How to Survive Empty Nest (AKA: Mommy Massage Money)

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For those of you who are looking at the last weeks of August with dread, clinging to what last licks of summer magic you can put in your proverbial jar and hoard in your proverbial pantry all winter…and especially for those of you who are facing Empty Nest for the first time, and ESPECIALLY if you are a single mother facing Empty Nest for the first time…this is for you. But it also applies to anyone who is longing for her/his people, in the wane of these sacred summer days:

First, a word on this emotional miasma that you are likely feeling: (followed by some pretty solid advice…so stop what you’re doing. Get comfy. This is a muscular read and there’s a good chance that it will help you. A lot.)

There is so much longing in these dog days of August, especially if you are a mother of a child soon fledging the nest. Longing for things like that one moment on the porch with your college-bound son, before he goes out with his friends, AGAIN…trying to squeeze out some lovely mother moment in which you impart just a bit of wisdom, or ask that one perfect question that will evoke that one poignant answer and you’ll feel like you know your child again, or just that much more.

Maybe you have ways to inspire these moments and maybe it has to do with food. So maybe you find yourself plotting a menu that he can’t resist so that your home will be the chosen roost for his boy squad tonight, not some cabin in the woods, or some boat on a lake, or some media room with air conditioning and very lenient parents… Maybe you should be a more lenient parent? Nah.

Or maybe you are just plain longing for your child. Without all those tall smelly (albeit adorable) boys who quite likely have one thing on their mind: beer. Maybe you just want him. At home. Before he leaves for college, and you’re alone in the house. Alone. Wondering why you didn’t make summer matter more. Why you didn’t insist that he come home, miss the party, sit on the porch with you and play cards and talk all about life and love and loss and hope. Why you didn’t swim in more lakes together or establish a daily something together that when you are older you can both say, lovingly and longingly into each others’ eyes:  “Remember that summer when we used to always ________?”

And not have this as your memory instead: “Remember that summer when we used to always say, Bye. Have fun. Be smart. Be safe.” Or, “Can you mow the lawn before you leave? And weedwack?” Or “Gas money? Sure. I’ve got a twenty in my wallet. Help yourself.” Because why wouldn’t you give him a little gas money here and there. He plays baseball. He’s hard to employ. And the only spare vehicle you have for him to drive is the old gas-guzzling Suburban. You live in the country. He needs a car. Everything he wants to do is far away from home. And it’s expensive to get anywhere in that old beat up truck. And yet…as much as you wish he would stay at home, you’re glad he has places to go and people to see. And yeah…it feels good to give him a little financial relief. It’s summer. He’s a good kid. He works hard at college. You’re proud of him. And gas money is like your Bolognese sauce. Which means you love him just that much more. And no…none of it is bribery. It’s just making life for your child a little luxurious every so often. Because you’re his mother. Damn it. You’re his mother.

Since he’s been little, you’ve made it your job to teach him every lesson you can possibly think of, although you doubt he listened to you. Tick tock! Before he goes to college, you need to know where he is in life! You need to take the pulse of his heart and mind and soul! So you ply him with your Bolognese and it works: He gives you that precious time. For one splendid dinner. And you sit on the porch and see what he knows, where he is in what he knows, where he needs to know more. But then you have to go and blow it because you push just…a…little…too…hard. And he wolfs down the rest of his food and asks for gas money and is off to a cabin in the woods with his buddies and the cooler his very cool god-mother gave him for Christmas.

“Have fun. Be smart. Be safe.”  And you hold back the tears because he hates it when you cry. He feels guilty for leaving you alone and you don’t want him to. So you swallow and shake it off and holler after him, “I love you!” And then you go inside before he can peel out of the driveway, because you want him to think that you have things to do. Only you don’t. Not really. Not unless you call doing the dishes “things to do.”

