An Empty House: This I dread

Haven-4-1024x1024“I’m going to be fine in empty nest.  Don’t worry about me out here in Montana in my farmhouse.  I’ve got my writing.  I’ve got my writing retreats.  I’ve got my horses.  I love my land.  I’m going to travel the world.  It’s time for me again.”

That’s what I tell people.

That’s what I tell myself.

Inside, I’m terrified.  It seeps in at 4:00 a.m. when I wake most nights, when the fears are immune to my internal motherly “hush now.”  My mind isn’t just racing, it’s hauling ass down every dark alley I am able to avoid in daylight.  It’s trapped in this labyrinth of panic by Fear incarnate and it wants OUT.  And it’s not bills and health and aging and the other usuals.  It’s this dwindling last flame on the last wick of my motherhood.  And it’s the last light out of this Fear-mongered labyrinthine haunt.

How am I going to do this ‘being alone’ thing?  How am I going to feel secure without that last child’s room full?  That boy who wakes up in the morning and wants an egg sandwich, and a lovingly filled lunchbox– his sandwich cut in half and a Honeycrisp apple, not a Gala. A little bag of carrots and that note that I sometimes write, but not usually anymore, because I don’t want to embarrass him around his friends. Or make them feel sad that they don’t have a mother who does that for them.  I’m letting my motherhood go. I feel it.  Some mornings I make his lunch the night before, and put out cereal on the kitchen table with a note:  Have a nice day.  And I peek my head into his room in the glow of computer and cell screens and say, “I’m going to sleep in tomorrow.  I have a long day of work and I need my sleep.”  But what I’m really saying is, “This thing is crushing me.  I need to prepare.  I can’t go cold turkey.  I need to know that you can do this on your own.  I need to know that I can do this alone.”073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24

And he can.  Of course he can.  I always said I was raising adults.  Flexible, adaptable, adults.  I let them use knives early.  I literally touched their fingers to the hot stove so that they would learn.  On my terms, I guess.  I wanted to get it over with.  But what about me?  Am I going to take to my bed?  Am I going to have long dark nights of the soul like I did after my father died? I can’t bear those.  Will I feel unexplained joy, the way you do when your motherhood gets served to you in surprise heaping plates—when they crawl into bed with you on a Sunday morning, all six feet of them, and want to just “hang out?”  When they come into your office and sit down in the same chair they used to when they were little, and start talking about their day, on and on, knowing that you care, that you’ll listen, that you are their only and forever mother?  Are those moments all over now?  Will I have to manufacture them on the phone or on vacations?  The mundane, the holy mundane, of my motherhood is going in five…four…three…two…

You know when you are about to leave a relationship or a place, and you start to look at all the things you can’t stand about it?  How you’re going to be better off without it?  “Never liked that neighbor.  I’ll be better off without all that ridiculous traffic.  Can’t stand the way he eats.  Never wanted a cat anyway.”

I’m doing that with my motherhood.

And I think my son is doing it with his childhood.

We’re butting heads where we usually can find humor.  We’re finding fault where we normally make spaciousness for each other.  I’m getting rip-shit-mad over dishes in the sink.  I don’t get rip-shit-mad as a rule.  I am a Talker-through-er.  A Let’s-sit-down-and-have-a-heart-to-heart-er, kind of mother.  Some would say too lenient.  But I have always set my sites on trust and not blame.  Trust is what will bring my relationship with my children into the future, fortified and stalwart.  My go-to line:  “We all screw up.  It’s how we act around it that matters.”  I know that when people get rip-shit-mad it’s because they’re afraid.  So here I am…being afraid.  Apparently dishes are as scary as that dark 4:00 a.m. Fear monster.

I remember my daughter acting this way her senior year. Nothing I did was right.  And when your offenses are small, it’s like, “I can’t believe we have to have lamb chops again.  And why are they always medium rare? And why do you have to have that stupid jazz on in the background?  And why do we have to go to Belize for Spring Break when all my friends are going to Cabo?”  And now, neither of us can barely remember that blip in our relationship. Now it’s all humor and love and forgiveness and open-heartedness. I have every faith that it will be that way with my son.  He’s ready to fly.  I know.  I know.  But still…

073db487f4c4c2354d17ccad8d24eb24Last night, I lay there at 4:00 a.m., the Fear chasing me down those dark alleys:  no more boy in the house.  No more impromptu dance moves around the kitchen—and he can finally dip me!  No more “Let’s meet in town and have a special dinner, just you and me.”  No more “Mom, I have an orchestra concert. You should come.”  No more baseball.  So much baseball.  I’ve measured my life in innings every spring/summer for the past twelve years.  I love it and I loathe it.  My life is already so sedentary as a writer.  All that sitting.  My back is already a wreck.

And my eyes blinked open wide.  No more baseball.  Hmmm….

What else is there going to be no more of?

Well heck— might as well.

And I grabbed my journal from my bed-side table and went for it.  It’s raw, but I’m sharing it with you.  Maybe it will help you.  Don’t judge.

