Tuesday, August 11, 2009

the myth of the empty nest

We're at T-minus something like 18 days until my younger sons leave for college. (My older son started at a university last fall and I'm still not quite over that but I took enormous comfort in continuing daily hugs with my younger boys who remained under our roof for one more year of high school.)

Part of the problem I'm having is the age difference in our children. Our older son is only 16 months older than his twin brothers. Even to us, it feels almost like all three of them have always been around. As a result, I have no "buffer," no adjustment period and no "new normal" we all live for several years before the next life stage change takes place under our roof. The closeness of our children's ages means we covered a lot of baby and toddler stages in a matter of only a few years, not a decade, before moving onto the next stage with all our children at once. Sure, we had a lot of diapers for a few years but the good news was that almost all at once, that same closet of diapers was empty, never to get refilled.

That kind of "speed-parenting" worked nicely when it came to Amoxicillin, training wheels and Tiger Cubs. It doesn't work so well right about now, when it feels like the boys are "speed-growing" out of my life. Their impending departure for college this fall means that in something like T-minus 19 days, I will very likely find myself in a coma. I know I'm not the first mother to experience the "empty nest" - a title I despise by the way - it just feels like I am.

Empty nests conjure up images of determined mother birds nudging their tiny birds over the edge and into flight, encouraging them to soar into a welcoming sky. Wonderful; good for them. I guess they know what they're doing but what if they don't? How many baby birds just fall to their death because they weren't ready to fly? I'll bet we never read that statistic in Nat Geo.

I looked up the story on Mourning Doves - plentiful in our backyard - and found that the baby birds spend all of 12 - 15 days in their nests. Newly hatched Robins spend 13 days in their nests before taking off. Crows are much more inclined to hang around home, for something like 20 - 40 days.

I also found this little snippet on All About Birds.com: "People tend to think of nests as safe, cozy little homes. But predators have a pretty easy time finding a nest full of loud baby birds, and nests can be hotbeds of parasites. So parent birds work from sunrise to sunset every day to get their young grown and out of the nest as quickly as possible."

Honest to god: "...from sunrise to sunset to get their young grown and out of the nest as quickly as possible."

So much for security and warmth and togetherness. Turns out that birds aren't encouraging bravery and self-reliance when they push their offspring to fly away. They're trying to offload their babies as quickly as possible to protect them and help live longer lives. Exactly why most mothers I know try to keep their children close to home.

I guess I wouldn't make a good mother bird. I don't want to nudge my boys "out of the nest" as quickly as possible. I can't imagine them not being here. But I will admit that I'm confused. Theoretically anyway, I love the concept of their self-reliance and confidence, but wow it's really difficult to watch myself become irrelevant.

Okay, even I know that's a harsh way to view this whole thing but in my worst moments, it feels very true. (More to come on this as I try to find the positive in it.) Sure, I'm hopeful this new stage will lead to wonderful and rewarding new experiences for the boys. The last thing I want for them is regret and disappointment. And yes, it's easy to conjure up images of a bathroom that never has towels scattered on the floor; bedrooms that remain fresh and clean and a sink that stays empty of a dozen juice glasses at once.

Tonight, those moments of order feel insignificant. What feels much more significant tonight are those flapping wings around me. They're beating just a little stronger, and sound just a little louder than they did just yesterday.


Donna Donnelly said...

Loved your post! You will see in a couple of years just how relevant you always will be. I'm just starting out on the Empty Nest thing too with my youngest just moving out last month to her own apartment. Scary stuff.... My oldest is nearby, married and going to bring us our first grandchild now. The second eldest just left home in January and moved to FRANCE!! yes... FRANCE!!!! both of the younger ones in the same year. The going off to college thing I've learned is very good practice for the real thing. I think the issue is that before you couldn't hear yourself think and now you only have yourself to listen to!

renee said...

Thank you for the encouraging words, Donna. I really need something positive to hang onto these days and I appreciate you taking a moment to share your own experiences.
My first thought was: I hope you're booking a trip to France...and my second was shared excitment at your first grandchild. That has to be quite a feeling.
My final thought was: what if I have time to listen to myself think and find myself listening to silence? Very, very possible.
Ugh. I hope this unfolds better than it feels like it will.
Thanks again for your comment.