For those of you who know exactly what I mean…clinging to these last weeks of summer before your child leaves for college…and especially for those of you who are doing this for the first time…take heart. I’m a year ahead of you, and I have some help for you. Wipe those tears. Make a cup of tea. Get cozy…really cozy. This is for you:

1)    First of all, don’t feel ashamed that you are in this amount of pain. Yeah yeah yeah…people will go to great lengths to remind you that you had kids to see them fledge. You don’t want them living in your basement! But we all know that this doesn’t help, any more than it did when your mother told you to finish your dinner because there are starving people in Africa. Now you just feel bad about yourself. Try this instead:

2)    Go into his room when he’s not there and take a photo of his clothes all over the floor, his un-made bed, the zillions of chords and devices that you don’t really understand or want to understand. And then take a look at whatever’s under his bed that you haven’t wanted to see all summer. Take a photo of that too. Ew. Now put those photos on your screensaver. Take a good look at them. Do these images endear themselves to you? Didn’t think so. When you pass by his room after he’s gone, and you fall to your knees weeping because it’s so clean and vacant and innocent with all those baseball trophies, and his Lego trucks still intact and GOD how you miss those days…take a look at those photos. Should do the trick.

3)    You know how when you’re at the grocery store checking out and you can choose to get some cash…and you get $20 in case he asks you for gas money? Because who carries cash these days? But cash is maternal currency and you always keep some around for that moment when he looks up at you like a starving kid in Africa, or at least a Golden Retriever, and says, “Any chance you have any cash for gas? I’m pretty low.” And you get all lit up inside because you can say, “In fact I do. Happy to help the cause.” Like you’re thrilled that he’s leaving you once again. You know that $20. I know you do.

  1. So here are your marching orders from a mommy who knows: Keep taking those twenty-dollar bills at the grocery store checkout line. Only it’s not for your kid’s gas money any more. It’s now officially, starting the week before he leaves…massage money. $20 in a secret compartment in your wallet. Watch it add up. I bet you can afford a massage every other week if you give yourself the money you would have given him to drive away from your front porch. How ‘bout that! Does that get you all lit up inside? I’m sitting here smiling at the thought of it. I’m totally going to try it! Wish I’d thought of it same time last year!

4)    So…you know all those times when you get the guts to ask, “Wanna go out for lunch?” or “Want to go to dinner and a movie?” or “Want to take a hike in the woods?” And he says, “I’m sorry, but I already have plans.” And you feel like such a sucker, loser, chump? Well when he’s gone and you feel that longing for bonding with a loved one…it’s time to text or email or call or choose one of the fifteen thousand ways that you can contact a friend these days. AND ASK THEM if they want to do any of the above. It might not be exactly what you wanted to do, and it might not hold the emotional holy grail of mother/child love that will quell that ache in your heart.  But heck—it’s better than sitting around at your shitty pity party. So there. Reach out to a friend. If they say no, reach out to another one. It’s better than being alone when you feel like that. Being alone shouldn’t be something you bully yourself to do. If you don’t want to be alone…don’t be alone. The world is a peopled place. Find your people. Just maybe not overly happy people at this juncture.

5)    To that end:  On being alone. You’ve heard this by now, I’m sure of it. “I love being alone! I’d DIE to have my house to myself. I could do anything I wanted! Damn! I’m so jealous of you. I can’t WAIT until Empty Nest. My kids are driving me crazy. And you’re not in a relationship right now? Sounds like HEAVEN! I’d crank tunes and have a naked dance party, just me!” Well here’s my advice: Stop talking to those people. They suck.

6)    If you don’t have a dog, you should probably get one. But if you start buying little sweaters for it, and custom-design a doggy bed that matches your couch, you should probably hire a shrink or a life coach or something.

7)    Now’s the time to write that book you’ve always wanted to write. I know a gal in Montana who can help you… Just sayin’. #havenwritingretreats

8)    Or take that trip you’ve always wanted to take. “Alone?” “Yeah. Alone. Just to do it and see that you won’t die. Not that it’s better than traveling with a loving partner or your loving children. These people: “I would do ANYTHING to travel alone. I LOVE traveling alone. You can do whatever you WANT TO DO!” See my above advice.

