Empty Nest Syndrome

01857bf74df15df4e47a9ff442f79b42Unlike most parents, I used to dread the end of summer when it was time for the kids to go back to school. I’m all about the loosey-goosey lazy days of unscheduled relaxation and the freedom to be spontaneous. For me, sending them back to school meant setting the alarm clock, making lunches, pick-ups and drop-offs, and scheduling life around homework and extra-curricular activities.

And let’s not forget all the back-to-school paperwork. I can never understand why schools make us fill out the exact same forms every single year for each child. Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to send home one printout of your vital information and ask you to send it back only if there are changes needed? But I digress.

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As I was saying , in the past got a little blue at back-to-school time, but that was before I became an empty nester. Last year was the first time in 16 years that both kids were away at school and it was an adjustment for my husband and me, but not in the way you might think. When the first one was preparing to leave for college, I was slightly beside myself – and I’ll share that story in a moment – but first I’m going to tell you something that other parents think, but dare not say:

“This whole empty-nest thing is freaking amazing!”

My husband and I can’t remember when we’ve had so much fun. We travel, go to music festivals and rock concerts, dine out, sleep with the bedroom door wide open… There are never dirty dishes in the sink. The countertops bear no backpacks, books, pencils… I do laundry once a week. ONCE! Nobody calls me in a panic to tell me they forgot their computer in their room, probably on the floor under a wet towel or next to their gym bag, which was also forgotten and could I please drop that off, too? No! There is none of that!!! No forgotten lunches. No back-to-school nights or PTA meetings. That mishigas is all in my rearview mirror.

Now when they call, it’s to ask “How are you?” or “What’s new?” or once in a while it’s, “Can you transfer some money to my debit card?” And ever now and then, they call just to say, “I love you, mom.” Doesn’t that phone call sound a whole lot better than, “I’m in the nurse’s office with a headache. Can you come pick me up?”

re-6-216x300Oh yeah.  Those headaches are somebody else’s headache now.

Yes, these are the things empty nesters don’t tell you, or their children. Because, after all, nobody wants come off as an unloving parent – and let me be very clear, we love our children with all our hearts whether they’re home or at school. All I’m saying is, like anything else, you get used to the changes, you make the adjustments, and then you put your feet up and make a martini.

I never thought it could be this way, or that I’d be so relaxed with them out from under my wing. Kicking that first kid out of the nest was actually quite hard. At the time, I wrote a sort called “Please Release Me.”

Here it is again.  Enjoy!

Please Release Me

Parents have lots of endearing nicknames for their kids: Budgie, Smoojie, Jellybean…  For occasions when their children are being needy, I’ve heard parents call them Velcro, The Warden, The Cling-On… And during those especially trying times: The Barnacle or The hemorrhoids (always said with love, of course).  In our house, you would be known as Whiny Clingman or Grumpus Minutus.

As a tyke, whenever my Sonny Boy was feeling codependent, he’d stand in front of me with his arms raised, saying, “I hold you, Mommy?”  This meant, “Pick me up.”

I know what you’re thinking: how cute!  Yes.  It was cute…for the first seven thousand times.  After that, as I’d try to cook the food, launder the laundry, or tend to our younger child, it would become a tad less darling.

If I couldn’t pick him up right away, he would swiftly transform from Whiny Clingman to Grumpus Minutus – turning me into Grumpus Minimus or Grumpus Maximus, depending on my hormone levels.

Sonny Boy would often wait for the most inopportune time to require cuddling – usually when I’d have his little sister on the changing table.  I would have to bend down, raise my ointment-covered hands like a surgeon, press my head against daughter to keep her from rolling off the table and hug Sonny Boy with my knees and elbows. Try it sometime.  It’s a herniated disk waiting to happen.

He would come from out of nowhere, like a toddler ninja, and insist on human contact.  So stealth.  One time, I didn’t even know he was standing right behind me until he squeaked, “I hold you, Mommy!”  Nearly jumping out of my skin, I jerked, flinging diaper rash goop onto the ceiling and alarming the daylights out of poor Peaches.  The result?  Two disgruntled employers.

Now before you judge my Sonny Boy as demanding, let me tell you, he was the ideal child.  A delight!  Cheerful and sweet 99% of the time!  He loved to sit quietly and look through his books or play with his toys for hours on end.  That’s why I’d feel especially guilty if I couldn’t hold him at the precise instant he needed some extra attention.

