The many phases of empty nesting
In which I realize that the next six years is a revolving door of hellos and goodbyes
I just hugged my college freshman good bye after a month-long winter break. Mark drove them this morning before the crack of dawn to get an early start and I’m in my room watching the sun come up, unable to get back to sleep because I’m grappling with all these unexpected feelings that this goodbye is almost as hard as the first. Holy hell, this sucks. I’m now realizing that this is life for the next 6 years or more—a constant revolving door of letting go and letting back in.
Every June, at the end of another school year, I would calculate in my head how many years I had left with my kids. When the older one hit senior year of high school, the countdown unit became months. And then, after graduation, it was whittled down to weeks. Life had become one big countdown clock. Last summer, I kept myself busy with work, trying to suppress all my feelings so I wouldn’t fall apart in front of her. I really tried to be brave. I threw myself into lists and researched all the things we needed to buy for her impending departure. In hindsight, I understand why parents become so obsessed with the college dorm shopping checklist, even though at the time some of it seemed ridiculous and excessive.
“I saw on the parent Facebook group that you have to buy a mattress topper,” I would announce to Mark after reading multiple threads on this topic debating the thickness, the brand, and the necessity for such a thing. I wondered if the love for your child would be measured against the thickness of the topper you bought. Do we really need to get a 3 inch topper? Isn’t 2 inches enough?
“Oh, we need to get some kind of shower caddy. Would it be so terrible if I got the carrying kind and not a rolling cart?”
This kind of endless deliberation and shopping went on for the entire summer, escalating to a frenzy the last two weeks when I’d read what other parents were throwing in their carts last minute and feel compelled to get it too. It’s a distraction from what’s really going on inside, but it’s also a different kind of nesting. By the end of summer we had amassed a pile of dorm room essentials that somehow had to miraculously fit in the car. When the college move-in date finally came, I warned my coworkers that I probably wasn’t going to want to talk about it on Monday when I came back—maybe not even ever.
I had been bracing for that moment for years. But no matter how much you try to emotionally prepare yourself for the day your kid goes away to college, there is no way to anticipate any of it until the time actually comes.
“Did you cry?” my mother asked.
I have my own memory of when I moved out of the house when I was 18. I was attending art school in the East Village and commuting from my home in Queens for the first few months. I was going to college on scholarship so living at home wasn’t about the cost, but something about being the first one in my extended family to go to college felt like we all had to be eased into this American rite of passage somehow. The three hour round trip daily commute, however, was a beast (we lived way out in Queens—not even on a subway line) and my parents agreed that moving to Manhattan near school was probably for the best.
I remember unpacking my room in my new apartment in Chinatown when the phone rang for the first time. It had probably been all of two hours since my parents had left. It was my mom and I could hear her muffled cries on the other end of the line. She said she was sitting on the floor, leaning against the door of my room. This mental image of her crying quietly alone in my emptied out room is something that’s been burned in my memory since. It became a benchmark of sorts for a similar scene when it would become my turn to release my child out into the world. I realize now that I draw comparisons to so many of these parenting milestones with my childhood memories, only this time, I’m on the other side.
“So did you cry?” my mom asked when I saw her about two weeks after we dropped the kid off upstate. “I cried so much when we dropped your brother off in his dorm.”
Interestingly, she didn’t mention the time I moved out of the house.
I just kind of shrugged off the answer because I didn’t want to be judged, even though I knew she wasn’t asking just so she could measure how much I loved my child against my response. Because no, I did not cry.
Sometimes you just know yourself enough to know what you need, and I knew that what I needed was to not drive straight home and face that empty bedroom. Instead, we drove about an hour to a state park and sat on some rocky cliffs high above a lake watching the sunlight dapple on the water. It was the perfect place to just be with our feelings. We ended the day at a friend’s we hadn’t seen since pre-Covid, a serendipitous reunion with other defunct Brooklyn food business owners who also happened to be gathered at her house in the Hudson that weekend. Our friends were aware of the big parenting milestone that had just happened mere hours before and was given a heads up that we might not be in the most social mood. But I was grateful for the company and the distraction, and I was especially grateful for the homemade pizzas with the blistered crusts that tasted so good coming out of the outdoor pizza oven. Food, like always, is a reliable comfort.
But the tears still didn’t come the next day when we got home and when people, including my own college kid would ask me if I cried, I’d wrinkle my nose, shake my head slightly and reply, “um, not really, no.”
I bet you can guess what I did do based on last week’s newsletter. Yes, I went into a deep cleaning binge. I took apart the bed they had slept in since she was a toddler in order to reach and vacuum under every square inch. The room was once our office and we finally got rid of every relic of the business that we still stored there since closing—bags of baking chocolate, unassembled boxes, bins of molds, labels, and cookie cutters. For years, she was sharing her room with our bakery business, her bed on top of reams of parchment paper, her clothes under shelves of shipping boxes in the closet. I snapped a photo of the room and sent her a text, “We cleaned out all the stuff and it’s finally just yours now. It’s ready when you come home.” I then proceeded to organize every drawer, every bookshelf and closet in the apartment until there was nothing left to clean, rearrange, or purge.
