Preemptive Empty Nest
A giant sheet of paper taped to our living room wall announces Natalie’s college choices. Two applications have already been sent; in two weeks the rest will be out the door, and her fate — our joined fate — will be sealed. I can’t help but notice that all the schools are out of state. I can’t help but notice that it’s January. I can’t help but count 1, 2, 3 … in 7 months, she’ll be, gulp, gone.
Wait, here she is running up the stairs, her voice arriving before her body plows onto my bed: "Mom, I got in!"
"Where?" I ask evenly. It’s all out of my hands now. After 18 years in the role of The Decider, I’m now the one who waits for information.
Yay! It’s exciting! It’s amazing! It means I was right to spend money on the SAT prep class.
And, it’s also decidedly something else: not Empty Nest Syndrome — I can’t qualify for that yet — but still the open maw of the future gapes, begs to be named. Let’s call it Preemptive Half-Empty Nest Syndrome.
Although Natalie’s sister still has three-plus years until she graduates and makes her way to college, I feel the loss of a bygone era coming on in a big way as well as trepidation about the next unknown of parenting: how to parent a child turned adult.
First, the bygone era. When my kids’ dad and I suddenly divorced, they were 9 and 5. Overnight my life went from fairly ordinary to The Big Long Emergency. How to juggle making a living and caring for the kids and managing co-parenting and my own desires and aspirations became the focus of my adrenaline-fueled existence. The first few years I fell into bed at 9 every night, passing out as opposed to merely falling asleep.
Gradually, the sheer chaos began to ease up as the kids hit the milestones of growing up, but still a feeling of urgent purpose had filled me, allowing me to avoid scary questions like "What will my life look like when they’re gone?" and "Should I be saving for retirement?"
With "spirited" (as the parenting books so euphemistically call children with the disposition of Border Collies) Natalie soon out of the house, there will — even with her 14-and-a-half-year-old sister still very much at home — definitely be more time to think. And think and think and think.
But it’s more than things getting a little too quiet around here that’s got me wondering about the future. I also feel a bit like I did when I was expecting for the first time: Like I have no idea what’s ahead. I have no idea what the next phase of parenting Natalie will look like. And this time there’s no What to Expect When You’re Expecting to cling to.
I can’t really draw from my own experience. I moved away from home at 17, the day after I graduated from high school, and I never went back for summer vacations or to live during a lull between college and career.
It was a different world (my basement apartment cost me $160 a month) and my parents saw me as fully raised once my high school diploma was in hand. They’d come of age during World War II, not much hand-holding for young adults in their time.
I also had a more distant relationship with my parents than the one Natalie and I share. Back then adults lived in an alternate universe of Life magazine subscriptions, tweed skirts, and Glen Miller records. Their psyches were mostly sealed off from their teenagers. Their worries existed in whispers behind closed doors. Natalie can read my thoughts from across the room and will gladly take off in the morning in my brown suede boots if I’m not watching. Sometimes we laugh together so hard over an SNL skit we gasp for air.
Maybe every generation thinks they’re closer to their kids than the one before. If that’s the case, I’m not the first to make this mistake.
More emails from colleges will arrive over the next few weeks. A decision will be made. Hers. And then, the day will come, she will be gone.
But the rest of our story, of mother and daughter, remains to be written.
Theo Pauline Nestor is the host of the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat (March 15-17 with keynote speaker Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild) and author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed. Her work has been published in the New York Times, WomansDay.com, the Huffington Post, Brain,Child magazine and more. An instructor for UW PCE's Certificate in Memoir program, Nestor also coaches writers. Learn more about her at Writing Is My Drink .