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Growing pains of empty nesting; the unfolding process of letting go
In the late afternoon this past Saturday, the heatwave that held NYC in its grips broke, finally. All of July it seemed like we were languishing in murky waters; the air was muggy and lingered on your skin. I opened the balcony door after the rain came down in sheets—quick, heavy, and sudden, making everyone outside scramble to gather their things and run. I was greeted with a rush of cool, dry air, something that I hadn’t felt in over a month. It was like meeting an old friend again. You pick up where you left off and you’re reminded of why you still like this person—or in this case, summer.
I was never a fan of summer until I had kids. I don’t particularly like hot weather and don’t enjoy moving through different climate zones every time I have a place to go: the heaviness of humidity, the suffocating staleness of subway platforms, and the cool shock of air conditioned spaces that turns too cold after it outlives its initial welcome. But I learned to love summer when the kids were young and I began to appreciate how the hot weather forced us to slow down. After recalibrating from an unsettling June when routines are upended and another grade is checked off at the end of the school year, summer was a joy. The restless energy of young kids forced us out of the apartment when my natural instinct is to stay indoors from the hot weather. We filled our days and weeks with so many activities and day trips, saying yes to everything that the city had to offer. By the time Labor Day rolled around, we felt full and satisfied knowing that we had a good summer.
I don’t think I’ve felt that same satisfaction in years. I have written before about the “golden age” of family outings—the window of time before school age children turn into teens. Inevitably, children, once amenable (or at least, coercible) to family plans, begin exercising their newly discovered freedom and realization that they can voice their opinions; the summer of doing things together as a family transforms into a summer of compromises.
During the midpoint of summer when July ends and August begins, I start to feel the edges of the season. It produces this melancholy every August that always catches me off guard. In many aspects, it signals the start of a new year more so than January. I know to expect the unsettledness of June and the melancholy of Christmas, but this feeling that is midsummer’s melancholy? I’m never ready for it. This year I become keenly aware that time is slipping away too fast, that we didn’t make enough memories, that the stress of college application season hovers over us like a cloud. That is the wistfulness, the thing that is tugging at me right now as we enter into August. It’s a contrast to the optimism at the start of the season when every weekend is full of promise.
I found myself in a mild panic last week about the college kid heading back to school so soon. I feel like I didn’t push the pause button on life’s obligations the past few months with enough intention because this summer break didn’t feel like enough. It doesn’t come easy anymore either. Time together needs to be planned around everyone’s schedules because the kids start staking their own freedom. If you’ve ever had to coordinate dinner with a friend group you understand how this is not a simple task.
I am currently in what I call the growing pains of empty nesting. With one child on the cusp of college in a year, and the other experiencing real adulthood paying real taxes on her first real job for the summer, it is strange and uncomfortable to let go of one, but still parent another. So much of the parenting phase that I’m in right now, however, is learning how to let go and accept that after years of being your child’s entire world, you no longer come first, but often second and third behind friends and significant others.
I called it decoupling when I felt the very early twinges of separation with my youngest earlier this year. It was healthy and necessary, but I’m now seeing how this feeling is fully forming into the shape of how each of us is coping with her final year at home. The little games that we play building up and tearing down walls to self protect from feeling too much all at once, the conversations that we have and we don’t have internally with ourselves and each other. I know in a few years when both kids have moved out, we’ll establish a new rhythm in this house and our post-kid future will start to look clear, but for now, the transition is awkward and like most things at the moment, very in-between.
I call my mother on the phone to check in and she feels the melancholy of the days too. The days feel long, she saids. I’m a little bored, she admits, but quickly comes back and says if that is the only complaint that we have in our lives right now, then we are lucky.
Yes, I am lucky. This is the natural evolution between a parent and child and I get to experience it—all of it. I am lucky. But it doesn’t make it less hard.
Yesterday, when both kids were out to dinner with their own plans, Mark made dinner for just the two of us. We ate on the couch.
“I can tell. This is going to be the way we eat dinner all the time, on the couch when both kids are gone,” I predict as I push the food around my plate.
“Only if we want it to be,” he replies.