Guest Post: Nesting

by Pandora

Pandora works, sews and putters in Chicago.  She is married with two grown up boys and a pug.

At least once a week, someone will ask me if I am dreading or in denial about my upcoming “empty nest.”  The metaphor suggests gloomy connotations. Full nests are woven branches with chirpy baby chicks and warm, fluffy parents. Empty nests are twigs and tufts of feather plastered with a lot of bird poop. Because I have two kids graduating this year – one from high school and one from college – this question is considered a socially acceptable way to connect with a woman in my situation. The ritual ends however with my energetic answer: “We are looking forward to it! We are ready!”

The questioner always looks a little taken aback. I have to back pedal to repair the cognitive dissonance I have caused. “I will certainly miss them day to day, but they don’t need to live at home.” By trying to assure them, I am making it worse. I will cry at both graduations, I insist. But then I cry at everything. The emotion surrounding the event is different from worrying what I will do with myself afterwards or how I will transition from mothering baby chicks to full grown men. I do not anticipate a crisis because I have been thinking about this threshold for many years.

When my oldest son was a baby, I was gifted with one of those tiny insights that had lasting impact. We were playing peek-a-boo, cooing and babbling together, and I was marveling at how much I loved him. He was an odd looking person. His eyes, nose, ears and mouth were all far too big for his thin, elfin face. As I looked at his funny, wise, strangely mature expression, I saw, in a flash and then again, the distinct image of him as an adult. The vision showed his features fitting perfectly into a strong, handsome face. It was like one of those small plastic 3D pictures we used to get in Cracker Jacks, the ones that change when you move them from side to side. In one view I saw my son as he was then, in the next, a glimpse of who he would become.

Every person has to discover the obvious for themselves. You can talk about it and read about it but until you experience it on your own, even the most common knowledge doesn’t sink in. In that moment, I had one of those epiphanies. I realized that this little boy would be a child for about ten years, a hybrid child/adult for another ten and then an adult for hopefully sixty or seventy after that. I would know him far longer as another adult than as a child. Our life together in this immediate space would be an investment, not only in his contribution to the world, but in what our post graduation relationship would look like. What would it mean to parent in way that shifted fluidly from one stage to the next? I dreamed of future Christmases hanging out with people I really enjoyed who happened to be my kids.

It is hard to say if this changed how we raised our boys. I would like to think we approached parenting with more respect and a far reaching perspective. Glass, china and daily analysis at the dinner table; exposure to hand picked, amazing adults with meaningful and interesting pursuits; decision making with an emphasis on process vs. absolutes; conversations that encouraged their developing points of view – I think many of our expectations focused on revealing the men they were meant to be while savoring every truck and dirt clod in the messy present. When people say to me, “You must be so proud of their accomplishments!” again I confuse them.  I say, “I am proud that they are kind and funny and can talk to anyone. Everything else is gravy.”

I know full well that both boys think we are just as weird and out of touch as any set of parents on the planet. And neither cleans their room regularly. No parent can weed out the foibles and insecurities that all humans share. As I face the next step, it is calming to know that we can at least talk about it. The vision of my son as a child who would grow up simply reminded me that my time as the boss would be brief and our time as a family of close friends would be enduring. My oldest son calls me and tells me about his day. We chat about politics and movies and romance. My younger son and I listen to vinyl records and talk about 1970’s rock. They may ask for my advice, increasingly they want my opinion to line up next to their own and compare. I look forward to how we will evolve, together and apart. Empty nest? Maybe, only because we are all too busy flying around, building new nests and chatting on telephone wires.

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13 Responses

  1. Alisa says:

    This is very close to why I chose to have a child and the hopes I had/have for my child (2) for when moves into adulthood. I love my parents, both in their 60s now and have gone closer to them since I became an adult. I want to be friends with my children when they are older, and while I can’t control all of that, I’m going to do what I can to help influence and build that relationship. Yes, my son needs a parent now, but our relationship will change as we both age, and I want to build something sustainable and flexible for this need.

    This ideal that I have for having children so that I can enjoy them as adults in my late-middle age and beyond was really challenged when my son was diagnosed with a serious medical problem at 8 months that leads to developmental issues, and a high frequency of congitive disability. I was worried I would have a perpetual infant to care for throughout the decades and I mourned the loss of the adult friendship I thought I was building (like the one you describe in the OP). My son is beating most of the odds, but nothing is certain with his epileptic disorder that can resurface randomly, and I’ve had to adjust to letting go of the expectation (but not the hope) of the kind of friendship you have with your sons to allow my future more wiggle room. That goes to show that it’s not always in our control, nor our child’s control, what our relationship will be like as we age. But, regardless of ability or these extenuating circumstances, it helps me to realize that my child will be an adult some day, and to make sure that I parent him with the love and respect he deserves.

  2. Pandora says:

    Alisa, I really appreciate your comment. This mix of hope and letting go is a constant as our children grow up. We are always creating narratives that we have to change as our children make different choices or as life just happens. Even as I celebrate my relationship with my sons in many ways, I also see them both moving in directions that will shift other expectations. It is always a developing landscape. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    A beautiful post, Pandora! Thanks so much for sharing.

