During a time when emotional upheaval was already at its peak, I’m going through round two of coping with an empty nest. I realize that some people are ready for their kids to leave and enjoy the sense of freedom that comes with no longer providing regular support for our children, but it’s a difficult process for me.
Becoming an empty nester
My first round of empty nest sadness came when my youngest went to college about seven years ago.
In high school she was very busy with after-school projects and activities, therefore I volunteered a lot. Shuttling her around to rehearsals and events took up significant portions of my schedule. I also chose to drive her to school every day and pick her up, as well. I loved that time together. I realize it was a luxury some parents didn’t have, and I treated it as such. I did the same thing with her older sister.
After she left for college, I would wake up thinking I was late for something. I had a mini-panic attack in the middle of the afternoon thinking I should pick somebody up or drop somebody off somewhere.
All through her college years, I had days I just missed her terribly and couldn’t find the words to describe what I was going through. For some reason, it would hit worse at night when preparing for bed. I would hop into bed and a wave of sadness would wash over me and I would sob. Sometimes I would wake up with terrible nightmares about her or her sister, who graduated and moved out years before. I would call them in a panic to make sure they were ok.
In time, I got more used to it, but I don’t think I ever fully adjusted. She was always coming home to our tiny apartment over the summer and during some breaks from school. She went to school two hours away so we drove up to see her performances. It still felt like she was “with us.”
Empty nest homecoming
After finishing college and a couple of years with a boyfriend in an apartment, she moved with us to our new house last fall. Her intention was to stay a couple of years while she established her career in the area and then get a place of her own. Then COVID happened. She lost her work and went on unemployment, which was an acceptable short-term solution, with the exception of the emotional element. She usually worked three gigs at a time, mostly sixteen-hour days, six, sometimes, seven days a week and hanging with a lot of friends the rest of the time. Now she was suddenly stuck at home with her parents full-time.
When lockdown first started we jokingly played, “Don’t touch the millennial.” And after a month in isolation, we all relaxed a bit inside the house, watching movies and dining together. She spent a lot of time in her little studio annex, but she would sometimes come out playing her ukulele or decide she wanted to enjoy a movie with us in the main part of the house.
We went on like this for a few months, but as soon as she started looking for work again, she realized working through a pandemic was hard. The worry about working and bringing home COVID enveloped her and she started looking for places to live just blocks away. I figured I would handle a short move just fine. Having her within walking distance to say “hello” seemed doable.
Finding an empty nest again
She couldn’t find anything, so instead ended up sharing an apartment in a nearby city. She’s still not that far away, but as she packed, I realized this was the last time either of my daughters lived with me, and a sense of sadness at losing that connection to my child tugged at my heart. I used to know all her friends, her favorite foods, take her to get her hair cut and pick out school supplies. Now I didn’t recognize anybody’s names and couldn’t tell you her favorite food. It felt like a loss.
To make matters worse, just three weeks before she moved out, we lost our beloved sixteen-year-old Abyssinian cat. She was my emotional support and a very smart and engaged cat.
How I ended up here
First I was a stay-at-home mom and artist, then most of my work was from home, so the cat was with me every day; on my foot, on my lap, perched behind my head. When monitors became bigger, she spent a significant amount of her day on top of my monitor as I edited graphics or wrote stories. Losing my sweet cat, followed by my daughter moving out, probably for the last time, meant the beginning of August was very rough for me, emotionally.
Both of my daughters are smart, strong, vibrant, beautiful women and I’m glad they can stand on their own. I’m proud of them, and of myself for being able to launch them into the world as useful members of society. But, every fall when the first leaves start skittering across the pavement and the smell of woodsmoke dances on a crisp breeze, I wish for pumpkin patches and Halloween costumes, followed by cups of hot cocoa enjoyed with holiday movies and sugar cookie decorating with my two best little friends.
I decided to lean into them being on their own. Instead of memorializing the spaces they occupied, I create something new for myself. Instead of living vicariously through my children’s lives, I celebrate my own life. It takes some getting used to, this focusing totally on myself. It feels like I don’t care about them enough, or sacrifice enough, or love them enough. But they want me to do things for me, and they want to do things for themselves without feeling guilty about their independence. I still feel the spots they no longer occupy in my physical space, but they will always occupy most of my heart.
This is a guest post by H.L. Brooks is an author, artist, and social media consultant.
A shout out to my step-daughter and unofficially adopted daughter as well. They help make my life fuller even though they didn’t’ grow up living with me.
OK, enough for today. Enjoy your day.
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