I started worrying about Empty Nest Syndrome when I was 25. I was in the kitchen when it hit me that my newborn daughter Molly would be my only child. Grief brought me to my knees in front of the fridge with the door wide open, cold air hitting me in the face.
Back in college, I briefly dated an only child named Ben. His mother’s depression made it difficult for her to carry on a conversation. “Empty Nest Syndrome,” Ben explained after I met her. I watched her shuffle around the house in elastic-waist jeans, decade-out-of-season hair, and a darkness that made the air around her prickly. Whether it was rational or not, that was the day I connected having an only child with suffering from Empty Nest.
I had always thought I wouldn’t have time to get depressed when my first kid left for college because I would have two or three left at home. But, when I was pregnant, I developed a life-threatening autoimmune condition called HELLP Syndrome. I probably wouldn’t survive another pregnancy and adoption was out of the question because I had a long recovery ahead with health relapses that would plague me the rest of my life.
I did the math. I would be an empty nester at 44, an age when most of my contemporaries would have a couple of kids in elementary school and some would even still be changing diapers. The biggest tragedy about Ben’s mother wasn’t her bad hair or mom jeans, it was the way her son and husband looked at her—with pity and worry because she had lost who she was. I didn’t that to happen to me, especially not so young.
A few months postpartum, I asked myself, “If Molly went to college tomorrow, would I be okay?” I was still in survival mode, getting through each diaper change and feeding while dealing with my frail health. I didn’t have the strength to push my baby in a stroller, let alone figure out who I was separate from my role as a mom.
Being a stay-at-home mom by choice is a gift, but staying home because you’re too sick to work can make you lose your identity. Part of getting back to who I was became about getting well enough to return to teaching.
After several years of recovery, I got a job at a preschool where Molly could attend. Every morning, I would drop her off in her classroom before heading down the hall to my own. I loved the looks of pride on my students’ faces when they realized they could write their own names or figure out that cat started with a C. I asked myself again, “Would I be OK if Molly left tomorrow?” and the answer was yes.
But preschoolers get sick a lot, and wipe their noses on their hands and then reach out to hold yours. Catching a stomach bug or cold from my students landed me in the hospital too often. After three years of teaching, my doctor finally said, “A classroom is like a Petri dish. Your immune system isn’t strong enough to fight off the germs.”
On a permanent medical leave from work, with my only child now in school all day and at gymnastics practice most evenings, I was entering part-time empty nest territory. My husband had spent many hours in college studying by my side while I wrote short stories and talked about my dream to teach by day and write by night. He said, “It’s time to start writing.” He was able to still see that part of me buried underneath my illness even when I couldn’t.
By the time I was a few chapters into my manuscript, I no longer dreaded the long days alone at home. At the dinner table, when Doug talked about his work day, and Molly shared stories about school, I would tell them about a tricky chapter I had figured out or a new plot line I was working on.
Years later, when I finally sold my book, I asked myself again, “Would I be okay if Molly went to college tomorrow?” This time the answer was more complicated. While I was fulfilled by my writing, marriage, parenthood and supportive friends, I still missed teaching.
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place when I started teaching Novel Writing at The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. My students are all adults ranging from recent college grads to retirees. I’m happy to report they have all mastered the art of blowing their noses without rubbing germs all over me—so no more worries about teaching in a Petri dish. More importantly, I’ve learned that it can be just as rewarding to teach and mentor adults as it is to guide children.
My life revolves around my daughter. I teach when Molly is in school, and write at our dining room table with her while she does homework. I strive to be present, to show up for track meets and chorus concerts and to always be ready to talk through a teen crisis. But when she leaves for college, I will have my writing and my teaching. When Molly calls me from school, I will tell her about my days and she will know my life is full and I am okay in the spaces when she is gone.
I asked myself the other day, “Do I have the kind of life that will sustain me when Molly leaves?” I still have four years to go and the answer is finally yes.