De-Feathering the Empty Nest

ColumnWhen your youngest kid goes to college, it’s time to throw out the booster seat.

The female of the species, while expecting her offspring, frequently becomes engrossed in preparing her home for the new addition. This phenomenon, which has been documented in birds, humans, and other mammals, is known as “nesting” and it hits the mom-to-be with a freakish surge of energy, along with an urge to make a comfortable and welcoming spot for her child. Typical nesting behaviors are cleaning, organizing, and badgering one’s mate to assemble a hand-made Italian crib. Nesting may also lead to the irrational purchase of high-end taupe carpeting, which the newborn’s vile and projectile bodily functions will ruin instantly.

What no one prepares you for is what occurs at the other end of the parenting cycle: the infinitely sadder and slower process of de-nesting, which involves preparing your home for the next, child-free stage of life. I am heading into this phase – morosely and entirely against my will. My oldest child has graduated from college, started a career, and left home for good; the youngest is leaving for college in two short months. With this in mind, I have had to face the fact that it’s time for my home to become less child-centered. I have forced myself to de-clutter: to throw out boxes full of soccer cleats, flash cards, and decapitated Barbies. I have admitted, finally, that the old changing table will not really make a good potting bench and I have given it away. And I am feeling a healthy compulsion to take apart the swing set that is quietly rotting in my backyard, long untouched and devoid of all activity, except for a good-sized wasp nest that comes alive every spring.

In the spirit of recycling, I feel like I should pass along all the kids’ toys and artifacts, but there are some things I can’t bear to get rid of. Giving away the red plastic Little Tykes car would feel like saying an irrevocable goodbye to the sleepy toddler who liked to nap in the front seat, one hand holding his bottle and the other holding the steering wheel (this led me to worry that my son, as an adolescent, would have a similar tendency to drink and drive). The oversized rocking chair I used to lull both children to sleep takes up too much room in my basement, but I would part with my spare kidney before I’d give that away.

There are some parts of my house that have matured, organically, over time – my bookshelves used to be crammed full of childcare manuals by Dr. Spock and Penelope Leach, along with Dr. Ferber’s Guide to Solving your Child’s Sleep Problems. Now those shelves are filled with books that have grimly aspirational titles, like Letting Go and Surviving and Thriving in the Empty Nest. I am sure I’ll survive but I’m not so sure about the thriving part. I can’t help feeling that I am being fired without cause from a job I have loved beyond reason.

My husband is a devoted father, but he is protected by a stoic Y chromosome from feeling the same desperate need to hang on to our youngest child. My daughter is seldom home this summer, as she goes out into the world, trying her freedom on for size. While she is out, my husband tries to distract me with movies and dinners and outdoor concerts, but I find myself hanging around the house on the off chance that she will come home and ask me to make her a sandwich. And while I’m at home, I fill albums with baby pictures, and I frame my daughter’s grade school self-portraits, all of which depict a happy girl with a big pink hair bow that I don’t recall her ever actually owning or wearing. I am not de-nesting so much as making my home into a shrine to the kids who have flown the coop.

But I refuse to be a buzzkill. My daughter is overjoyed at the prospect of going to school, and she can’t wait to perform in college plays and study her twin passions of psychology and theater. So I put on a happy face and act like I am not feeling acute despair at the thought of her leaving. And somehow I am pulling it off – my daughter pirouettes happily through her last days at home without seeing any hint of the anguish I work so hard to stifle. She may be the budding theater star, but it seems that I am a pretty good actress as well.

Susan Goldberg is a slightly lapsed treehugger. Although known to overuse paper products, she has the best of intentions – and a really small SUV. Catch her column, The Goldberg Variations, each week here at EcoSalon.

Image: haydnseek