Whenever I could, I’d scoop him into my arms, and squeeze him with just the right amount of squish.  I’d nuzzle his sweet ample cheeks, and whisper, “Sometimes you love too much, my little man.” And then we would laugh and he’d kiss me.  It was our little joke.

This all happened nearly two decades ago which, in parent years, was yesterday.  It’s an age-old cliché, but truer than true: time passes faster than you ever thought possible.  These days, Sonny Boy is nearly a foot taller than I, so I’m grateful he hasn’t asked me to pick him up recently.  But he hasn’t asked for hugs either.  If only.

Very soon, we will drop Sonny Boy off at college for the first time.  We live in New York.  His college is deep in Pennsylvania, so it’s practically Kentucky (or Pennsyltucky, as the locals call it).  Being a six-hour car ride away, it may as well be in another galaxy.

I have already warned him that I might be embarrassing on move-in day.  I’m pretty sure there will be tears.  I already wept at orientation, and I wasn’t alone.  It happened when the bursar spoke to all of us parents about college loans and financing.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

But move-in day is sure to be worse.  I will hide behind my huge Jackie O sunglasses.  I’ll probably tear up on the ride there, but as soon as our wheels hit the campus, I will begin the “ugly cry.”  I will try to be brave while meeting his RA and put on a jolly façade as I’m being introduced to his roommate.  By then, however, my nose will be red, my eyes will be puffy and I will be fooling no one.

When it’s time to say good-bye, he will walk us to our car.  He will hug me and, if I’m lucky, he’ll kiss my cheek.  Hubby and I will drive away, leaving him behind.  In that twinkling of an eye, I will have to let him go, for real.  And this will cause me considerable pain because, my name is Whiny Clingman, and sometimes I love too much.




She has always been one surprise after another…

For legitimate reasons, we believed a second child was not in the cards for us. So imagine our surprise when we were dealt a miracle! I was certain we would have another boy, just like our first, with jet-black hair and rich olive skin.

On delivery day, my husband and I were relaxing in a birthing suite at New York Hospital – very civilized. After an epidural (mine) and a nap (his), we started watching a movie, starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. I never saw the ending because, with only minutes left, my doctor decided that I looked “too comfortable.”

Upon examining me, she turned to her nurse and said, “Let’s go!”

Suddenly, off went the television. Poof! Bette and Charles left me alone with a doctor and a nurse scrambling around the room, and an anxious husband standing over my bed.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “The movie’s almost over.”

My husband informed me that let’s go meant let’s go right now! “You didn’t see the look on her face,” he whispered.

“Like right now, right now?” I asked. “There’s five more minutes left of the movie!”

My doctor looked at me askance (priorities anyone?) and then told me to push.

Now, if you’ve ever expected a baby, I’m sure some thoughtful, kindhearted person has shared horror stories of women pushing for hours and hours… Me? I pushed once and only once, possibly setting a land-speed record in childbirth. I should have known right away that this little one would be a force of nature.

She draws you in

When the doctor handed her to me, she took my breath away– a perfectly round head covered in wisps of wavy hair, the color of pale summer wheat. She had full pouty lips and skin so creamy and translucent that she seemed illuminated from within. Her eyes were the color of emeralds. This little thing I cradled to my chest looked like a peach with the Gerber baby’s face superimposed onto it.

I fell completely and instantly in love.

If she felt the same way, it was not immediately obvious. Her hands were drawn up to the sides of her little fruit face, fists clenched and she was screaming more loudly than seemed possible for a person her size. Since we’d only just met, I didn’t take it personally.

She’s unpredictable…

Now that I’ve gotten to know her better, I can tell you that everything about my girl, and everything to do with her, is not what you’d expect.

There is no lay-up. There’s never a preamble. She glides and pirouettes with the shifting winds of her own creativity and goes wherever her ideas take her. And just when you think you know where she’s headed, she chicanes. A human plot twist on wheels is she, and I defy anyone to pin her down, or anticipate her next move.

She is a typical teenager…

She has a Tumblr account, Skypes with other kids, wears a ton of bracelets, plays the guitar, and loves to dye her hair crazy colors.

She is unlike any other…

She’d rather hang out in a library than go to a shopping mall, prefers writing with a fountain pen, hand-tats Victorian lace using an antique shuttle and is a loose tea connoisseur.

