Advent candles in every window. This year I do it myself, making the trek into our sons’ otherwise empty room and saying aloud, every time, as if they were there, “Hello, boys!”
I don’t wish my children home again. I do not wish them little. I’m so grateful for their lives now, for their strength and independence.
But this is how we know the world is broken: the right and natural course of things can also break our hearts.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” John 1: 5
A friend reminded me today that Advent is actually about the broken heart of the world. It’s about everything that’s ever gone wrong: crop failures and mine collapses, and the floods and eruptions that destroy homes and claim lives. It’s about the delusion and wickedness of white supremacy, the terrors of refugee camps, the horror of school shootings, birth defects and infant deaths and terminal diagnoses.
Advent is about every kind of loss, even ordinary sadness.
Because Advent is about the God who knows our need and decided to answer it with himself. The eternal and omnipotent made human and finite: newborn, cold and hungry. He lived in this world knowing perfectly what it was meant to be and how desperately far from perfect it was. Then he paid for the disparity with his life.
And so I think no loss is insignificant to him, no grief too small. He cares more deeply than we do about all of it.
Which means, among other things, that it’s all right to miss one’s children, all grown and gone. It’s fine to be both grateful for their lives and sad that their time at home is over. There is room–during Advent and always–for both gratitude and grief.
That’s what I would say about the empty nest, if I were to write about it.
All photos by Richard Brewster