I guess this is the thing that I do.
In those first two weeks, the kid and I would text all day trading ideas about how to organize her dorm room which had a tricky layout. She’d tell me what she ate for breakfast in the dining hall since I was acutely interested in what she was eating all day and I’d send her pictures of our cat who she desperately missed. This version of parenting by phone went on for a few weeks.
“Have you done laundry yet?”
“I hope you’re eating your vegetables. You can’t live off pasta and chicken.”
“Don’t forget to floss and put in your retainer!”
It shouldn’t be a surprise to hear that it really hits you a few weeks to a month later—a delayed reaction that slowly creeps in, accompanied by the tears. That’s when the newness of change wears off and the intense missing really begins. The frequent texts trail off to just once a day. A week later, down to a few times a week until it slowly tapers off to just on occasions when your kid needs to ask you something. It’s at that point that it really hits you that your child is not just away at a sleepover and there’s a real possibility that your college kid may never permanently live in your home again. I was accustomed to the grief of death having gone through this too many times in the last decade, but what kind of version of grief was this?
But something rather funny happened when she came home for a four day break two months later. We had finally gotten accustomed to a new dynamic as a family of three and she was suddenly home again, neither a houseguest nor a permanent resident, a legal adult at 18, but also not fully grown up. And then she was gone as quickly as she arrived. The shift in energy in our apartment changed and it wasn’t something that I expected. It was…a bit disruptive? This is all a liminal state too.
In contrast, winter break between semesters feels like you have your kid back. It’s long enough that the household energy settles into a familiar rhythm and it’s a chance for them to sleep in and nestle into the comforts of their own room. But mostly, it’s about the food. A week before her arrival, we ask for a list of everything she’s craving and then we set out a rough schedule of meals for all her favorite things: kale and bean soup, salmon with lentils, homemade tortillas for tacos and enchiladas, okonomiyaki, short ribs with mashed potatoes. And then there’s the Korean dishes, many of which she cooks herself. Dumplings made from scratch to put in rice cake soup for New Year’s, kimchee fried rice, dakdoritang, hotteuk, spicy barbecue pork wrapped in perilla leaves, abalone porridge, songpyeon and mugwort rice cakes. She moves back into the kitchen with ease and bakes scones which she has expertly learned how to make from Mark’s recipes, and fries an egg with perfect yellow yokes and slightly crisp edges and puts it on top of everything.
“No, I’m not going to buy you this giant cheeseball,” I overhear Mark say on the phone. I hadn’t intended on calling while he was up at school moving her back in, but dialed his number unintentionally (I think). They were at Target picking up some last minute things. Something about the absurdity of that line snaps me back to memories of all those times we would go shopping when they were younger and would try and sneak some random items into the cart. And in that moment, I knew everything was going to be okay.
P.S. Remember that pot that I had put off cleaning during Christmas break? Avery really needed a big pot up at school to do the occasional cooking in so the day before she left, I put on the rubber gloves and spent well over an hour scrubbing it clean.
“That pot got so burnt because it was the one that I used to boil cans of dulce de leche at the kitchen,” Mark tells me.
It’s kind of fitting that we give her this pot since she basically roomed with the overflow of our bakery business supplies for all of her teenage life. And so the cleaning wasn’t so much from my need to process (again) her impending departure back to school. I scrubbed the hell out of it out of pure love.
P.P.S. Yes, the countdown clock for the inevitable leaving of the nest for my youngest has begun. T-minus 19 months…*cries*
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We are at the point with my 15 year old where we are thinking "this is our last 3 summers with her". The 10 year old is especially sad when he thinks about it. I want to pack in trips to those years, not sure if we can afford it. Its going to be so strange to just have 3 again.
Am only now catching up on your posts. I too, was the first on my dad's side to go to college. When my parents dropped me off at my dorm, the tension was so thick between me and my mom. I was on the defensive, thinking she was over reacting. I opened the door to my room and my room mate had already moved in with a CRAP load of stuff. First thing out of my mom's mouth, standing at the doorway, was in a very terse tone "Remember, we PAID for half of this room!"
Fast forward to now, I have a second semester senior in the house, but my own path is vastly different. She is on the spectrum with moderate needs. We didn't do the college tours, instead she had to get evaluated to see if she qualified for adult services after graduation. So while most kids her age were proving how smart they were, mine was proving what she was lacking in order to get into her own program. It is highly unlikely that she will ever live away from us. As she moved up each year, my dread and concerns became more and more internalized. I wish I had a pot scrubbing habit, but I don't. I just tamp it all down. It seems that no matter where your child is at, intellectually, academically, the heart aches and the heart bursts persist.