She is fearless…

Take for example the time she saw an open casting call, a paying gig, for a sketch comedy troupe in Manhattan. You know the Manhattan I’m talking about, right? The one filled with tens of thousands of unemployed actors who’d pummel each other just for the chance to wear a sandwich board in Times Square, if it meant having a job? Well, she asked if we’d drive her to the audition (because 15-year-olds don’t drive). As parents, we wanted to protect her and grappled with preparing a soft landing pad: Just so you know, sweetheart, it’s kind of a long shot… We’re so proud of you for trying, but… Instead, we decided to mind our own business and say nothing – which turned out to be the right thing because they hired her on the spot.

That’s the stuff from which she is made. She floats through life like a curious butterfly, winging it from one thing to another, lighting just long enough to gather an experience and then off she goes again, on to the next thing.

Me? I could never be like her. I am a planner. I like things organized. All the labels in my refrigerator face forward and my drinking glasses are arranged in the cabinet by size, shape and color. According to my calendar, I know exactly what I’m doing through to 2015. I don’t have OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder), but living with her has turned me into the OCD (Ordered-Chaos Director). And while I can’t be certain, I’m guessing she was put here to teach me about spontaneity.

She is a parenting challenge…

Living with a person like this will keep you on your toes, I promise you.

So I don’t know why it came as any shock when she announced that she wanted to go to boarding school.

Everything was in place for her to attend our local high school, which is within walking distance from our house. I had mapped out the entire academic year in my head and that map did not lead to a school in another state, 150 miles away. But she had heard about this wonderful place and asked my husband to research it. He thought it was a great idea and made an appointment for a tour and an interview.

Did I mention that this all happened over the course of 48 hours? Did I also mention that I was dead-set against it? Now don’t get me wrong. Of course I want the best for both our children, but before her brother left the nest, there were four full years of high school to prepare for his departure. I knew what was coming. With her, I had no warning at all.

On the day of the appointment, I grudgingly went along for the ride (which was very scenic), took the tour of the school (which was quite impressive), agreed to an interview (which was certainly pleasant), and fell in love with the place (which was very sudden and surprising to everyone, especially to me).

With only two months to prepare, I vowed to make the most of our last scraps of time together. We spent the final week of August lazing by the shore. We walked along the boardwalk, shopped, got matching henna tattoos, and sampled fudge and frozen custard (the sweetness of which could not compare to those afternoons with my daughter).

Contrary to everyone else’s opinion, I will be fine. So what if she has occupied one-third of my waking thoughts and commanded so much of my attention for all these years? What does it matter that, since her brother started college, it’s been just the two of us at breakfast, after-school or whenever hubby is at work or traveling?

I am adjusting. She’s doing it, so I can, too. Right? Here’s how I cope: I imagine that she’s there with me when I have my morning coffee. I feel her presence in the passenger’s seat as I run my errands. I pretend she’s holding my hand, like she always did, when I have to do something that scares me. But there’s one thing I haven’t worked out yet: when I need her advice, I won’t be able to ask her, or call her, or text her. You see, she gives great advice, but I don’t want to interrupt her while she’s busy studying, and getting to know her roommate, and making friends.

She is my best friend…

Conventional wisdom and all the experts say that Rule Number One of childrearing is: Do not become your child’s best friend. That’s a boundary that should never be crossed. “Be the parent!” they say.

I always thought this advice was based on the principles of respect and discipline. If your child views you as a friend, she will not take you seriously. She will not listen to your rules. By relying on you for friendship, she will be hesitant to make friends of her peers.

Well, my daughter does respect me, and listen to my rules, and has never hesitated to venture out into the world.

So, here’s the real reason: Parenting Rule Number One exists not to protect the children, but rather to protect the parents. (Notice I said she is my best friend, not that I am hers.) When our offspring leave the nest, they will be on to their next adventure. They will be forging relationships and making friends and learning about themselves outside the context of their family. But you, my dear parent, will be left behind.  You’ll be sad, and you will be worried and you will be lonesome.

Photo by Paola A. Bowley Photography

I know all this to be true, because she moved out 3 weeks ago. The whole house feels different. And even though she’ll be back, she will be changed. Heck, she practically changes on a daily basis. She will be more mature. She will be more self-sufficient. But there is one thing that will be forever constant: I will always break Rule Number One and she will always be my best friend.