How to reconcile the empty nest me with the motherhood me

By Randi Olin

I keep a small canvas pouch next to my bed, its black hand-stitched letters delicately spell out: “Enjoy Today.” My daughter brought it home for me last spring from her semester abroad in Cape Town. It was a simple gesture, one she knew I’d appreciate. Because sometimes I struggle with lingering in the present; my mind tends to wander backwards or forwards rather than staying put. Which is particularly relevant for me these days, as I’m trying to adjust to my new normal—daily life without my kids at home.

When I became an empty nester this past fall, a heaviness thick as a damp wool blanket settled in as soon as we said goodbye at my son’s dorm. I wouldn’t let it smother me though, it’s not in my nature to let that happen. I’m a problem-solver, a collector of information. So I turned to the internet, to read all things positive about this transitional period. If other people could make it through this non-syndrome-syndrome of loneliness and solitude, and I knew many who did, I could survive—or even flourish—in this stage too.

Maybe that was just wishful thinking—or flawed logic.

Because really, how was I supposed to suddenly navigate the everyday without my maternal stripes, to “just be” in the moment and settle into my child-free surroundings, when for years I’d been caught up in the swirl of at-home parenting: staying on top of my kids’ schedules, keeping the house in order, being a sure-thing presence at home in case someone needed a ride, a question answered, or just some quiet company at the end of a long day. The same space that for two decades felt gleefully chaotic became overnight uncomfortably lonely and empty.

So many parents speak of this transition period with promise and enthusiasm: You’ll have time to meet old friends for dinner! (but what about family taco nights and meals as a fourtop?). Weekends will be your own! (yes, but I miss our overscheduled Saturdays and Sundays, sitting on cold, metal bleachers with all the other parents at my son’s baseball games). You can read more! (I love to read, but the house is so darn quiet). You’ll have more time to yourself, for Netflix binge-watching, for self-care, for whatever you feel like (The last time I had so much time to myself was during my late twenties, before married life and motherhood took over). The list goes on and on, about finding the good in this new-found freedom. But the reality for me is that I’ve loved nothing more than being needed by my kids, coming home to something or someone at 2:35pm, being a round-the-clock parent.

So many buts, so much holding onto the past, so much discomfort about the passage of time.

And yet I had no choice but to adjust, hard as it was. The alternative would be giving up the possibility of a fulfilled existence just because my kids weren’t there anymore. So I took action. I made some conscious changes to my daily routine, and committed to them. With these tweaks, the present no longer seemed as scary without my “mom” identity, and I also learned some things about myself in the process.

1. Andy from the Headspace app became my new friend. He talks me through my meditation packs with visualization and breathing exercises. As it turns out, for the past 18 years, I’ve essentially forgotten what it’s like to breath alone or for myself. Having all the oxygen in the room feels better than I thought it would, it’s even invigorating at times.

2. I also started running again, outside, no matter the conditions. The fresh air like a sweet elixir against my middle-aging skin. I have no choice but to look forward when I’m running or I will fall. Eyes straight ahead is so much easier than dwelling on the past and on their leaving, of all that’s been left behind.

3. Instead of my quiet desk at home, my neighborhood Starbucks has become my remote office most afternoons (there’s iced decaf coffee with almond milk, free wifi and lots of people!).

4. And I go on girl trips, with friends I truly love. We laugh—hard. We talk—deeply. About the challenges of surviving the transition to the empty nest. About night sweats and aging parents. About breast cancer and tattooed nipples. About the intense, unpredictable grief of losing a friend or loved one. About trying to find yourself after years of focusing on everyone else, especially the little people you created, literally.

After a few months of easing into this new chapter of life, something interesting happened. My kids would come home for school breaks and holidays, and I’d naturally default to catering to their wants again instead of my own. I’d make excuses for not fitting in my Headspace and my Starbucks time. Someone needs me, I’d think to myself. Whether this was actually true or not wasn’t even relevant; I wanted to believe it was and so it was. I’ve always relished the maternal gift of the people you love most needing and relying on you. But from this new perspective I was seeing more clearly than before that it can come at a price.

Every time my kids were home I took my foot off the gas pedal, and each time it became a bit worse. First was Thanksgiving, and then for a month over Christmas and New Year’s. As soon as my kids were back in the picture, the self-driven-empty-nest-me simply stalled. I wasn’t establishing the new boundaries I had worked so hard to create; I wasn’t able to put my needs before theirs, or even alongside theirs, when they were actually in my presence.

Who do I want to be in this post-motherhood life? When my kids come home, do I revert back to caretaker and resort to the thing I know I was good at, that I gave my all to, because it’s what feels most comforting? Or do I want to pursue the promise of empty nest me, a person who puts her own needs on the list, even if not at the top.

Why do I find it so hard now to strike a balance between their needs and my own?

The truth is, even when I’m doing empty nest me I don’t know how to turn the maternal me off. When my kids are at school, and I am mothering from afar, I still feel the pull of their connection. Every call or text or FaceTime feeds me, and eases the discomfort of the quiet present regardless of whether I am in an empty nest stride. I always choose to stop whatever it is I am doing to pick up the phone. It’s this bond with my children that keeps me both grounded and afloat, in the way only children can, and I don’t want to lose that.

And yet I want to reconcile the two—before and after me—and explore more deeply what comes beyond everyday motherhood. To not slide backwards every time my kids walk through the front door. To embrace the promise of the empty nest, knowing it doesn’t replace all that came before it. To be present in today, and tomorrow, no matter whether my kids are visiting home or not. And to accept that my role as a hands-on mother is not the only thing that can make me feel whole.

Randi Olin is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She just enjoyed a week of having her son home for his spring break, even though she didn’t work out of Starbucks once. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Artwork by Smiling Giraffe Studio.

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