Empty Nest Pt. 2: Empty ‘Next’ Syndrome…Coming Home

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The 19-year old boy-man is coming home for summer break, his first substantial period under our roof since leaving for college in August of 2010, and this event is something to both ponder and celebrate. What used to be a given – his being a daily part of family life – is now a novelty. A delightful novelty, but a novelty nonetheless.  As the woman who birthed the boy, I am left to ponder: how on earth did that happen?

I remain unconvinced that growing up and leaving home is just a required part of the program. In my own case it was but in his…well, somehow it strikes me differently. I’ve always felt if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and we had a pretty unbroken thing going. He was a delightful companion, a relatively responsible roommate (though I admit the early years with the diapers and spoon feedings were a tad one-sided), a stellar entertainer and quite the flexible traveler. There were tantrums, I admit, occasional lapses in academic devotion and the limited food palate could be a challenge, but he was never incorrigible and generally thought we adults were cool.  He was like living with your best friend through the various stages of your best friend’s life right down to the moment he figured out HTML and could build your website — then it just seemed silly to let him go.

But fine. Growing up is mandatory. I get it; I applaud it even, and find this grown child of mine as captivating as the two year old. Which prompts another twist: I still want to hang out with the two-year-old – and the seven-, ten- and 13-year-olds – while I’m living in present-time with the 19-year-old (imagine that scenario: the adult child wrangling his younger selves while I make grilled cheese and chatter happily with my gaggle of time travelers!). Since this option is not offered, the bigger conundrum becomes the current child’s step-by-step and apparently inevitable departure from home. From where he sits, leaving home is an exciting, open-ended adventure to the rest of his life. From my perspective, it’s as if my job description suddenly hit planned obsolescence and, like that aging salesman who’s walked gently to the door with a gold watch in hand, I’m unclear of my relevance in this new era of child development. Empty ‘Next’ Syndrome.

But life is a constant work in progress and I’m leaning into the phase. The truly painful early months post his departure were followed by eventual, if begrudging, acceptance and early-stage construction of a new life formed around the childless home. And it’s a good life. I’m busy and creative and often find the freedom exhilarating. I have more time to myself, more time with my husband, the house is neater, and I don’t have to make school lunches every night. I find true pleasure in knowing how happy he is and how well he’s doing in school. Yes, there were the sometimes-awkward campus visits when he’d sweetly make time despite his clear preference to be with friends; the less awkward visits home when he simply was. I see him try to find the balance between being a considerate son and one who’s rushing inexorably toward the pull of independence. And as much as I cringe at being seen as any kind of obligation, I’m touched that he’s aware there’s a balance to be found. It’s all new territory and the scriptless nature of it will continue into our first summer break.

And what will that be? Will it feel like he’s just visiting for longer than usual between semesters or that he actually still lives at home and just goes away to school from time to time?  I want to believe the latter. I’m pretty sure it’s the former.

As we edge closer to this second chapter of Empty Nest, what’s coming into view is the reality that once the child leaves home for that first school year away, nothing is ever quite the same. We will get into familiar rhythms of dinner around a good movie, card games at the table, hikes down to the jetty, meals and plans and trips together, and it will be wonderful and I will cherish every minute. But unlike before, when this was just OUR LIFE, when time stretched before us so wide and open and whatever happened today might happen again tomorrow and we didn’t need to talk about it or look too far ahead because it was just there, unfolding naturally every day; Family. Mother, Father, Son. What it is now is…I don’t know. I’m not sure. We’ll see. Send suggestions.

Because that’s the chapter we’re on. Transitions. Coming back, leaving. Coming back, maybe for a shorter period, then leaving again. Coming back perhaps briefly, then leaving…maybe for good. It’s the damn circle of life and while we gather ’round Pride Rock and sing in celebration of growth and change and finding our way on the path unwinding, it hurts like a mother to let go of your child.

