Nearly three months ago, I walked through the brisk November air into the sliding glass doors of the airport, traveled up the escalator and stood outside security, waiting for my youngest to get off the plane. It was two days before Thanksgiving and my hands had not been on my baby girl in 88 days. It was the longest separation ever, me feeling impossibly emotional, despite that we speak, text and facetime every day. It’s just not the same as hugging and being in the same house.
With each new wave of people rounding the corner through the glass hallway, my heart leapt and my eyes grew wet.
I missed her something awful. I see my older two because their universities are within driving distance, but it was too long since I had seen my youngest.
A girl in a ponytail wearing a college backpack turned the corner and my heart leapt again – then fell – when I realized it still wasn’t her.
A little boy ran past the security guard and toward his grandma’s waiting embrace next to me. I silently prayed, Oh Lord, when grandchildren arrive someday, please let my children and their children all live near us…preferably next door ;~).
Washing bedsheets, putting turkey-themed socks on their dressers and cooking family-favorite foods…the days of anticipation finally ended. The second she turned the corner she waved through the glass and hastened her steps toward me. I vowed not to cry but she threw herself into my arms which quickly circled her slim athletic frame, and I couldn’t speak. Tears flooded my face and I squeezed her tightly. I kissed her cheeks and her eyes smiled at me, her words bringing more tears. “I missed you so much Mama…”
Last year my older daughter spent her junior year in a bustling – thankfully also a safe and very nice – area of New York City. For breaks and long weekends, I waited to pick her up at train stations and airports. As I stood watching the various people disembark from their transportation, I reflected on how I have never been on planes as frequently as the kids have been. Much of the going away is very, very good for them. They have been forced to handle situations that without a doubt, my husband or I would have taken care of swiftly for them if they lived at home. Heck, most of the experiences would not have occurred at all had they stayed home and commuted to college (as I did throughout my entire college career). Some of the situations were unpleasant, but life was an excellent teacher. Their greatest lessons and growth occurred outside of the classroom.
During the kids’ breaks, the full nest is a joy (and of course, sometimes annoying), and now that my twins are seniors, the holiday breaks remind me that these are adults, despite my continued reference to them as my “baby ducks”.
At 4am the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the painful alarm rang, announcing the required departure back to the airport.
Thankfully, I only waited 15 days until my youngest was about to again ‘round the corner and I stood outside security, not feeling nearly as emotional as when I waited 88 days. This time, all three of them would be home over a month.
The day before, I had cleaned their bathroom and put up the Christmas shower curtain. As the rag hung in my hand and the smell of cleanser filled the air, I reminded myself that secure, confident kids grow up and start doing their own thing. I’ve been told we are supposed to feel accomplished and proud of ourselves when we reach this point. I am proud of them and they are accomplished, but I have never felt more un-accomplished.
While raising children, there are a million little accomplishments…interesting middles with satisfactory endings. Planning birthday parties or end of season sports gatherings…watching them eat meals together and sharing stories at the table…going to the rinks and fields…weekend outings. Completing a book together when they are young or watching them deliver a speech when they are older (that you sat through 20 times before they gave it)…each gave me tremendous joy and satisfaction. I felt accomplished.
In between their physical coming and going in and out of the nest, I have increased volunteering, have plenty of girlfriend time, bible studies and winter walks with my husband. We now have “TV shows” and I’m actually finishing books cover to cover ;). I’ll admit that quieter hasn’t been terrible. It’s all truly blessed and I am thankful. But adding more new things or extra time spent on old things do not replace an entire lifestyle.
An acquaintance of mine looks at me with a mix of complete confusion and sympathy as I reference the heart-upset of the coming and going during the college years. Two years ago, she told me she was counting the days – literally had a countdown like you do at Christmas – counting the days until her youngest would join the oldest at college and get out of the house. I thought she would feel differently when the house was actually empty, but she does not.
Those of my friends who prioritized their careers while raising their children are faring much better with their emptying nests. Although I’ve always been an adjunct professor, it’s vastly smaller than the 50-hour work weeks while climbing to VP, where the bulk of their life’s energy built an entire existence outside of their households.
It’s only been a little over a year with all three away at universities so I keep saying I’m running a little late to the party of parents who are celebrating their emptying nests. Perhaps I’ll revisit this topic again in June after my twins move home after graduation. I may not be feeling nearly as nostalgic (wink).
The truth is, throughout the “coming and going” over four years, they’ve grown and changed, and so have we. Parents must learn to navigate the “babies” we raised who are now almost full “grown-ups”. Even when they move back home, for however long that will last, “family life” will not be as it was. Just as the school years were different from the toddler years, and high school different from middle school, the dynamic will change yet again. Not worse or better, just a new chapter in this ever-updating book of life.
While I stand in the airport this afternoon to pick up the baby duck for spring break, I’ll be thinking about these comings and goings. Reminding myself that it does get easier, and as they evolve, so must I.