Warning: This may not be palatable for certain college age offspring, of say, mine. While not intended to be a lecture… it might have become one along the way. Read with caution, but know that I mean it.
This year my eldest child, Principessa (not the name I actually gave her at birth, but she doesn’t like me to use her name here) will graduate from college. Her brother, Middle Man (also not his name), is a sophomore at college and Little Man is a sophomore in high school. As many of you know, I have two 16 year old exchange students living with us as well. So my nest is certainly not empty. However, my kids are adventurers and they’ve been taking off to parts wild and wooly for some time now. Principessa alone has been in India (with me), Africa, Egypt, Jordan, and spent an entire year in Israel last year, since her senior year of high school. I’ve been letting go and adjusting for a very long time. And I’ve given that process a lot of thought. In fact, my first post ever was about “The Nest.”
I find the whole “Empty Nest” phenomena an interesting life transition that keeps morphing and changing as I try to keep up with it. Of course, technically, my nest is not empty. In fact lately, it’s chock full again. However, I find it increasingly compelling that so much is put on parents to do all the adjusting… and particularly mothers. It falls on Moms to get through this process intact and fine, but no one seems to expect much of the chicks in this process. What about their responsibility to adjust and move on? If the nest is remodeled in their absence (just bear with my analogy) isn’t it up to them to figure out where to land when they return occasionally?
As much as I miss my two older kids (and I do), and as difficult as it was to see them each leave (and it was), I can’t deny that it seems to be equally difficult to have them return home (and it is!). No doubt, it’s a big leap for them when they no longer need to text in or call, or let me know where they are, when they’ll be home, what they are doing, now that they live at school for nine months each year. Without question, it is a huge adjustment as a parent to let go of those things. After eighteen years of knowing every move they make (barring the few things they got away with), it is a serious adjustment to not know where they are, or what they’re doing most of the time. Some nights, as I lay in bed, I still wonder if they are in their beds, or if they are safe, happy, ok… but most nights now I drift off and those concerns are not there. I have slowly let go and moved on.
Just as the changes that come during pregnancy prepare you to be a mother (losing lots of sleep, thinking of someone else more often than yourself, being alert to all that can happen), my kids’ teen years were a similar preparation for letting them go, in reverse. During those crazy years during high school, I slept much less, I thought a lot more about them, and I was vigilantly alert to all that could, and sometimes did, happen. As they each went off to college, I had to work backwards: not staying up as late (no one was home to wait for), working to not think about them all the time (they were doing the same stuff, but far away) and letting my guard down, accepting that they would work out their potential issues now without me. I don’t know when they get in, I don’t know who they are with (and often don’t want to know!), and I try very hard not to worry about what they are up to. It’s a gradual letting go and one that I’m feeling better about as I continue to work on it.
Long gone are the days of sweet faced babes who hang on every thing I say or do. Despite all the years to adjust, I still miss those faces. They grew up and moved up and out way too fast. However, as I’ve struggled to let go of them, it has begun to occur to me that there seems to be little impetus for them to let go of me. Perhaps it is just a new phase of learning that I’m coming into, but it strikes me that as I let go and strive to find ways to redefine myself, to be a new me and move forward, my kids expect me to be just what I’ve always been to them: Mom, with all the tangled, twisted, ball of string that role has become. When they call me, they seem to anticipate that whatever I’m doing can wait. Sorry you’re about to eat dinner Mom, but I can only talk now. Sorry you’re having lunch with a friend Mom, but I only have these 12 minutes, walking to the library. Sorry… You get it. They expect that I will drop everything else and be present for that call, and they get ever so touchy when I say Sorry, but… They seem to forget that my life is zipping by and that I’m changing too. I’m working to change.
When they come home for long weekends and school breaks, I think it’s a hard thing for them to grasp that we have moved on and have filled the void they left. Before China and Denmark moved in, Little Man, my husband and I had already redefined ourselves. For the first time ever Little Man was our only child at home. The quiet and change of pace was deafening at first, but over time I realized that I actually like quiet, I crave solitude. What a shock. For all my social posturing all these years, I’m learning that I am quieter and more private than I knew. I am much happier these days sitting alone with my computer, taking care of our home with only my dog Luke’s company and silence. I like my solo rituals and enjoy the peace of our quiet home, during the day.
