I celebrated as my son left for college to pursue his future. I did not cry. I did not mourn the younger years. It was my first step to becoming an empty nester. It meant my son was on the path toward independence. It meant I was beginning a new chapter as a mom of a college student. It meant I would be able to spend more one-on-one time with my tween daughter.
I said for years when my son went to college, we would go to Disney World with my then 10-year-old daughter. But the best-laid plans of a Phase 1 Empty Nester did not play out. (In case you were wondering: The definition of a Phase 1 Empty Nester in someone whose first child leaves the nest but still has younger children in the flock at home).
Becoming an Empty Nester – In The Beginning
For just over a semester, we enjoyed less laundry. We enjoyed experiencing less teen drama in the love department. We enjoyed having all of the bowls and spoons in our kitchen cabinets and not missing in my son’s bedroom filled with candy and granola bar wrappers decorating the floor.
We enjoyed watching our son grow and mature into a young man as he made new friends, joined clubs, and studied for midterms and finals. We enjoyed meeting his NEW girlfriend who was not from our hometown but from out of state. After the holiday break, we brought our son back to college. We were excited to see what would be next for him, and we were ready to prepare for our trip to Disney World.
But then: Covid Shutdown 2020.
Disney World closed. I repeat Disney World closed. And, I was no longer a Phase 1 Empty Nester. Our second-semester freshman college student returned home March 13, 2020, from his college dormitory stuffing all of his college belongings in his room. He switched from in-person classes to Zoom biology, chemistry, and Latin from teachers who were not prepared to teach online via Zoom. Meanwhile, I worked with our fourth-grader on distance learning from the dining room. We stayed couped up together. We played a lot of board games. We social-distanced from friends and family. We survived.
Phase 1 Empty Nester Take 2: – A Puppy, Pilates and Covid
After 5 months, my son headed back to college, this time as a resident assistant with a single (no roommate). Even though all the classes were online, he insisted on returning to campus. We told him he could take a semester or a year off, but he chose to carry on. So, we packed him up and dropped him off. We thoroughly cleaned the dorm room and left him with loads of Clorox wipes, hand sanitizer, and face masks.
Returning home was not a celebration like the first time. I left the college campus worried about my son’s health and well-being. Meeting people with masks and social distancing would be tough. Online classes would be difficult. Having a single in the dorm although better for Covid would be lonely.
But, it was time to move forward. Time for me to grow. One of the keys to becoming an empty nester is getting a puppy. So, we did. During Labor Day weekend, we got our first dog: a 12-week-old black, standard poodle puppy. Our son always wanted a dog but we only had reptiles while he was growing up – a bearded dragon and a ball python. I had no idea how much I would love my adorable puppy. She brings me so much joy.
Now that I had my puppy, I could really focus on the second key of becoming an empty nester – self-improvement. I started attending Pilates classes three to five days a week. I leave my phone in the car. And, for one hour, it’s all about me. Focusing on breathing, stretching, and strength training as I lay on the Pilates reformer. My knee pain lessened and my strength continues to increase.
But then, Covid came knocking at our door. My son is not one who texts and calls just to talk. So, when he calls, typically he needs something or something is wrong. He said he was feeling run down and could not smell the essential oils that I left with him. I knew even before the positive test came back that he was Covid positive.
He did not flat out ask to come home but shared his fears and anxieties about going to the quarantine dorm to hunker down with another Covid positive student that he did not even know. I hopped in the car for the four-hour drive to bring my baby home to the nest. We drove home, both double-masked with the windows down. My husband and daughter left to stay with family.
I fed my son by leaving food outside his bedroom door. He recovered within 10 days and returned to school. But being sick with Covid and online classes, in science, math, and a foreign language, made it a very tough school year. It was difficult being alone as an RA. His college canceled spring break so he was home again in mid-April.
Phase 1 Empty Nester: Take 3
This time, I did not even go with my son to drop him off at college. I stacked my son’s favorite snacks and a can of Microban disinfectant on the kitchen counter and told him he could take them if he wanted. I would not want to be a young college student right now during this pandemic. I’m glad I grew up when I did (but doesn’t everyone say that at some point). Yet, here I am praying that my son can navigate the challenges, earn a degree, create a future and be happy and healthy. Is that too much to ask? Will I ever be an empty nester?
I knew when I dropped him off the first time in August 2019 that I would not be the empty nester who cries the whole way home in the car. I was so excited for both of us to start new chapters. I also was only a Phase 1 Empty Nester. But now, my daughter is almost a teen, I am ready … at least I believe I am ready for my son to get his own apartment.
I am ready to move to Phase 2 Empty Nester status (new hobbies, new careers, more travel). I seem to have more time with only one child at home. She is finding independence and I am finding myself. I saved an article the other day about weddings. Thinking ahead. My son has been dating the same young woman for almost two years.
The Empty Nester Road – When Will I Complete This Mission?
Ok, as much as I talk the talk and claim that I am completely ready for my son to be independent so I can enjoy the first phases of being an empty nester, I know I need to enjoy the journey. Because the thought of my son being completely grown and flown, combined with the idea that I only have seven school years left before my daughter turns 18 and heads off into the world puts a lump in my throat and a pain in my heart.
No, I do not have a favorite child. But, I now know. As I stand on the empty nester road, I can see when you truly become an empty nester and all of your birds fly away that is when life changes dramatically. You no longer have to provide food, clothing, and shelter to your young on a daily basis. You no longer see them on a daily basis. And, for many, including myself, you do not get to talk to them on a daily basis despite smartphones.
So, seven years from now, when I drop my second child off at college, I just might ugly cry the whole way home as I try to embrace my life as an empty nester. In the meantime, I will do my best to enjoy each stage of motherhood with each child – the ups and downs, the bumps and bruises, the love and the heartaches, the sickness and health. But today, I am beginning Empty Nester Phase 1 for the third time.
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