This is how big they were when I had to start living without them.
My nest began emptying prematurely when my children were 5 and 2. It was January, 1995, and I was moving into my first post-marital bachelor house. Prior to this development, the longest I had been away from my children was a one-week trip to a wedding and conference in 1993. Apart from that (and some occasional overnight retreats), I was home every night to give them baths, read them stories, and kiss them goodnight. Now I was without them for seven or more days at a time, and I was not taking it well.
To be fair, there was a lot about the situation that I was not taking well, and there were times when I was glad the children weren't around to see what I was going through. I experienced intense physical symptoms of withdrawal for at least the first two months of the divorce, and even four months into it, I was still having occasional attacks of sobbing that could last for twenty minutes.
Through mediation, we arrived at a parenting plan that had the children with me every weekend. It wasn't what I wanted--I had always dreamed of being the school parent--but at least it had a regularity to it, a rhythm I could adjust to. I would pick them up on Friday afternoon, have a full Saturday with them, make the most of Sunday, then hand them back over at a neutral location early on Monday morning. That hand-off was hard. From the Sunday evening tuck-in until they were buckled into the other car, I'd be fighting the growing sense of loss that was climbing up my throat like an attack of vomiting. We'd have a quick hug and kiss, then I'd get back in my car, watch them drive off, and allow the tears to flow. Once I had it under control, I'd drive back to my empty house.
Over time, I became a pro at this cycle, though the goodbyes never stopped hurting. There was a lot of driving involved, far more transitions than they liked, especially once they became teenagers. The move to Idaho kicked me back into the emptiness, except that now the neutral location was the airport. The anticipatory grief always kicked in on the last full day, and I'd be fighting myself to keep my, and their, spirits up. Visits were never long enough, and couldn't be frequent enough: air travel was just too expensive, too disruptive. So I had to adjust to seeing them monthly at best.
Now I am down to just a handful of visits a year. When Sean came for a visit last week, it was the first time since February. When Sarah was here in February, it was her first time in a year. Entire seasons pass with only phone and messaging contacts. Mostly I'm fine with it, and I love it when they're here; but I still find myself misting up as the last hours count down to departure.
And I guess that's how it's supposed to be. I have found an intriguing common ground with my mother in recent years. Ever since I first left home, I've been aware of her porch presence when I drive off: she stands in the doorway, watching, until my car pulls away. I have no idea how long she's there after I'm gone--I am, after all, in the car, not the house--but I completely get it.
When you have a child, you cease being a self-contained person. It's similar to your connection to your partner, but with one distinction: relationships don't always last. As painful as it is to end a relationship, eventually you get over it and move on. The piece of you that is your child never comes back into your possession. From the time that child is born, you will only be completely whole when he or she is in your presence.
When Sean is here, he tends to spend a lot of his time in his room, playing video games and reading books. And that's okay. I don't have to monopolize his time. Just having him in the house makes me feel more complete. Just having Sarah in town works the same wonder for me. The world is restored to wholeness.
I don't mope when they're gone. In fact, I've become quite adapt at being an empty nester. The sense of independence is incredible. I can work out whenever I want--something I didn't feel safe doing when they were with me until they were in high school--eat whenever I want, go on long adventures they would hate, be utterly present with Amy without a single interruption. My empty nest life is damn fine, in fact.
But I do miss them. And I always will.
I first encountered the notion of adult development as a graduate student. Up to then, all my educational psychology courses were about the stages children pass through. One got the impression from these courses that once adulthood was reached, the development ceased, that the person was completely formed at 21, and everything after that was just a long decline.
You know this isn't true. If you're older than 21, you know development continues, that you never stop transitioning from one stage to the next. These transitions are often artificially demarcated by life events: graduations, marriages, births, bereavements, divorces, firings and hirings, promotions, demotions, career changes, menopause, emptying nests, illness, decline, death. The aspect of adult development that is hardest to grasp is the way in which you vicariously relive those stages through your children as they, themselves, become adults.
They take up so much space as they grow up. They occupy the living room to binge watch TV that makes you gag while stuffing their faces with junk food, then leave the mess for you to clean up. They spout profound-sounding banalities with all the conviction you once knew, before you realized that there really is nothing new under the sun. They stay up until all hours of the night, then sleep in until afternoon. They bring their friends over and the house is filled to bursting with their loud laughter, their obnoxious music, and the reek of their adolescent glands.
And then they're gone: off to camp, off to work, off to school, taking with them a part of you that you will never get back.
It's horrible and wonderful all at once. And as much as it turns me inside out whenever the car pulls away or the plane takes off, I know it's the way it's supposed to be, and I wouldn't trade it for anything.