Refeathering our nest

Field notes on an empty nest

Last week I found a birds nest on the brick walk leading to our backyard.  Im guessing the nest fell from a nearby silver maple; or maybe a neighbor found it while jogging and left it by the garden gate for us to admire.

Not much larger than a cereal bowl, the nest now perches indoors on a shelf near my desk.  Crafted from hundreds of delicate twigs, strands of grass, and patches of moss, its truly a work of art — and a timely reminder to prepare for my sons return to college after the long summer break.

Children of baby boomers are heading off to college in greater numbers than children of previous generations.  At the same time, the age-old ritual of “letting go” is the final frontier for those of us who’ve made child rearing a major focus of our adult lives.

Ive been discussing this tender rite of passage with other middle-aged parents. And we all agree there has to be a better term to describe our next season of parenting – something that doesnt sound as final or forlorn as “The Empty Nest.”  Our nests, after all, are not completely empty. Not yet.  My only child, for example, still has a bedroom here at home in addition to a loft in a crowded dormitory four hours away in South Bend, Indiana.

Whatever you want to call it, this to-and-from college phase is a thorny adjustment for parents and their almost-adult kids. College students are bound to ignore house rules when they return home for summer and holiday breaks. (“Curfew? What curfew?”) Even the most agreeable families discover that this can be a volatile time – a time when teen-aged tempers ignite and middle-aged feelings get scorched. All said and done, were all learning how to grow up and move on.

“When mothers talk about the depression of the empty nest, they’re not mourning the passing of all those wet towels on the floor, or the music that numbs your teeth…. They’re upset because they’ve gone from supervisor of a child’s life to a spectator. It’s like being the vice president of the United States.” — Erma Bombeck

A lot has changed since my son started college. Im still adjusting to the hollow echo of his (oddly) clean and empty bedroom, looking for remnants of my old self — my mothering self — in the bits and pieces he left behind.  The family calendar in our kitchen has some blank spaces, too, and is no longer buried under neon-color sticky notes announcing band concerts, Quiz Bowl meets, school conferences, and carpool schedules. At first, this was not cause for celebration.  Id become what our high school mothers club affectionately refers to as one of the “Alumni Moms.”

While I suddenly found myself with unlimited bolts of time to devote to my marriage and writing career, I mourned what I perceived to be the loss of my role as a hands-on parent. Despite the fact that I had a cleaner, quieter house, I missed all the athletic shoes and flip-flops piled near the back door. I missed the boisterous teenagers gathered around the kitchen counter, or in front of the television downstairs. I missed bumping into other parents at school functions, and wondered if life would ever be the same.

Life isnt the same, but Im OK with that now. Ive come to realize that a mom is always a mom, even though her parenting role changes over time.

Not long ago, I stayed at my own mothers place for a few weeks while I recovered from major surgery. When I apologized for disrupting her normal routine, she said, “My home will always be your home, too.”  I found comfort in knowing that. Yet at the same time, I missed my own house. And I felt grateful that Mom had encouraged me, years ago, to craft a life — and a home — of my own.

Its hard to believe my son is packing for another year of college this week. The hall outside his bedroom is now an obstacle course of boxes, crates, and suitcases stuffed with everything he needs for the months ahead. Im still not very good at saying good-bye when his dad and I leave him at the dorm and steer our emptied SUV back to the expressway. I manage to compose myself until I notice the tearful parents of college freshmen going through this ritual for the first time. But it does get easier each term.

So, is the nest half-full or half empty?

Reflecting on the small birds nest perched near my desk, Ive come to believe that every family is a labor of love and a work in progress. Its a bittersweet adjustment, but Im at peace with the idea that our household is just one stop on our sons way to his future.  Hell be flying back and forth over the next couple of years or so. And hopefully, patience and love will be the threads that weave our family together, no matter how far he travels. Cindy La Ferle, September 2006

— Top photo: Detail from “Nature,” a mixed-media collage by Cindy La Ferle. Bottom photo (nest) by Cindy La Ferle —

8 thoughts on “Refeathering our nest

  1. My nest began getting empty but filled up again:

    My daughter got married BUT moved into the annex.

    I began babysitting my granddaughter BUT she’ll be off to kindergarten in September.

    Son says he’s wants to get married next year BUT wants to build an apartment upstairs.
    I’ll be babysitting my new grandson BUT in two and a half to three years time, he’ll be going off to kindergarten.

    By the time my grandson goes off to kindergarten, my son would be married,living upstairs and probably bringing a grandchild for me to babysit.

    I’m feathering my nest also, but for round two of my life story.

  2. Our youngest son graduated from college in May. In one month he starts graduate school on the opposite coast. I am delighted with the adults my grown children have become. My heart hurts that my sons have decided to take their wonderful selves to live 3,000 miles away. I would love to be able to share in their lives, but for now that is not to be because the distance is too great to stay in touch in the ways that really matter.

    • Sharon, It is hard, I know. My son moved to Chicago, which is about 5 hours from Royal Oak (near Detroit). I am grateful we can talk on the phone, and of course, the Internet has made it so much easier for long-distance communication. But nothing beats face time! 🙂

  3. Oh boy. Right now, I’m preferring to focus on the joy of watching my son begin his new life. It’s his turn now! Thanks for sharing this Cindy. Very timely.

    • Absolutely Claire … that’s what you need to do! We enjoyed Nate’s college years, and had a blast going to visit him and watching him mature into an amazing young man. Still, it’s a BIG change at home, no denying that.

  4. As always, I feel like I just sat down and chatted with a friend about a subject that (soon) is near and dear to my heart. You paint such a clear and distinct picture of what you are trying to convey. Love your writing. Pam

  5. You know, I was adament that I would not be, ” one of those Mothers,” and by damn….I AM!
    It has been a much harder adjustment that I had anticipated, and we still have our youngest in the nest!
    I still worry about the mistakes they’ll make, know that it’s inevitable, and yet stand by with band-aids and koolaide 🙂

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