I’m on an Amtrak train, sitting kitty corner from my twin daughters. It has been an exhausting and exhilarating few days of visiting colleges throughout the Northeast. I stare unabashedly at two young women. I cannot grasp that this is the beginning of their independence. Three hundred and a few days from now, they will be off to college. I keep telling myself how blessed they are to have this opportunity. I want the search to be a fun, family bonding experience. But who am I kidding? What I am doing is avoiding the cold hard truth; I’m going to be an instant empty nester. What was once a house burgeoning with laughter and activity will now be so quiet that a pin will not only drop, it will be the only thing I have left to pick up.
According to Psychology Today, Empty Nest Syndrome refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. Couple that with a few abandonment issues and I might have a recipe for disaster. I’m not saying that I’m going to spontaneously combust when the girls go off to college, I’m just preparing by upgrading my bedroom with a new television and a mini-fridge and calling in a prescription for a year’s supply of Zoloft.
Phase Two, which is what my colleague Ronna calls it; is a time for self-discovery and exploration. Phase Two is glorious she says, once you get past the initial feeling of loss. Great, I think. I can learn to paint, take a two-week writer’s retreat in the woods, and travel to exotic places. I can throw out all the school papers and art projects that I have hoarded and meticulously catalogued. I can rid their drawers of half-eaten Halloween candy and toss out the umpteen cords to the dozens of broken and lost electronics. I can read ten books a week and write letters again. I can gratefully go to bed instead of waiting to hear the garage door close at midnight.
That all sounds productive and inspiring, However, Vegas odds claim that I will likely mope around the house in a tattered bathrobe for awhile, clutching their beloved Big Bird and Baby dolls. I’ll watch old home videos and cry. Several articles on the topic of children leaving say that I would be better off with a full-time job, as it helps alleviate Empty Nest Syndrome. I don’t believe this for a minute. Working moms still have to come home to a quiet house, eat dinners without drama and walk past a child’s empty bedroom in the wee hours of the night. No parent is safe.
Not so long ago, my back seat was cramped with safety seats and bagel crumbs, blankets and bottles. We would take driving trips to the seaside or mountains. The girls would be eager to arrive, delirious with a sense of adventure. They never failed to ask: “Are we there yet, Mommy?” It didn’t matter if we were ten or one hundred miles away from home; they wanted to know how long it would take. I remember feeling annoyed by the repetition of the question. In those days, we played I Spy, searching for billboards or signs to pass the time. As they grew, we told stories and watched movies. Eventually they started driving themselves, and the precious hours in the car had magically disappeared.
Today, in the confines of my train seat, I realize that our time together has sped by as quickly as the Acela we are on. I watch them make initial lists of where they want to apply. I admire how they take charge of the process and form thoughtful opinions. I no longer have to plan what to pack, what to eat or where we are headed. This will be an arduous process for each of them, full of anxiety and emotional up and downs. Getting into college is no easy feat. They will separate from each other for the first time in 18 years. I understand that none of this is really about me, and my fear of being left behind.
Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking how their presence and the influx of friends that have passed through my house will be sorely missed. The laughter, the long nights and endless sleepovers, the calling to each other between rooms; it has been like a suburban symphony under my roof all these years.
As the train rolls into the station, they are both fast asleep. I am waiting for the question that I know won’t ever come again, because I finally have the patience to answer it. Tears roll down my cheeks as I say the words they have waited to hear: “Yes honey, you are finally there.”