Guest Post: Nesting
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.