No more mayonnaise at 7:00 a.m.

No more moldy lunchboxes showing up on the counter.

No more “Sign this form. It’s already late. Hurry.”

No more fifteen pairs of sneakers strewn in the breezeway.

No more being ignored for the glow of screens.

No more “Why don’t we have any food?” when there’s an entire freezer and pantry full of it. (#malepatternblindness)

No more “I forgot my cleats.  They’re under my bed.  Can you drop them off at the office?  Like…in ten minutes?”

No more “Can I stay out until 1:00 am?”

No more “No way. Midnight, latest.”

No more “Calm down.  Everyone else is allowed to stay out until 1:00.”

No more “Will the parents be there?”

No more “I think so.”

No more “Midnight.  Drive carefully, please. The roads are icy.”

No more “I’m okay, but the car isn’t.”

No more teenaged lumps lying on couches until noon on a Saturday, eating pancakes with hooded sweatshirts on and sometimes a thank you.  Sticky plates in the sink.

Who am I kidding.

I’m going to miss those sticky plates.  I’m going to miss those thank you’s when they come.  I’m going to miss driving in to school to save the day.  And yes…I’m going to miss baseball.  I’m going to roam around those stands when he’s gone, and wish I could sit all day in the blazing sun hearing all that “Go kiiiiiid” and “You got this, kiiiiiiid,” and “Bring ‘er home, kiiiiiiid.”  Who am I kiiiiiding.

It’s morning.  It’s Sunday.  He’s on a bus going to an Orchestra showcase in Bozeman, Montana.  Probably with his sweatshirt hood over his head, drooling on his baseball pillowcase, headphones on.

So I call him.  And he answers.

“How are the roads?”

“Not bad. But it’s snowing pretty hard.”

Quick prayer to the bus driver. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to sleep. Listening to tunes.”

“I hope not Rap.  And not too loud.  You’re going to ruin your ears.”

“Calm down, Mom.  I’m listening to the Brahms song that we’re playing.”

Gulp.  “Brahms wrote the lullaby I used to sing to you every night.”


Not gonna cry.  Not gonna cry.  “I’m really going to miss you next year, you know.”

“I know.  I’m going to miss you too.”

“We going to be okay.  We’re going to be better than okay.  Onward!”

“Yeah.  Onward.”

“Text when you get there.”

“I will.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

So now what?  A Sunday morning in early February.  I’m alone.  In bed.  Propped up in old smelly pillows.  What’s left of my tea is cold.  The snow is gently falling.  Do I sob?  Because you can bet, I’m crying writing this.  I could sing that Brahms lullaby and spend hours bawling my eyes out.  But I don’t think I will.  Not today.  I have a book to write.  And a quiet house.  All day.

A quiet house.

So I go downstairs to make my second cup of Earl Grey tea, sending a whisper to myself next February.  You’re going to be okay.  This isn’t going to hurt as much as you think.  Go cup of tea by cup of tea, page by page, word by word, gentle (and yes motherly) thought by gentle thought.  It’s time to mother yourself now.  

But for now…I’m scared.  And I’m taking all the advice I can get from those who have been here.  Comments appreciated!

Love, Laura


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12 Responses to An Empty House: This I dread

  1. Carol

    Crying as i read this – because I know – I have been through it – and I know the feelings -the anticipatory grief, the pain in the ass kids who are acting up to soothe the imminent departure – to soften the blow of freedom. AS much as they want it – they too are fearful. MY last to leave was my baby – my son. I didn’t try to hide my pain – I sobbed, moaned, wailed all the way home in the car – a 1.5 hour ride with my husband who knew by this time to sit in silence. There was nothing he could say – he had learned over the years that it’s best to let me get it out. Once home, I went into my son’s room that suddenly seemed so still and empty. I wailed some more. My husband simply stood by – waiting. WE had been through the grief of a baby dying – and this last Son – this last child to leave the nest was the answer to prayers after the death of his sister. SO grief came back full force – for things other than his departure from my home. And that’s they way grief is – AT least for me – It’s a life time full of pain and loss – and it doesn’t really separate itself out – Once it overflows my heart – it all comes out. Hang tight – breathe- and with each expression of grief – each time you allow yourself to feel the loss – comes the understanding of just how strong you are. AND how real life is when we are present with all it has to offer. Peace. Thank you for your writing.

    • Damn, woman. I’m over here in MT, still in my nightgown, in bed, on my 3rd cup of tea, crying over your words. Thank you. AND…you have a beautiful voice on the page. Maybe I should do a custom Haven Writing Retreat for Empty Nesters! Will hold your words close to my heart as we go. Thanks for helping me know I’m not alone…
      big hugs and gratitude,
      (who doesn’t normally reply to comments, but for this post…how could I NOT!)

