The Empty Nest: When Mom Flies, Too
I mourned my kids moving on. Until I ditched the empty nest myself
Ten years ago, I watched my Montana friend go through Empty Nest. Her solution: drive a massive ice-breaking truck at the McMurdo Station research center in Antarctica (because she’s a badass). She brought some homemade Hula-Hoops too (because she’s the maker of fun), and a few instruments (because she knows the power of music).
She faced Empty Nest with the same electrifying spirit and adventure with which she’d raised her boy and girl…and now they were off to see the world, replete with badassery, fun, and music. And she was, too.
Back then, my boy and girl were still thick in the throes of music lessons and sporting events and homework at the kitchen table and weekend slumber parties. I couldn’t imagine letting them fledge the nest, much less myself. Not like that. I was sad for her, even though I knew she’d come back with tales to tell and more life experience under her frostbitten belt. But I felt like she was running away from the grief. I mentioned it to another friend and she said, “Are you kidding? Motherhood is great. But you’re always a mother, even after they leave. It’s just different. Your kids are onto new things. And you get your life back! Reclaim it!”
My life back? I felt like I was finally getting the life I’d dreamed about.
The End of Raising Children is the Beginning of Something New
Being a mother was the most fulfilling thing I’d ever done. Sure, I’d traveled all over Europe and the Eastern Bloc in my teens and twenties with a backpack. Intrepid, stubborn, solo, and full of wonder — writing my way through it all. But it felt like all of that was preparation for the most hair-raising, plot-twisting, heartwarming, soul-feeding work of my life: raising children.
And I did it well. For 22 years. The last stint as a single mother.
And here I am.
My daughter just graduated from college and moved into an apartment in San Francisco. She’s got a great job, great friends. A mother couldn’t be more proud.
My boy is off to college. He’s got a great roommate and will be living out his dream playing baseball at an institute of higher learning. We both moved him in. My daughter flew back to California. I flew back to my house in Montana.
It’s over. That part. And I’m afraid of the grief. I’m afraid of who I’ll be without them. Here. In my Empty Nest in Montana.
But I’m not here for long.
Just like my friend…I anticipated this pain and tried to prepare.
Two years ago, I started imagining the next chapter of my life. The fear of Empty Nest had me by the throat, but I took my friend’s lead and my other friend’s comment, and I decided that I was going to grab this chapter by the ponytail and yank the weeping woman attached to it back out into the world. To trust-fall into travel and adventure, as the woman she is now.
Exploring the World Again — On My Own
So this winter, I’m hitting the road. I’m going to live my own version of breaking the ice in Antarctica with my own version of Hula-Hoops and instruments: my journal and a group of seekers.
I’ve started a new Haven Writing Program: Haven Wander. My primary programs still take place here in Montana, but for people who are less writing-focused and more travel-focused, I’m offering new adventures to exotic places around the globe. With the help of some fabulous and inspiring locals from Marrakech, I have put together a week of intentional wandering around Morocco using writing as our guide. It will be a powerful feast for the senses and soul that will ignite us in ways we all need deeply.
Because I need it too.
I need to reconnect with my stubborn young dreamer/traveler. I know that her confidence and curiosity are still in me. I want to meet her with the wisdom she’s gathered along the way as a mother and as a woman and an author and teacher. I want to scoop my whole self up and tell her that there’s so much on the other side of her motherhood. And that just because she has an Empty Nest, it doesn’t mean that she has to be alone. Her nest, in fact, does not have to be limited to the walls of her home. Her nest can be movable. And she can feather it with women who are just as curious and hungry for connection as she is.
So my new baby, Haven Wander: Morocco, is hatching this February. Seven women will join me on a week-long journey of intentional living and being. And before that, I’ll travel throughout Morocco alone for a month. To the Atlas Mountains. The Blue City. Fez. Tangiers. I’ll see southern Spain and take the ferry across from Gibraltar. I’ll be solo and as Joni Mitchell wrote, “unfettered and alive.” Deep sigh. It’s been a long time since I’ve been that woman. I’ve missed her.
Taking a Pause Between My Chapters
First, however, and most pressing: I’m taking a very deliberate and very serious pause between my own chapters. A full stop to honor my transition. I think that this is vital for all of us in Empty Nest, no matter how we navigate it.
I’m borrowing from the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. Of mourning. Of stopping your world and observing your loss and your grief. I’ll light a candle and sit on chairs around the house and reflect in thought and prayer, and write. No TV. No computer screens. Just observations of my motherhood and of who these children of mine have been. I’ll “sit shiva” for the learning to crawl and learning to walk and learning to speak and running barefoot in the grass and swinging on the swing set and making mud pies. I’ll “sit shiva” for piano lessons and guitar lessons and school plays and orchestra concerts and soccer games and track meets and football games and baseball, baseball, baseball. I’ll “sit shiva” for all the birthday balloons I put on the garden archway and the streamers taped to the corners of the porch. I’ll “sit shiva” for the pony rides in the front yard and the badminton, and the croquet, and bocce, and backgammon and cards and Farkle and Scrabble and Bananagrams played on the screened porch by candlelight. For all the bonfires and marshmallows and star-gazing in sleeping bags on the dewy cool grass. For every ahhhhh to every shooting star.
And then, on the seventh day, I’ll take a walk around all four corners of my land and return to my front porch to symbolize my return to society. I may even call my rabbi friend to read these customary words from the Old Testament:
No more will your sun set, nor your moon be darkened, for God will be an eternal light for you, and your days of mourning shall end. (Isaiah 60:20)
Before I begin my week of quiet in this house, I decide to have a video call with my kids. I tell them about my plans this February, especially about the part where I’ll be traveling alone. I haven’t wanted to overwhelm them in the midst of all their endings and beginnings.
“Mom. Just make sure you have Wi-Fi wherever you go. You walk so confidently…even if it’s in the wrong direction!” They’re making fun of me. Millennials.
“I like getting a little lost,” I tell them. “I always find my way. Maybe it’s our sea merchant ancestors.”
They part laugh, part roll their eyes. They don’t know that I used to be without them.
I stare into my computer, looking at them in their new rooms, new homes: “You two are the joys of my life. I’ve loved every minute of mothering you. And now…it’s time for me,” I try to convince myself. “I need to fly the nest too.”
I press into the bruise of Empty Nest, and more words erupt out of me. “The truth is…I’m tired of trying to be everything for everybody. I’m tired of being so responsible. I need to just…wander for a while. ”
I smile at them and try not to cry. They hate it when I cry. “I hope…if you have children…that once they leave, you’ll have this time of reclaiming yourself too.”
Their faces fade a bit — perhaps the way mine did when my friend announced her Antarctica adventure. They think that it’s nice, their mother wanting to travel. But they’re startled by this gung-ho, fling-the-doors-open mother I’ve been, now pushing all of us out the door at once.
“I’ll be back. Don’t you worry. This nest isn’t going anywhere. Not for a long time, if I can help it. And I can always fly home if there’s an emergency. I’m not going anywhere too remote.”
“Good for you, Mom,” they both smile and say. “You deserve it.”
“Thank you.” It feels like the most important bow of my life. And also…permission to fly.
And I realize, my motherhood is not over. It’s just different now. I can see that — even though it’s brutal to walk by their empty rooms, through the empty rooms of this house, and imagine all of the living that has been done here, now in the rearview mirror.
This week I’ll face it. I’ll watch the flocking birds, preparing for their migration. I’ll walk this house, this land, revisiting it all. And then I’ll learn from birds, and do my best to let it go.
Soon…it will be time for my migration, too.