When my older kids come home from college it all changes, and while I’ve had years of practice meeting that change, it’s just doesn’t seem to get any easier. I just don’t roll as well with the punches as I used to. I struggle with the influx of noise and drama. I don’t thrive on the times when others need my attention and demand my output; I no longer relish that. Often, frankly, I resent it. When Principessa and Middle Man are thrown back in that mix, the demands rise dramatically. Though we haven’t talked much about it, I know that it all must feel very strange for them as well. They come home and things aren’t exactly where we once kept them, the rituals have changed, the people have changed… but they come home expecting it all to be the same. They don’t say that, but it sure feels that way. It seems hard for them to accept that Little Man is growing up too. While he may still struggle with his own issues, he is not the baby brother they lived with. While I may still say some of the same things and walk the same way, I am growing up as well and that throws our family rhythm off as well.
As I work to define myself outside the confines of wife and mother, my reactions and expectations are morphing as well. As I learn to detach and let go of them, I’m craving the same from my kids… even as I struggle to keep letting go. The mother who once bought gluten free food automatically, even though Principessa has not lived here for four years; the mother who once tried to figure out vegetarian options for Middle Man: that Mom craves meat, loves pasta and doesn’t think of those needs anymore. When they come home, I haven’t spent hours thinking of protein options and things for either of them to eat. Middle Man often complains that “there’s nothing to eat,” in a house that could support a family of ten for months on the food stored! What he really means is that his favorite things are no longer stocked. I haven’t kept up with the things that once consumed me… like what they like to eat. There are plenty of vegetarian things to eat, but the options are not the same and the spread is not like the cafeteria he’s grown accustomed to at college.
Even more frustrating, they don’t come home and note these changes in me. They don’t seem to see that I like it quieter; that I’m not looking to argue anymore; that while I like a neat orderly environment, I’m not Suzy homemaker anymore. When I let an argument go, the interpretation is that I’m passive aggressive instead of the reality: I’d rather have peace than win. They don’t accept that shopping for food, clothes, whatever, is no longer a major preoccupation. Actually, I avoid Costco as much as I can, and not just because of the Canadians. I am increasingly moved to go with simple options: meals that take less time and less effort. I’m not as inclined to make several difference versions of a dinner to meet the needs of gluten free, vegetarian, kosher eating, or just picky kids. Been there, done that.
I guess the main thing that’s changed is this may still be their home, but it is my house. They are coming home to visit; they don’t live here anymore. While it’s been a hard four years, coming to terms with that and letting my own feelings around that loss go, I’m moving into a new phase now an that new reality is much easier to sit with. When older kids come home, it seems increasingly clear to dad and I that if they can’t let us know where they’ll be and when they’ll get in (so we can lock up and rest peacefully), if they can’t make a few meals for themselves and clean up the mess, if they don’t like how we do things: there are apartments to rent and other things to consider. Coming home in life is not a given. It’s a wonderful thing that’s provided by some parents who love their kids, have the space to offer, and want them around… as long as everyone can keep up with the changing program. It’s not a hotel to check into and assume that accommodations will be as preferred by the guests.
If this post is sounding more like a diatribe than an ode to kids missed, that was not the intention. I guess I am just having a lot of conversations lately about college age kids and the impact on family and home. The phase when they first leave is one adjustment, the first time they come home is another and then, once everyone has shuffled and moved forward, the adjustments seem a bit trickier. I want my kids to always feel welcome in our house; I want them to come home, but they need to accept and adjust to the changes as much as Mom and Dad do. We are, theoretically, all adults now right? Mom should no longer be the assumed meal provider, errand runner, pick up others’ mess person… I miss being “Mommy,” but I’m excited to be doing other things.
Now, I want to enjoy my kids’ company and hear what they’ve been up to. I want to see who they are becoming and try to interface with the person I am moving toward becoming. I want us all to see each other with fresh eyes and fresh expectations, instead of the old roles and issues. I want to live in the same space more harmoniously, with the understanding that they are welcome in my space, but my rules apply. When the nest started emptying I moved on a bit and I’m hoping my kids do too.
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