I love the holidays. Our kids come home, and we live in the past and present at once. I remember who we were and smile at the new people we are. During the holidays, we keep struggle in perspective and try not to dwell on complicated problems.
That's what January is for.
And so, one January afternoon, seven months before our last child was to leave for college, my husband asked the most difficult question empty-nesters can face:
"Will we stay together?"
I half-expected it. There had been too many misunderstandings and too much distance for one of us not to ask.
"And don't say 'yes,' just because we like the holidays," he said.
We opted to trust the future for answers. The future said: This way, please.
It's April, and I've been thinking about the parents whose next college drop-off will empty the nest. For those who have planned their "us again" vacations, it can't get here fast enough. Others will confront their loveless marriages and price apartments.
But some will come home to an empty house with new freedom to choose "what's next?" and few ways to answer the question.
If this is you, you are likely finding it disorienting to imagine, among other things, daily life without the person to whom you have known – every single day – you mean the world.
"Can you bring my uniform to school?"
If this is you, you've heard others refer to life without the children as a natural, progressive thing. And it is. So is childbirth, but remember when people didn't take postpartum depression seriously?
The empty nest transition is as significant as getting married and becoming parents. The feeling of looking at a teenager's still-made bed is, for some parents, as oppressive as grief.
"It's crazy, but I don't know what I'm living for."
"I cry all the time."
"I really have no friends."
"My husband doesn't really understand why I'm sad."
"Nobody else loves me as much as my son/daughter does."
This third stage is often minimized and misunderstood by people who have either jumped into it eagerly, or have never lost the perspective to know that like everything, it fits better with wear.
"Your child is supposed to grow up and leave."
"Find a hobby!"
"It's time for you now!"
If this is you, you know the only thing more stressful than thinking about the end of your hands-on parenting years is the feeling of not becoming your new self fast enough.
You will miss your college student. You may resolve to get by on a diet of one weekly phone call and cheerful morning texts.
If this is you, you will learn that some adult kids wear blinders when they are beginning college. Even weekly calls will go to voice mail, and your "How are you???" text will be answered two days later with the word "good." You will wonder how they could forget about you so easily.
And that's one tine of the fork. Your marriage is the other. However it happens, you will be summoned back to the centre of that relationship, and you might not want to go. You might not know how.
Here are simple things that worked for me:
- Keep a journal: Writing about your feelings forces your attention away from your selfish, ungrateful, unloving child who can't spend 10 minutes on the phone with you, and transfers it to the sad and untrue things you're saying about yourself:
"I'm not important."
"I'm not loved."
"I've been forgotten."
See your words. Argue with them.
- Don't act on too many issues at once: Missing kids when your spouse doesn't might make you wonder if your spouse understands anything that's important to you. If your marriage is over, or if your marriage is just emaciated, think about it and study it, but don't attempt to end it until you have given yourself a good six months to be at the center of your world again.
- Talk to someone who isn't there to fix it, but help you fix it: Research and find a good therapist who deals with transition. (Rather than one who is 27 and deals with millennial anxiety.) You don't have to be in crisis to benefit from a safe place to say all the good, bad and ugly things about your life, your feelings and your fears.
- Help people who will move you: Volunteering doesn't always involve stuffing envelopes. You can marry your natural skills with what makes you smile. Rock babies in the nursery. Grocery shop for elderly shut-ins. I volunteer at a youth organization where I help teens write their life stories, because teens who overcome struggle are the finest people around, and when I'm with them, I'm better too.
- Know you'll be okay: As hard as coming back to a life without kids is for some people, it will get easier. A time will come, however long it takes, when you are in a new daily life that feels like jewelry you bought for yourself.
It's been five years since my husband's January question.
"What do I mean to you?" I had the courage to ask sometime after, because part of our new commitment to living together without kids was to ask and answer every difficult question honestly, even during the holidays.
"What you mean to me," he said, "is that if anything happened to you, it would be the worst thing that happened to me."
By the time we celebrated our anniversary recently, I had learned two things: The past can raise questions that only the future should answer. And few things change for the better like relationships that have been given permission to end – and in the process, begin again.