The paradox of emptying the nest (with thanks to A Squash and a Squeeze)

By Lauren Apfel

When my kids were little, one of our favorite books was A Squash and a Squeeze by Julia Donaldson, a Jewish folk tale reimagined for the toddler set. We loved all the Donaldson books in our family, we were good Brits, but this one always carried a particular resonance.

A little old lady lived all by herself, with a table and chairs and a jug on the shelf.

The rub? There isn’t enough room in her house. So she asks a wise old man for help, as she grumbles and grouses, and he offers some curious advice—to take in a menagerie. First a hen and then a goat and then a pig and then a cow, all four animals adopted as boarders, crammed into the single room she calls home, wreaking havoc in one form or another. Chewing the curtains, raiding the larder, jigging table-top, you get the point. 

A house that started out simply as “little” becomes, in the course of things, utterly “weeny.” 

Take them all out, said the wise old man. But then I’ll be back where I first began.

Though, of course, she isn’t. When all is said and done and the quartet ceremoniously exits the premises, one after the next just as they arrived, miracle of miracles the woman proclaims, Just look at my house, it’s enormous now.

The moral of the story is pretty clear. It’s a tale of reframing, a parable of the power of relativity. As a mother of four children, whose house has at many, many times felt squashed and squeezed at the hands of its unruly denizens, the book spoke volumes to me.

We haven’t read it for years. My kids are too old now, too busy listening to Kendrick Lamar, amassing bottles of Prime, and doom-scrolling TikTok. The youngest two are 12 and the first, the hen, well he just turned 18, that critical if not arbitrary moment when childhood as we understand it comes to a stiff halt. Last month, he flew the coop to university the next city over—and I promptly dug up the book from my collection of un-throw-out-able mementos of motherhood past.

Because instead of dwelling on the proverbial emptying of the nest, with its overly simplistic narrative of loss, my mind keeps returning to the little old lady. How in order to feel free sometimes, first we need to feel stuck. The truth is I was counting down the days until Oliver left. Wishing away the dishes that would appear overnight, without fail, haphazardly stacked in the sink, the thumping up and down the stairs at all hours, the unanswered text messages, the general insouciance-cum-unaccountability.

These last months of the “summer before” were among the most disconnected I’ve ever felt from him. He was both son and stranger, financial dependent and sub-par roommate. One foot in the land of adulthood, one foot still lingering in his childhood home. I couldn’t wait for him to go, I couldn’t bear the thought of him gone.

Of all the paradoxes of parenting, this one felt the most bittersweet—that state, Susan Cain writes, where light and dark are “forever paired.” Or maybe it just felt the most final. Parenting is the ultimate exercise in both/and, a phrase I’ve grown increasingly fond of as I’ve gotten older, as the black-and-white of my youth has given way to the pigeon grey of middle age. In ancient Greek, the concept is known as a “dialectic,” two truths that sit together uneasily but together just the same. The days are long, the years are short. All joy and no fun. I love you so much, now go the fuck to sleep.

Or as the Decemberists put in the title of their 2015 album, an album that was something of a soundtrack to the thicket of my own experience of motherhood, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World.

Many years ago, I wrote an essay called “The Family You Want, the Family You Get.” This was a running theme in my work at the time, the chasm between expectation and reality. I had wanted a family of three kids and, with a twin pregnancy that shocked me to the core, I ended up with a set of four. 

I’m not sure I was meant to be a parent of four. Some people take it in their stride, the more the merrier. But I haven’t. I’m introverted and easily overwhelmed; I’m not terribly maternal. I balk at many of the traditionally domestic tasks of motherhood that are equated with a nurturing personality. My children have become wonderfully self-sufficient as a result, but I’m often judged for it. I wonder what kind of parent I would have been to two or even three. Whenever a kid is removed from the equation—and this is what the essay was about—like the little old lady, the relief is palpable. I can breathe again, sneeze again, full of fiddle-de-dees.

My marriage imploded under the weight of those children. Not that there weren’t other problems, not that they were the cause, but the sheer magnitude of the responsibility they entailed, the lack of room in the house metaphorical and otherwise, exposed an irremediable fault line. Since we separated, I’ve watched my ex-husband thrive in his quasi-child-free environment.

Five and a half years after our separation, he tells me he’s ready to be more of a primary parent. My youngest children have just started secondary school and by bad luck mottled with good luck they’ve ended up at a school close to where he lives. It’s a lovely school, the same school, it turns out—because life is funny and cyclical—where I took the picture I used as the header image for that essay about wanting and not getting. The kids were all poised on a running track there—ages ten, eight, five, and five—arranged in a row with the lane number corresponding to their place in the pecking order. It was cute. It was telling. 

What a luxury to decide you are ready for such things. But I get it. I’ve felt for my still-married friends, the ones drowning in the sea of Mental Load, the billabong of Default Parenting, the ones who haven’t even had the small luxury I’ve had these past years of dipping their toes in the waters of non-custody time.

Now my twins, the pig in the larder and the cow dancing the jig, are with their dad for most of the work week. The hen, my darling firstborn who smashed the jug and laid the egg on the fireside rug, has moved out. My house feels a little bigger, yes, my time a little less squashed. But unlike the story, the lodgers weren’t here to teach me a lesson about positivity or relativity. They were here because they were profoundly longed for, profoundly loved.  

And so I sit with the paradox of wanting two things at once and not getting the undiluted joy of either—my children all home, tucked safe in the nest, and the freedom of a house not constantly squeezed with their needs. I am both mourning and celebrating the end of an era. Some of it was terrible. Most of it was beautiful. All of it was ours.

Lauren Apfel is co-founder and executive editor of Motherwell. She’s been re-reading all of her favorite old children’s books. Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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