I have two children, three years apart, but became an empty nester on the same weekend. On a Friday we dropped our son off at the NYU dorms with two duffels, a quick assembly of a bookshelf, and a “thanks guys, I’m good.” One hour and we were off. That Saturday, we drove my daughter to her new boarding school. There were many trips up and down the stairs to her third-floor room, a run to Target for forgotten supplies, lots of back and forth on where to hang things and ultimately a wistful good bye. I went home, hugged my dogs extra hard and sat on my back porch and cried.
No matter how prepared you are the reality is different: we went from four to two almost overnight. The house was quiet, no longer bustling with our kids and their constant stream of friends. As a stay-at-home mom for many years, my hours were cut, my workload now part time. I was and always would be a mother, but there was no denying that the daily day-to-day had changed. It took me awhile to learn how to cook for only two; my husband often asked jokingly how many others were coming over for dinner. I missed the noise, the chaos, the “sure, invite them over, we have plenty of food.”
The next few days country music in my car made me cry. Old photographs made me cry. Little kids waiting for the school bus made me cry. I felt lost and just plain sad. I found myself with my hand over my heart, the way I once held it over my pregnant belly. And then, slowly things fell into a new rhythm.
My day didn’t end at 3; I gained whole afternoons without constantly checking my watch. No longer a short order cook catering to a fussy eater, and a vegetarian, dinners became simpler affairs. I didn’t miss the Saturday nights I set the clock to make sure I was up for my turn to pick up after a party. Mornings were mine again: time to read the paper, linger over a second cup of coffee with no obligation to make breakfasts, lunches, or fly out the door for school drop-off. My husband and I went out to more dinners, more concerts, and more sporting events. Every night was date night. Many of my friends were in the same boat; we met for walks, girl’s dinners, museum outings. I actually read the book for my book group. It was a new page, the next chapter.
I said yes. I smoked a cigar on a rooftop in Havana, I did a weeklong photo workshop in San Miguel, and I hiked the canyons of Southern California. A friend celebrated his 50th in New Orleans riding on a float during Mardi Gras, and a group of us went to watch from the sidelines and catch beads. Always a traveler, but no longer limited to school calendars, I discovered a new freedom, a recharged wanderlust. I started a travel blog, which expanded into a college touring website. Yes, I too went back to school—in a sense anyway. I learned the empty nest isn’t so empty.
I also traveled closer to home, seeing more Broadway shows. I caught the new exhibit at the Whitney and walked the Brooklyn Bridge to revisit my childhood home. It is not so much about where you go but rather that you go: spend an afternoon in a nearby town or relearn parts of your own neighborhood. I’ve always found the best cure for loneliness is to get out and get moving. Volunteer, take a class, try yoga, bridge, or join a running club. Get involved in your local school or town board. Start a blog or write for others. Throw a dart at the dartboard and see where it sticks.
Of course, there are times my heart pings. Passing the high school in the fall, snow day alerts and summer holiday weekends when the house was once full of kids, now off with their friends can trigger waves of nostalgia. School breaks that were once wonderful opportunities for family vacations are now limited by the few vacation days of my son’s full-time job. Last December we took our first family trip without him, and it was bittersweet. But I’ve loved watching my kids become mature adults and how their passions filter into our day-to-day. They send me articles to read, engage in heated political discussions and introduce me to new music, artists, and technology. We spend time together now as not just family, but also as friends.