My oldest daughter left for college in August. Two weeks after that, my youngest started her freshman year at boarding school. The house went from one filled with teenagers bickering over borrowed clothes, hair clogged in drains, cereal boxes left open on counters, and sandals and sneakers strewn about the floors to what I have now: a tidy, quiet house. An empty house.
My empty nest syndrome has gotten so bad that I’m considering putting a baby bonnet on my Lab and pushing him around Georgetown in a stroller. I think Angus might like that. He already responds to “Mama’s baby,” sleeps in my bed, and gets a “treat-treat” whenever he looks cute—which is pretty much most of the time.
Walking with a friend, we discuss how it feels when your children are no longer in the house. It’s as if two limbs have been cut off, but you still feel them— my phantom children. For 18 years, their father and I fed them, drove them, kept them clean, clothed, educated, out of jail. The other day, around carpool time, I kept thinking I had to be somewhere. I had an eerie feeling that my phantom child was about to call me. “Mom, where are you? You’re late picking me up.”
But I received no such call. Not being yelled at for being late is a good thing in some ways. But I miss not being late. I miss the conversations we had after school, driving to Starbucks for a snack, hearing about “all the drama that went on today.”
Of course, we are still very much in touch. My high school freshman is a fast and furious texter, keeping me up to date on high school hijinks, how soccer practice is going, what clothes she needs. Plus, my ex-husband and I live close enough to go to most of her games, and she can come home on weekends. My college freshman, well, I pretty much see pictures of her on Facebook, holding the ubiquitous red solo cup. (Filled with ice water, obviously, because I’ve hammered home the importance of staying hydrated.)
Lately, I think I’ve creeped out young mothers in the playground at Montrose Park when up there walking Angus. “I feel like it was just yesterday that I was pushing my baby in a stroller.” They look at me, giving me a half smile, before scurrying away, probably thinking I’m about to kidnap their offspring.
But, jeez, it does feel like just yesterday. Truth be told, it’s not all bad having the girls out of the house. I’m free on weekends and most nights to come and go as I please. I’m also free to work and travel more. Having an empty nest feels a bit like a second act, a time to be more professionally and personally productive. But it’s a huge transition—for all of us. Just as the girls are figuring out friend groups and honing study habits, I seem to be figuring out my future.
I’m excited about what lies ahead for both myself and the girls. But that doesn't keep me from reaching for my missing limbs—or the box of tissues. I’ve been told the ache gets better and you adjust to an empty house and your children’s burgeoning independence. Until then, I’ll reach for the leash and the one child left behind at the end of it.
The waiting (way-ay-ay-ting) is the hardest part.
One of my New Year’s resolutions was to stop worrying over what I can’t control. I’ve also told my two girls this, particularly the oldest, Peyton, who seems to have inherited my worry gene. Apologies for that portion of my DNA. And apologies for reneging on a resolution so soon after making it.
But when you have two children applying to umpteen different schools, worrying often tops the list. All I know for sure is that next year I will have two freshmen somewhere. Katherine will be a freshman in high school, and Peyton will be one in college. But where? That is the question.
The applications, transcripts, teacher recommendations, essays--so many essays--have all been sent. The tours, the interviews, the Facebook reconnaissance are now out of the way. Actually, the Facebook stalking continues, as the girls check out what other students at various schools are up to. Admittedly, I check them out as well. Do kids look friendly, drunk, inappropriate? See, girls? This is why I’ve always told you NOT to stick out your tongue or show midriffs. And, please, no red solo cups.
I talk to other parents about this process and most, if they’re honest, say it’s tortuous. But others say they are taking a laissez-faire approach. “Oh, I have no idea what his essay is even about,” one friend tells me with a straight face. At first I think, Wow, something must be wrong with me because I am worried sick about everything. And then my thoughts turn darker: that mother is lying. That, or she’s just highly evolved and I am not. Damn DNA again.
I’m not proud of these drifting--and sometimes diabolical--thoughts. But I am proud that the girls’ father and I have stayed out of the selection process. Both Peyton and Katherine chose the schools to which they would apply. One thing we learned was that the more we nudged them in one direction, the more they veered toward another. In the end, the schools--if they are fortunate enough to get in any of them--would all be good choices.
But, of course, I’ve already started worrying about what will happen to them at a new school. Will they make friends easily? Will they like the school? Will they be prepared? Will they be happy? Will they be safe? As I write this, I realize these are the same concerns I had when the girls entered kindergarten.
“Wherever I end up is where I should be,” Peyton tells me. “I can’t worry about it any more.”
“That’s right,” I say. “It’s out of your control now. You’ve done you’re best and we’ll just have to wait and see.”
But what I really mean is this: Don’t worry, I’ll worry for you. Will I ever stop worrying? I’d like to say yes, but then I’d be lying.
The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part
A few weeks ago, the Christmas tree sparkled with twinkling lights and glitter in our living rooms.
Today, the Christmas tree has, literally, been kicked to the curb. Dogs sniff and pee on it, wondering how long this additional outhouse on the sidewalk will last. Pretty packages adorned with silky ribbons once gathered around the evergreen. Now it’s surrounded by grayish piles of snow, crusted salt and crumpled candy wrappers.
But like life, there’s a time and place for everything. The Christmas tree is a good example that nothing lasts forever, nor should it.
Most people hate taking down the Christmas tree. It’s never as exciting as putting it up. But for me, putting away the Christmas decorations, sweeping out the dried needles and cookie crumbs, is cathartic. Just like the new year, it feels like a new beginning. We hit the refresh button and start over.
Could we also do this in our lives and not just our living rooms? I think of sweeping out what’s no longer working, whether personally or professionally. Snarky “friends” who make constant jabs--in jest, of course-- need to go. The pants, gathering dust in the closet, tags still attached, that you’re never going to wear? Gone. Extra pounds from too much Pinot Grigio and pumpkin pie? Gone. Worrying about what we can’t control. Gone. Okay, that one is harder to get rid of, but it’s worth trying. Worrying about what other people think is another one that goes in the easier-said-than-done, but necessary trash pile.
Because when we get rid of what’s not working, we make room for what does work. We create breathing room in our houses and lives.
I look at our tree waiting for the next trash pick-up, and I feel a little sorry for it. But sorrow is the wrong emotion. It did its job. What I need to feel--and do feel--is gratitude for what it gave us. And what it’s giving us now: room to grow.