    I particularly love this part, “I look forward to how we will evolve, together and apart.” So often, I feel like we’re taught as parents that we’ll always be the boss–that we also aren’t still learning and growing.

  4. Kirsten says:

    This post makes me both happy and sad…. Happy because I am nearing the time when Baby Bird #1 will fly off to college and I like the thought of having a whole new relationship with her as an adult. I cannot wait to see what kind of adults my kids will turn out to be and I hope our relationship will remain close.
    This also makes me sad in that I do not have such a relationship with my own parents. Once out of the nest, they promptly “cleaned out the bird poop” and were so excited about their new time without any chicks around. I do not have a great adult relationship to them, mainly because they do not seem to want to really know me as an adult. What further pains me is that they do not visit my nest and see the amazing birdies I have helped to produce. They are missing out on some really fantastic, funny, sensitive souls and it seems the time is already past when my birdies are interested in them.
    I know you and your two birds (birdies no longer!) and I’ve seen what amazing men they are. Watching you has helped me not to approach the empty nest with dread, but rather with fascination and hope for what may come.

  5. Aimee says:

    What a poignant post, Pandora. When I think about the mindset I was in when I had my first child, I was entirely focused on his baby-ness. I think that’s a natural response (especially for a first time mom) when you’re focused on the day-to-day of keeping this little person alive. By the time I had my third baby, my daughter, all I could see was her old lady features in her bald, baby face. The morbid part of me was calculating the best case scenario for how many years we might have together and how much I wanted to know her when she was a 50 or 60 year old woman. It’s impacted the way I see all my children and has helped me to cherish this time when they are young all the more. While I am (hopefully) preparing for the adult relationships we’ll share in the future, feeling how short this time with their young selves is has helped me better cherish these years of hard, physical labor that come with being the mother of small children.

    Thank you so much for sharing this perspective, Pandora. Your insights on parenting have been blessing my family’s life for years!

  6. Caroline says:

    This is just wonderful, Pandora. You describe exactly what I hope my relationship will be someday with my own grown children. I have little ones — all three 5 and under — and I hunger for the day when I can have a real conversation with them about world hunger, politics, relationships, books and more. But this post also reminds me that I should try to enjoy every moment of their adorable little kid-hood.

  7. Libby says:

    Pandora, this is just what I needed to read as I’m in the middle of chick #3 discovering that he can pull himself to standing, and can refuse to sleep if he’s too busy! Thank you. There are a lot if childhood milestones in front of us yet, but I love the flashes of grown-up human being I see in my kids.

  8. Stacey P says:

    Pandora
    Eloquent as always.
    I wish I had you closer now that I am the mother if two boys.
    I live that my eldest (now 4) and I read and talk every talk every night I. An overly extended bedtime routine. Which annoys HD to no end but for which every moment I savor as we grow more apart and together.
    A lovely sentiment… Cannot wait to do the same with #2:)

  9. CatherineWO says:

    What a beautiful description this is. Many years ago, when my children were just babies, I commented to a friend (a mother of older children) that I wanted my children to always stay little. Her wise reply was that I should see every stage, every age, of a child’s life as the “best” age. I took that advice to heart and tried to enjoy each stage without comparing it (or each child) to another. Now my children are all adults with children of their own, and I share your sentiments. I love them every bit as much as adults as I did as children. It is different, though. They are my closest friends. We are still intimately involved in each other’s lives, but as equals, as adults, and we share, and relish in, our love for the next generation, their children/my grandchildren.

  10. Maryly says:

    My – our – goal was always to end up with people to whom, if we weren’t stuck with them because we’re related, we would wish to be introduced. We knew that our precious babies would not stay babies forever or even for very long. Success! Our eight lovely adults are intelligent, well educated, funny, independent, and all that is wonderful. Sometimes their choices frighten or concern us, but they are adults, so we never over unsolicited advice. Our nest will never quite be empty, as our fifth child has Down Syndrome; she is the most intriguing adult of them all. She is 32 and 6, all at once. We get to see life always from a child’s perspective. We have grandchildren; we have the best sort of immortality. We have just learned to rejoice through our tears and cry through our joy. The best of all worlds to you!

  11. April says:

    I wish my own mom were as happy about this stage of life as you are. Some of her friends started a club for “empty nesters” to do fun activities together that are hard for younger parents with kids in tow. My mom weas offended when they invited her to join because she did not like that anyone had noticed that she was getting older. I hate that my youth-worshipping culture makes people, especially women, ashamed of something as natural and inevitable as aging, and of accomplishments as wonderful as raising children to adult independence.

  12. Laura says:

    When my oldest turned 10, I said to my husband that she had spent as much time in our house as she ever would – we were on the downhill side. Her younger sister just turned 11, and I’ve been wrapping my head around what that phase of my life will be like. I look forward to that and continued relationships with my girls. Thanks for this post!

  1. May 8, 2012

    […] are some of our favorite posts about motherhood in 2011 and 2012: Guest post by Pandora about being a new empty nester April blogs about Primary’s best Mother’s Day songs Spunky writes about trying to […]

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