This weekend, I drop off my “baby” at college. It won’t quite be an empty nest… my oldest doesn’t go back for her second year for two weeks. But as I inventory the boxes I’ve packed for him to make sure he’s got laundry detergent and dental floss, razors and shower slippers, I feel the weight of this impending loss.
Last night I had a dream about an old boyfriend moving in to my house with his three little kids. (He does not have three little kids, and he is decidedly not moving in. It was my brain playing tricks on me). They were a lot to handle. They wanted full breakfasts every morning. In sleep, I remember thinking, “Americans and their fixation with breakfast!” (We’re not big breakfast people). But the overwhelming feeling of the dream was: they need me. There was something so warm about it, this sensation of small people needing me, that I missed them terribly when I woke up and realized they were entirely made up. I was jarred from sleep early, so I watched the season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, an episode filled with the hope that children bring, and the feeling was solid on my shoulders. There are no more small people who need me every day.
Regular readers will note I’ve been gearing up for this empty nest for years now. And you may even remember that I’m an unlikely choice for the mother to feel it most strongly: I am not a cook, I am not a warm-fuzzy person who was defined or made whole by motherhood. I have always pulled against the strings of it, wanting more freedom than they gave me, wanting to wander farther than they allowed. But now, the strings untethering, I feel adrift.
I imagined myself trying to explain it someone yesterday, and the only phrase that came up for me was: I don’t want anything anymore. For nearly twenty years, my organizing force has been that I wanted to get them over the finish line. I wanted them to not grow up poor, not to grow up afraid. I succeeded in both those things. Whatever life holds for them now, they’re both officially adults who have not known lack in their childhoods, who have not known some of the hurts that I knew. There are all kinds of cycles I made sure ended with me. I am immensely proud. And yet it leaves me without a mission now.
This is not a statement of despair. I know other missions await. I know there are books to write, maybe a non-profit to start, or an internet business to throw my energy into. There is a niece (and maybe one day other nieces and nephews) to spoil, grown children to mentor, family to love and spend time with. Maybe I’ll build a new house (a lifelong dream), or maybe I’ll downsize and travel. Maybe both, in sequence. I know there is much good ahead. But here, as my house echoes hollow, with the kids gone to spend the night with their dad and giving me a glimpse into the new normal, I pause to note: there is loss in this moment.
I suppose for all these years, I assumed them mine. It was an easy illusion to hold, because I lucked out in so many ways. Even as teenagers, they were inordinately easy, not ones to rebel, and so it was easy to imagine they’d always need me the same way. I imagined I’d always be in charge of reminding them to eat greens and moisturize, always be able to keep them from confronting the jarring world, keep them out of traffic, out of heartache, out of pain. Of course the world disabused me of this notion early, but it didn’t – doesn’t – stop me from trying, still, today. It is hard to stop.
I know chapters must end to let new ones begin. I am immensely proud of the young adults my children have become. I am excited for what’s ahead for them, and for me. (I’m sorry to keep teasing news I can’t share, but: there’s news! I will share shortly, as soon as it’s okay to announce, and it’s pretty awesome). I guess as with the end of many things, I am somewhat stunned at the speed at which it ended, when it once felt like I would never be through with it. I want to reach back to the young mother who felt too swamped to take a shower some days and tell her just how fast it goes, and how unimportant so many of the things that troubled her really turned out to be. They do all learn to go potty, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s at two or two-and-a-half, not in the end. They do all learn to read, and the fact that you weren’t able to teach them at four like your mother taught you doesn’t have a long-term impact. The scraped knees and the childhood tears go fast, the unwillingness to try new foods fades, the baby fat turns to the lean lines of adulthood oh-so-quickly.
But then I suppose it’s hard to see the long sweep of things in the moment. I bet there’s a version of me that’s twenty years older who wants to look back to today’s me and say: they don’t really leave, not ever. I will try to find her in me.