I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?
As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.
We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.
We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.
I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.
Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.
I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?
There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.
Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.
It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.
But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.
Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.
I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song — singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.
I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?