  2. Dory

    It’s hard. One out of college, one in. The first month my last kid, my son, was out of the house, I was genuinely perplexed by the amount of leftovers spoiling in the fridge, milk that went bad, batches of scones that lingered for a week. And while I don’t miss mayo at 7 am, or the moldy lunchboxes and travel mugs that would appear after weeks MIA, I do miss the baseline of purpose that propelled me through my days. Working on my own goals and pursuits seemed sweeter because it required more commitment and focus to fit it all in. Now, there is endless me time.

    The blessing is that the relationship you have built will show up in ways that are delightful. The random phone call in between classes or even on a Friday night before they head out for the evening. The text messages asking for advice still speak to my relevance.

    My daughter has moved to Vietnam so I am being very brave. Our FB messages are always an opportunity for me to emphasis my faith in her ability to live a full and exciting life. In between, my heart breaks and mends a dozen times over.

    I think you have captured beautifully exactly what the future will hold and the poignantcy of the moment. The first one out is easier as there is still one at home. The last one out is harder to deal with, for me at least. I try to focus on the joy they are experiencing in living their dreams.and there is no small pleasure to be found in finding your own rhythm, even though at times it is indeed scary.

  3. Anne Arthur

    Advice? No. No advice. We all grieve an empty nest in our own way. Until. Until we realize that -suddenly- they’ve become adults and we shift into a new relationship with them. Timid adult friendship, first. Turning into solid buddy-ship latest when we see their babies born. And suddenly, our bed is full again with feet, their big ones and some little cuties kicking their tiny ones while new and old stories are being shared.
    Let me still add my (only) advice: Keep the kingsize bed…anticipating the day when it will once more be filled with kiddos. And enjoy the times you have it for yourself, until they come home again, and again, and …

  4. Colette Fearnley

    I am going thru the same process. But I choose to think of it in a positive light – you are beginning a new chapter in your life full of possibilities. The sky is the limit in this next chapter of your life. You have given your children all of you and they are now out of the nest and flying and exploring all their possibilities. Enjoy all that you can be!

  5. Pamela Price

    My dear Laura,
    I’m not going to pretend to tell you that it will be easy. When I left my one and only at the Denver airport and I leaned over to pick up my luggage, it felt like I had turned a bucket full of water upside down. Tears gushed from my face no matter how hard I tried for them not to. My husband looked at my son and said, “Do something with your Mother!” Poor kid. He just wrapped his arms around me and told me he would be fine. And I knew he would be.
    I cried so much on the flight home the stewardess was convinced someone had died. It surely felt that way BUT…..having lost my father, this was not the same kind of hurt. Although acute, it made sense. It was normal. It was time. Everyone seems to agree that you have this great kid who turns into something otherworldly and does just about anything they can to make you crazy and at times, down right angry. The muscle flexing of independence is not always pretty or pleasant. I think they feel a whole lot better about leaving if they deem you are angry or frustrated with them. It masks their fear.
    I did survive and very well. Like rubber bands that stretch out, they come right back to you when you let them go. Everything changes but you are still a Mom. And one of the perks is that you will become MUCH smarter when THEY go to college. They actually WANT to hear what you have to say!
    I used to think that Motherhood was the only job you could have that if you did a really good job, you got fired. Now I know that you never get fired, you just move to another very lovely position….the mother of an adult! The best is yet to come my friend!

    • Oh..this has me in tears, Pamela. Thank you. I’m going to be that sobbing woman on the airplane. Same thing happened when my daughter went to college. The flight attendant thought someone had died too! Well…I know it will give me a lot to write about and learn. And…even more Haven adventures await! Come back! ox Laura

  6. Well my dear Laura this is going to be tough; I know how it feels. My son left for college 22 years ago and I’m still not over it. I am not sure I ever will be regardless of what my life is….it’s never the same as when they live in your house. I do however think grandchildren close the wound at least that is what I hear from my friends. The very best stage of life is in front of us so take comfort in the future.

  7. I went to work at Glacier NP the year my last son left home and went on a mission, after 4 children the house was way too quiet. I cut a deal with my husband, packed all my camera gear and headed northwest, it was the best summer of my life. I still returned to an empty house but I could bare it better. I learned some things about myself on the road trip up and back, enjoyed books on tape and watched the landscape change from flat Texas to the beautiful mountains of Colorado, Wyoming and Montana – lifting my spirits as I drove – faster up than back. I wanted to stay there, still love being there, it is always my happy place. Being friends with your kids is the best and later down the road you might have grandchildren to remind you why you didn’t beam your kids as teenagers. It will all work out, it is all good and a part of life. You are just transitioning into alone time and your friends will be there to love you through it. Hang in there and be fearless.

  8. Stephanie (Alison’s cousin)

    Well, mine is only eight, so I have no experience to base this upon, but I second Peggy’s suggestion: add a big distraction to your life. And fill the void. My plan is to take a big trip. Then get a really intense dog and do Agility with it. And by all means, pat yourself on the back for a job well done!

  9. Arleen

    I am going through the same thing this year with my last. I never really thought they would grow up when they were little. It seemed so far off like it would never happen and now here we are. I am not looking forward to an empty nest, but I know that God has a plan for my next chapter. Good luck to you in your next chapter.

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