Here’s a question posed to me the other day by someone who meant well but clearly hasn’t been down this road to know the quirks: “Whaddaya want? You want your son to stay at home for the rest of his life, live in his room, never leave, always hanging on to you and his Dad?” Um…kind of? No…hell, no! Stupid question. Reread my paragraph about wanting him simultaneously at all ages of his life and you’ll get what I want, mister.

What I want to happen is exactly what is happening. I want him to embrace his adulthood; slowly and certainly unfolding his passions to discover who he is and what he wants to do with his life. I want him to have an absolute blast in college (within parameters, of course!), do well by his academics and learn a thing or two in the process. I want him to make great friends he’ll probably have for the rest of his life. I want him to continue to discover the wonders of love, taking the lovely manners he’s modeled from his father to always be the loyal, considerate, honorable boyfriend he already is. I want him to be an optimist, an activist, a person who isn’t afraid to stand up and speak out against injustice. I want him to find meaningful work that allows him to make a living doing something he loves. I want him to stay healthy, humorous, honest and humble. (The 4-H’s. There are other letters but I liked the ring of those!) Basically, I want him to continue on his course of growing up, which he is doing spectacularly.

And yet…I still want my boy. The paradox of motherhood, yes?

Books and articles and other mothers tell me I will always be needed, will always be somewhere on his radar. I believe that. I trust that my son will be a good adult son. He’s already a good almost-adult son and that he’s doing even with the distractions of college, love, and his first year of independent living. He seems to understand the paradox and finds ways to bridge the gaps: he set us up to play Internet Scrabble, allowing him to literally (as in words) kick my ass daily; we’re Facebook friends, he texts whenever there’s something of note to report and he actually sounds happy to hear from me when I call. And though he’s not great at returning emails and we sometimes go too long between conversations, he still tells me “we’re best friends, Mom.” I’m counting on it, sweetheart.

He’ll be home in a few days for three months. It feels like a glorious lifetime of time. I plan to use it well. We’ll all use it well. And when it’s over, I know it won’t be as painful as the last time he said good-bye. Empty Next. We will stumble through, figuring it out; it’ll get easier.

Cue the singing wildebeest….

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For a look at the first chapter of this story, click My Very Cool Roommate is Moving Out.

All photos courtesy of Lorraine Devon Wilke

 

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20 Responses to “Empty Nest Pt. 2: Empty ‘Next’ Syndrome…Coming Home”

  • Claire Hunziker Says:

    This is my first time here and I uncovered countless entertaining items and stories in your blog, specifically this one here with its very universal topic of a child leaving home (something I’m going through!). From the tons of comments on your posts I’d say I’m not the only one who agrees. thank you.

    LDW Reply:

    Thank YOU, Claire! LDW

  • Janis Allen Says:

    I feel as if I am you and your son is my son — exactly!! The only difference is, I went through the “mourning” period with a hormone -laden 13-year-old, which is really like putting salt on a wound. I was wondering if I could switch their places and if anyone would notice!

    Did you write a piece about him actually being home and then going back to school again? If so, I missed it. My son (also Class of 2014) was home for the summer but we never saw him! And now he’s not coming home for Thanksgiving because it’s too far and takes too long *sigh*

    LDW Reply:

    Janis, Thanks for stopping by to leave a comment! To answer your question, I did not (yet, anyway) write a follow-up to this particular chapter, the “how’d the summer go” chapter. Perhaps I should….for most of us, each of these flips of a page mark progress…more change….maybe more than we want? Kids seem to move out and move away on their own time-table and each kid is different. So far mine is still coming home on the holidays but it’s only a matter of time, isn’t it? :) Good luck to you, your independent boy and your “hormonally laden” 13-year old! Hope you’ll stop by again…LDW

  • talia m. Says:

    You are so inspirational and you talk sense. That’s important. You’re intelligent and you have a lot of heart. I love your posts…this one especially (we have college age kids)! Thank you!

    LDW Reply:

    Thanks, Talia. I’m always happy if something I think about and put into words touches somebody else. We’re all going through our own versions of life’s many milestones and it’s nice when sometimes they meet in a common experience. Appreciate your reading and leaving a comment. Have a great summer with your kids! LDW

  • Michael Brittain Says:

    Again, just about perfect blend of wry humor and poignancy. You amaze.