9)    To that end: Maybe just don’t hang out with people who are happily married and who are entering into Empty Nest. Not until you get used to going to bed alone, waking in the night alone, going downstairs in the morning to make tea and seeing everything exactly as it was the night before when you turned off the light. Even that piece of paper that you passed on the stairs and didn’t pick up. And then passed again on the way back up. And will keep passing until you finally get it through your head that unless you pick it up, it’s just gonna stay there. Maybe wait until you finally pick up the piece of paper before you consider hanging out with happily married Empty Nesters. Or maybe just stay away from them altogether until you can trust yourself socially.

10) Don’t trust yourself socially right now. Weird shit is going to come out of your mouth. And you can’t take it back. And it just adds to the shame. When you do the reach out to a friend thing…be very careful. You’re wide open. Like after birth. And death. This is a kind of dying, and you have to respect the grief process. Only hang out with people who understand that or who can find empathy for it.

11) Make your special Bolognese sauce, or your version of whatever is your culinary super power, and eat it. Alone. On your porch. With a really nice bottle of Cote du Rhone. Because these aren’t box wine days any more. You don’t have to pay for deli meat and bacon and a bread box full of English muffins, and bagels, and sandwich bread, a meat drawer full of big blocks of cheese, and all that protein and gluten he requires. You only really need the top shelf of the fridge these days. And it’s pretty slim. And it’s very clean. For once. Everything is very clean for once. When you do your cooking, be sure to dirty lots of pots and pans and plates. Then leave it all in the sink. When you wake up and go into the kitchen, you’ll remind yourself that there was some good old-fashioned living going on in this house of yours last night. And you have proof! Advanced homework: Leave it in the sink all day so that you can remind yourself, over and over, that Empty Nest is not turning you into a zombie. You still make (and eat) pasta Bolognese!

12) And here’s another thing. Not only are you not a zombie, but you’re actually living. So guess what? (And these are strict orders. I don’t care what’s in your bank account) You hire a HOUSE-KEEPER! At least once a month. And guess what? That one piece of paper on the stairs that you keep forgetting to pick up, or even passive aggressively LEAVE on the stairs to torture yourself with the fact that you are alone, and you’ve got the piece of paper to prove it…that piece of paper that you pass and every time your bleak mind skips to: I’m going to die alone…well guess what? Suddenly, there’s a nice woman with a vacuum cleaner in her hand, and she’s just voila sucking up that piece of paper, proving to you that you DON’T suck, (that’s the vacuum’s job haha)…and that sometimes you have to pay someone to remind you of that. (See: the therapist or life coach that you’ve hired. That massage you’re having on a regular basis in lieu of doling out gas money.) You’re going to start HIRING people. Not like you’re rolling in the dough, but all that actual dough that made all that bread that you don’t have to buy with your kid in college…well you’re going to put it to use to keep your heart from breaking.

13) Finally, and I’m a living testament to this: Your heart isn’t going to break. Not all the way. You’re going to race home from work or from wherever you are in your day, and think, “Crap. What do I have in the fridge and the pantry to make for dinner? He’s so hungry all the time!” And then you’re going to think, “Crap. It’s just me.” And you’re going to take a sigh, and slow your mind down, and slow your accelerator down, and you’re going to think… Huh. I’ve been wanting to see what this Outlander thing is all about. And I do have Netflix, after all. For him to watch whatever those scary boy shows are about the dead people. I wonder what else there is on Netflix. Maybe there’s a cooking show or something. Ah…and there you have it. You find A Chef’s Table. You find Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat. And yes, you find Outlander, and you start wondering, after binge-watching the first season…if maybe you too could find a portal into another time, and find another you, and other people to love and who love you back. And you wonder…what’s possible for you in the future. Maybe this is the time of your life that you will one day look back on and think, Boy, did I ever have an easy, calm, self-centered (not in a bad way), life when I was in the throes of Empty Nest. Boy, was it uncomplicated. Boy, was I surprisingly happy. I’d do anything to have that Me-time back. In fact, I’d DIE to have all that sacred space, and everything just the way I want…

