I’m reaching the age where friends are becoming empty nesters. I see their heartfelt posts about leaving their youngest child at college, their baby moving cross-country, or their last child leaving home for some other adventure and realize that as the parent of two teens, my turn is coming.
My friends’ words are so brave! They acknowledge that their big emotions are an indicator of the love they have for their children. They share that though they are heartbroken by how their own lives are changing, they are over-the-moon grateful for this new chapter in their children’s lives.
Many of these friends are stay-at-home parents—people who have given 18 years of their lives to being with their children. Stay-at-home parenting makes up all their days, nights, summers, winters, springs, and falls. It is what they have done since becoming a parent.
And as I look at the photos of their child standing amid the beautiful blooms with the “Utah State” sign behind them, I feel alarm for the person taking the photo. “What are you going to do now?!” I worriedly wonder. “This is all you have done for 18 years!”
Suddenly, their kids are gone. Living across the country. Not to be seen for months. How is my friend going to fill her days? What will she do?
I know eventually she will find meaningful ways to spend her time, but what about in the meantime? What will she do at dinnertime and at 11:07 on a random Wednesday morning? What will she do tonight? I don’t mean theoretically. I mean literally—what will she do?
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As I was thinking about this this morning, I caught myself in a bit of a panic. “See!” I thought, “This is why you cannot put all your eggs in one basket! I have got to get serious about building my freelance career. If I do not do it now, what am I going to do when my kids are gone? If I devote every waking moment to my kids until they leave, where does that leave me?”
But as quickly as I started thinking this way, I stopped. The truth is, I don’t know what I will do when my kids are grown and gone. The reality is that I will be lost. It will be a new season of life that is dramatically different from what I have known. It will be foreign, and I will not know how to navigate it. I know there will be happiness over whatever journey my kids are taking. I know there will also be sadness, grief, and loneliness.
But as I caught myself panicking about it this morning, I found myself feeling something else. A realization that had more energy than panic: I am not giving up the time I have with my kids now to ease what comes later. I am not going to lose what I presently love to graduate the pain of an empty nest.
Some years from now, when I find myself in a quiet, empty house, it will be lonely. I will miss the thudding of feet from my youngest when they wake. The groggy and ever-present smile of my oldest when he first sees his dad or me in the morning. The chaos in the kitchen of two teens and their parents making dinner. And sitting in the living room to eat together while watching The Office.
I will miss all the time spent driving together. To park day and 4-H and pizza with friends and water parks and the beach and overnights. My whole body will long to go into their rooms to say goodnight and snuggle their taller-than-me bodies just as I have done since they were the size of my forearm.
I will miss the concerts, curiosities, questions, and conversations. My whole self will ache to sit on the deck, all together, having coffee on a beautiful fall morning and spontaneously decide to hit the slopes on a wintry Wednesday at noon. If my kids go to college away from home, it will all change just like that. Right over one single night. It will all be gone.
And I will be left here in an empty home with an empty nest. My husband will go to work as he always does. I will be left with the reality of how I chose to spend the years my kids were home—with them.
But as I watch my friends post about becoming empty nesters, I will no longer panic. Not for them or for me. Because the secret we stay-at-home moms know is that our nests may be empty, but our hearts are fuller than we ever could have dreamed. It may take a while to figure out what daily life looks like without our kids in it, but in the meantime, our minds will be flooded with the loving memories of the good fortune we had to share so much life with our kids.
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Though finding this new version of myself will be hard, I will never feel like I should have chosen differently to avoid the discomfort of this inevitable change. I will never wish I had worked instead of stayed home so I could avoid the harsh realities of an overnight empty nest.
As I thought of my friend flying home from Utah and walking into her empty nest for the very first time, I felt gratitude. Not because this is the season of life when she gets to (que circus music) rediscover herself! or try all the things she’s ever wanted to try! but because the enormity of what she’s feeling isn’t just weird, it’s visceral and has changed everything. Feelings that deep only come when we have lived in the heart of something.
While her grief will run deep, as I know mine will too, the answer was never to prepare for an empty nest by separating from our kids earlier. The solution was not to stop the joy and connection and fun and adventure now to ease the pain later.
The answer I am taking in today is to go even deeper. Be even more present. Forget harder about what comes next. Live right here in this very moment so deeply that it is going to be total and utter shock when it changes.
When I look back from an empty kitchen island, I want to know I soaked in every ounce of our time together, to have basked so fully in the connection that came from being present that there wasn’t any more I could have felt. I want my loss to be so profound it repeatedly proves to me just how much life and love there was in our 18 years together.
When I first walk into my empty nest, I want to be so overwhelmed with emotion that I am flooded with the memories of how fully we lived, not regrets of how we did not.
To be there then, I must be here now. Right here. All in. Present. Not worried about the future me standing at an empty kitchen island.
So, I will give myself permission to be all in now. To cross that bridge of nails that leads my kids away from me when I come to it. Confident that the love and joy we live in now will create soft and protective shoes—not only for me to cross that painful bridge, but for my kids to walk through the world without me.