Like so many parents, my husband and I received the emotional “come get me” calls in March from our two kids in college. We immediately jumped into divide-and-conquer mode, canceling work meetings to figure out how best to get them home. It was a familiar negotiation that all working parents know. I got the easier end of the deal, booking a flight and retrieving my daughter from the airport the next day. I wanted to put my son on the same flight from New York to Michigan, but his bulky film equipment and convincing pleas motivated my husband to drive out and retrieve him.
At first, we didn’t fully register that our empty nest was full again. We assumed their colleges would call them back in two weeks and were more consumed by the strangeness and devastation surrounding the pandemic. Soon, however, we realized that we were looking at a multi-month stay—a reality that my children and I had different opinions about. They began missing the city and feeling fatigued by their two-dimensional dance and film classes. I started registering that what had occurred—minus the pandemic aspect—was kind of a dream come true.
Just weeks before, I had been lamenting the emptiness of our nest after being in a neighbor’s home with Legos and pancakes and two delightful children who showed me their new backpacks. The experience cut through whatever protective dam I’d erected with my busyness and I came home to my husband with a stream of questions and tears, “I just hope I took it all in. I hope I’m remembering all of it.” My reflections were intensified several days later when we traded in our minivan and I physically wrapped my arms around its hood, best I could, to give it a final hug. Its 205,000 miles contained memories of the uncountable mundane and meaningful outings that filled our last decade.
In these months, we’ve been able to re-live some of these memories and family traditions. We inflated a dusty ball to play four-square in the driveway, pulled out board games, ate cookie dough off the beaters, and debated the state of the world. We had an Easter egg event of sorts with generic jelly beans from the drug store drive-through. I made up a scavenger hunt with dumb rhyming clues, but the kids went along. They’ve also put up with my excitement about getting to be a mom again in ways that are helpful to no one. I’ve reminded them when their classes start, and articulated my worry for the details of their life that require no worry. It’s been so wonderfully familiar.
Of course, I’ve also had moments of groaning about the constancy of dirty dishes and the inconvenient shuffling around of spaces in our house to accommodate four people’s online schedules. In the midst of the hubbub, however, I’ve gotten voyeuristic glimpses into the people my children are becoming. As I overhear my son giving feedback on other students’ scripts and watch my daughter choreograph in our make-shift garage dance space, I’m noticing all the moments that wouldn’t be captured in a FaceTime call.
Along with feeling grateful, the psychologist in me feels concerned, in a petty way, for what melt down awaits me in these next months. I hear other moms in this situation admitting the same thing. For those of us who weren’t good candidates for becoming empty nesters the first time around, we fear we’ll be worse off this time. The pandemic has proven to be a revealer. At a national level, it has contributed to a heightened awareness and outrage about our country’s racial inequities. In more subtle ways, it has caused many of us to question how we spend our time and what we most value. For me, there’s been a dangerous inner voice questioning this stage of life: “You really thought you’d be okay with your kids going far away to college? Wouldn’t you be happier having them home?”
I keep reminding myself to appreciate these unexpected days and to pay attention so I have honest answers when I next question myself. Yes, I’m taking it all in as much as I can, and although I think I’d be happier if I could be laminated to my children’s lives—if such a thing were possible—I love that my kids will get to return to college to pursue their passions.
I’m also reminding myself that I have my own life to return to, and that if in-person classes resume this fall my calendar can be filled, once again, with other types of meaningful activities. Fingers crossed for all of us facing the re-emptying of our nests, that we can find just the right sources of comfort and inspiration.