But for now, while he’s still home…you’ve got to get to the grocery store to buy more deli meat, and more bread, and get that extra $20 bill, and and and…pass by that piece of paper on the stairs and think, There’s a chance, albeit a small one, that maybe he’ll pick up that piece of paper. And if he does, or even if he doesn’t, I know that he loves this house, and all the memories it holds, and me too. And that he’ll come back. Of course he will. There’s Bolognese here. There’s a lawn and a weedwacker that he is proud to have dominion over. He loves his lawn. Our lawn. Who knows: maybe one day it’ll be his house. And maybe I’ll be living in the basement. Or in the studio over the garage. And he’ll be giving me gas money.

All I know is that I have to let August run its course. Not over-think it. Allow the moments to come naturally. Not force them. Be happy with those little in-between conversations over morning cereal. (That’s another thing you don’t have to buy anymore: cereal.) And believe that September will have its moments of grace along with its moments of despair. Please know…there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Yeah, you had kids, and you loved them with everything you had, and now you’re helping them fledge. That doesn’t make it any easier. At least not for you.

The ones who are DYING to be alone and DYING to have their kid out in the world—I suspect that they’ll collapse on their knees from time to time when they pass their child’s empty, clean, innocent room. But remember that when YOU do…just take a look at your screensaver. That room smelled bad. The kid in it did a lot of grumbling and mumbling and wasn’t always such a peach. That door was closed a lot with music thrumping on the other side that had words you couldn’t understand except for the ones you still can’t believe he knows and uses. You thought you imparted too much wisdom for him to listen to those words. Well…maybe you did. Maybe he listened, after all. You’ll find out.

It’s time to let summer go, and welcome September, despair and all. Maybe there’s a naked dance party in it for us! I promise you, as much as I can promise anything without having a crystal ball: There’s a strong likelihood that you’re going to make it. A year will go by and it will be next summer and you’ll be looking at your kid in the same way, and maybe your life too…but you will say to yourself: I lived. I somehow did this life alone, without being a daily parent. I somehow trusted my child to thrive. And he did. And I didn’t die. That’s what I’m putting my money on: That you and your child, apart, will thrive. Not just get by. But THRIVE!

So…go outside. Right now. Walk barefoot in the grass. Drink some lemonade. Watch the dragonflies mate. Feel your place in the natural order of motherhood. And be glad. You did a good job, Mama. You did a good job.

If you want to use writing to navigate your life too…come to a Haven Writing Retreat this September! I have rare spots available on the September 18-22, and 25th-29th retreats! Email me asap to set up a phone call to discuss your creative journey and the Haven experience: laura@lauramunson.com

3 Comments

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3 Responses to How to Survive Empty Nest (AKA: Mommy Massage Money)

  1. Bobbie

    Oh my word this is perfect! Thank you from the bottom of my heart! I laughed and cried. This is just spot on! Going outside now…

  2. Katherine Cox Stevenson

    I loved this Laura!! I don’t have children and can fully relate to this piece as a widow. Big transitions have much in common especially for those of us suddenly living alone. Yes to a housekeeper! This week I hired someone to help me with the garden too. I can’t really afford either financially but they are a goldmine emotionally. Thank you for such an enjoyable and helpful read this Monday morning.

  3. Simply excellent! A dear friend who (like you) is a year a head of me in this empty-nester thing shared your article! She knows I’m a single Mom and struggling with my boy’s transition away. Thanks much for all of your spot-on tid-bits of wisdom! Love your humor and truth! Muchas gracias Laura!

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