The unfeathering of the nest as my son leaves for college

By Emily Franklin
@efranklinauthor

The almost-18-year-old removes a handmade sign from his bedroom wall.

“Should I keep it?” I look at the space where the sign has hung for the past three years, his last name and #13 in painted letters. Next to that space are other blanks—the Catalan independence flag space from his summer in Spain, the schooner sketch from his deckhand job.

“Take it with you or chuck it—or keep it here,” I say. “Those are the choices.” He slumps down on his bed, unsure.

“What about the soccer shirt?” He carefully unpins it, then apologizes for the holes left in the wall. “Look—it’s like I made constellations in the plaster.”

*

When I was pregnant with him, my eldest child, I rearranged the furniture, baby-proofed the outlets and shelves. I painted a bare wooden dresser I found on the curb, detailing the pull-knobs with a bunny and flowers.

“It’s true,” my husband, a pediatrician, told me, “People really do get a nesting instinct.”

“I’m not nesting,” I protested. “I’m not a bird. I’m a miserable pregnant person who wants to just get on with it.”

The getting on with it was all I wanted. To hold the human I’d been growing for what felt like an indeterminable number of weeks, sing and cuddle and nurse and work from home hunched over my newborn as I wrote my first novel. To relish those early parenting days and wonder as this child grew into himself.

To say it’s a leap from painting the dresser to opening those same drawers (repainted a mature, teenage gray) as my son prepares to pack for college is to make the word leap hold everything: his baby laughter over the word “elbow,” his fear of sandwiches, his small body standing on the big yellow chair as he waited for his dad to come home from hospital rounds and the garbage truck with equal excitement, his growing empathy and awareness of the world around him, his awe holding his younger brother, his younger sister, his next younger brother.

Now, there’s no dresser or nursery to paint. Nothing to prep or proof. There is only an emptying. It’s gradual at first—a few books in a bag here, a pair of shoes added there. But it’s an undoing. Unmake the bed so he can pack the sheets and duvet.

*

“Yes,” I nod, “the holes that are left from the nails are like stars.”

He learned to navigate working nights on the boat as I did in my early 20s.

“I sort of like that I made constellations in my room,” he says. We spend the next ten minutes making up strange new constellation names, ones only we know—Cutlery Tree, Top Hat Man, Big Mustache in the Sky.

I walk by the nail hole constellations each morning, watch my son’s dresser go from coughing up clothing from the over-stuffed drawers to each empty drawer closing easily. I stop by his room now and then and feel the grace of these drawers, how much they’ve held—impossibly small onsies, baby nightdresses for ease of changing, a pig pile of socks, his toddler shirts with graphics to his plain teen ones to the button-downs. Everything gone.

I knew this was coming.

But like every loss, you can prepare as much as you like—and I’m a researcher, a planner, a prepper— yet all that pre-work doesn’t mean you feel any better when it is actually happening. Or at least I don’t.

*

I am, in a word, crushed. Of course I want my son out in the world, off exploring, being whomever he is going to become. I look forward to the becoming. But this process—the leaving process—is excruciating. So while I have heard of nesting, of creating a home when pregnant, what I hadn’t heard of is “unfeathering.” We are so busy preparing for parenthood that we tend not to think about its diminishing (at least on a day-to-day level). How, exactly, do we unfeather the nest after spending nearly two decades building it, setting up cribs and beds, conversations, nightly routines, family dinners.

And this is what I’m doing now in the rest of the house. Old books gone. Rug that never fit the living room—given away. The re-gifting closet, drained. Extra linens from my own childhood donated.

I am systematically letting go. Of objects, that is. I stand in the kitchen and survey the shelves—what can I toss out, recycle, give away? The plastic dishes in the bottom drawer from when the four kids learned to set the table. The chipped mugs and the jelly jars from jams long ago consumed. Placemats made in elementary school now crimped at the edges. Goodbye to things time-worn that only reiterate this period is finished.

With each item removed, a sense of relief.

*

Childhood itself is a collection—of days, of moments both magical and draining, of amassing clay sculptures and reports on whales, construction paper turkeys now withering in the dining room sideboard. It’s not that I want to give away memories, more that there’s a need to streamline my surroundings. Instead of feathering and making everything soft and cozy, my instinct is to reduce to the minimum as a way of moving forward.

This stripping away of objects is, I realize, my way of making sure the house—my workspace and family space—is holding up while my insides are not. There’s the drooping of mid-forties skin, a sagging of newness in just about everything—my marriage is twenty years comfortable, the other kids are trekking through their double digits, my career is soul saving and sucking alternately, and the bones of it all are aging.

It’s impossible to see the first child’s leaving for college as anything other than awesome…for him. He’s grown and learned and fallen down and gotten back up. And it’s impossible not to see it as the turning point for the rest of us. For me. A step into the middle part of life, the part that feels like it was my parents’ part but is now mine. I’m not quite ready, and yet I’m here.

The beginning of the leaving. Perhaps I am sloughing off items to somehow reel in the passage of time. Because that’s what the leaving is. The end of those days—early, middle, late childhood—spent wondering what will our family be? Who will this child become?

It’s a work in progress, this giving away and reordering. The bookshelves are tidy. The sand table finally chucked. The living room as spare as possible for a family of bookworms. I can’t streamline the dining room sideboard because we need all three sets of dishes for the multiple huge holidays we host. And this I have to remember—there are future nights, whole holiday weeks, meals yet untasted, art or new flags as yet hung on walls.

*

But it’s tough to feel that when I walk by the nail holes.

“Hey—I found another one,” my son says. He’s got the thankless task of pairing socks, unsure how many he needs for his first semester.

“See?” He points to a double hole in the wall, pressing it with his nail-bitten fingers, triangulating with his other hand. “It’s the Sky Palm.”

“Tree?” I ask.

“No,” he shakes his head. “A hand.”

For a second, I can feel the warmth from his newborn fingers on my chin, his toddler hand holding pebbles he thought were diamonds, his adolescent hand around a baseball, his present-day man hand on the socks. The walls are pockmarked and filled with holes where his treasures used to hang—these are the holes I recognize and can’t cover up in myself.

“I see the Palm,” I say. I want to reach for my son’s hand and hold it, hold it, hold it. But I do what I’m supposed to—I let him find images on the wall, rummage in the sock drawer, and let him go.

Emily Franklin is the author of numerous novels for adults and for young adults as well as the memoir Too Many Cooks about cooking for and eating with her family. She lives with her husband, four kids, and 160-pound dog outside of Boston.

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