    LDW Reply:

    Aww….thank you, Michael. Your appreciation always touches me. xxoo LDW

  • nick Says:

    I am really glad I’ve found this blog – enjoyed reading this particular article since my wife and I are dealing with TWO kids home from college and that’s a real party at our house! It’s just nice to see something worthwhile online. Nowadays bloggers seem to publish too much nonsense about gossip and other annoying topics. A good blog with interesting content is always a pleasure. Thanks, I will be visiting it. Do you do a newsletter? Can’t find it.

    LDW Reply:

    Hey, thanks, Nick! I always appreciate hearing that a subject of interest to me also strikes a chord with other people. All I can say is, enjoy your summer with your two kids! It’ll fly by so fast you won’t even have time to blink. And thanks for asking about a newsletter but I’m not currently publishing one. You can, however, subscribe via email and you’ll be automatically sent a copy of every new article that goes up. Great way to stay current. Have fun and thanks again! LDW

  • Rolf Schabacker Says:

    Major thanks for the article. Have a family going through much the same saga and it’s nice to see the story being told. Ain’t easy watching your kids grow up, is it? Much thanks again. Fantastic.

    LDW Reply:

    No, it ain’t! :) Appreciate the comment and wish the best to you and your family for smooth sailin’ this summer and into the next semester! LDW

  • maomi m Says:

    I love the look of your website and your article is very insightful. As someone who also has a child in college (a girl heading into her junior year), I know exactly what you’re talking about! Made me laugh and tear up a little at the same time. Please keep on the good work. I surely will check in more often now that I’ve come upon your site.

    LDW Reply:

    It is a journey, isn’t it? Thanks so much, Maomi, for reading and stopping by for a comment. And I’m glad you like the way the site looks…wanted to create something visually pleasing so it’s nice to know it comes across! LDW

  • Cris Says:

    At some point imperceptible to all but a mom, the boy-man comes back as a man-boy. Slowly tipping toward adulthood, with all its rights, privileges and travails, we see it coming and hope we have prepared them well. Through a mom’s eyes, it has all seemed a series of baby steps, lovingly charted and, as seen above, beautifully photographed. The growth lines measuring height on the wall are replaced with the growth lines noted mentally as our boys deepen into young men. We see it as they start to relate to girls, then young women, and are grateful that having strong mothers has seemed to allow them to appreciate and enjoy strong young women. Yet, the silly season does come around, the laugh, that MOM! sound when we are the silly ones, the playful companion. It’s all a wall of sensations that you revisit constantly even as you, with your acute observant powers, note the small differences. There is really nothing quite like it. The adventure continues, but even as you see the separation coming, be assured, they always know Mom’s door and heart is always the one that swings open the widest. :)

    LDW Reply:

    Ah…Cris…written as only a mother could write. Of course you understand; impossible not to understand once you’ve walked the walk. It is such a remarkable journey; I never stop realizing that as the days pass and the pulling away and coming back cycles between us over and over each day. All I can do is write about it; somehow that makes it more organized in my own mind. And being organized about letting go of this person who is so much my heart and soul is quite essential to the process! Thanks for your words…they’re a perfect coda. LDW

  • Tina Says:

    I love that photo of Pete and Dillon kyaking; so peaceful.

    LDW Reply:

    Thanks, T….kind of the perfect visual of calm, happy, peaceful summer days….xxoo L

  • JCK (Motherscribe) Says:

    Oh, your post describes it so well – the push and pull of wanting and wishing.

    “And yet…I still want my boy. The paradox of motherhood, yes?”

    Yes, oh YES! Beautiful and bittersweet.

    LDW Reply:

    Thanks, Jennifer….there are so many individual and very different pieces to this journey we are on and yet each one resonates with its own particular pain and splendor. I look at you with your young ones and marvel at the memories of that time. And yet this new stage we’re in is also amazing and challenging. So strange and so wonderful all at the same time, isn’t it? LDW