After a year of hearing a continuous loop of “you’ll never look back” and “you’ll love it”, I still have a hard time recognizing the “benefits’” of my newly empty nest. I’m still looking back, and I don’t love it yet. Rather than joy for long-awaited freedom, what I’ve felt most is loss – the loss of four children, born close in age, and gone, it seemed, all at once. I loved being a mom; I didn’t want to be a free bird.
But “free” I am, and I’m now well into my second year of it. That is, until 3 weeks ago when COVID-19 brought three of my children home to (relative) safety.
When children leave, they typically leave one at a time. This eases the blow, somewhat. Now, having three of them suddenly return home has been a different kind of blow – a welcome one, for sure, but still. I can’t seem to keep the pantry stocked. The 24-quart cooking pot has come out of retirement and leftovers are no longer a thing. Weekly grocery shopping has been replaced with every other day trips and, even then, I worry that the fullness of my cart makes me look like a hoarder.
Our wifi is maxed, slow and often on the blink. We are competing for quiet spaces in our loud house. Our dining room table is a virtual learning center, our baby grand is my husband’s new stand-up desk, and the kitchen table has become a charging station. I no longer control the Spotify play list (which is OK because I’m being introduced to cool new music) and I have to wait a turn to play my own guitar. The comforting hum of the washer and dryer has returned (the kids do their own laundry, now, thankfully) and there are four cars in the garage/driveway, yet I can’t seem to find one key.
Beneath all of this familiar chaos, however, there is a quiet and unfamiliar pulse of concern.
My oldest, Tucker, lives in Seattle and decided it was safer to stay put than risk certain infection while traveling east. We’re hopeful we’ll get to see him this summer. Jackson works for an asset management firm. He is logging long hours, experiencing the ups and downs of the stock market in a visceral way, concerned for the health of his firm – and his young career. Hannah is on furlough from her job in healthcare – a job she needs not just for income but to accrue hours for graduate school. And Luke just got word that West Point, where he is a second year cadet, is closed for the rest of the semester.
We are traveling in the realm of the unknown. Each of us, like everyone around us, unsure where we’ll be in a month, two months, or whenever social containment measures ease. All plans are tentative, now, at best.
Here at our house, some new daily rituals are evolving; they are grounding and reassuring. Things like leaving the crossword puzzle on the kitchen island so we can solve it collectively, each taking stabs at it throughout the day; 6:00 PM workouts which, as a family of athletes, are vigorous and highly competitive; watching mom’s viral video of the day selection; after dinner ping-pong tournaments; family lunch breaks, nightly dinners, and late night walks with our dog.
We’re capitalizing on our close work quarters to glimpse and appreciate each other’s lives – my husband, Bob, talking about the market, real-time, with Jackson, as Luke, who is currently taking college Economics, listens in curiously. Hannah printing multi-page entrance exam study guides on my office printer and lingering to help me prepare for a TV news interview. Bob and I watching and admiring our offspring’s discipline – and intermittent (and hilarious) antics.
On the weekends, we take long trail runs, practice yoga on the deck, play Bananagrams and linger over the weekend Times. We enjoy extended family Zoom calls with 25 faces crowded on a screen, and we’re re-watching the Harry Potter series in order, 1-7. (Even better the second time!)
These new rituals create a much-needed rhythm to our days; they are a soothing antidote to the perpetual news cycle we can’t escape, and they are helping us create a temporary new “normal” in advance of the permanent new “normal” that awaits us.
Eventually, my nest will empty again. Given the circumstances, I hope very soon.
This time, I will be prepared and happy; happy for all of us, that the pandemic has ended, and happy for my children who will be able to spread their wings and fly off to resume their young lives again, after this unplanned pause.
In the meantime, I am (discretely, out of respect for the seriousness of the crisis) treasuring this unplanned pause and so very grateful that we are safe, well and together. When it’s all over, and it’s just Bob and me again, I will try hard to think more like a free bird than an empty nester; to savor quiet moments and leftover meals, while looking forward (not back) to my kids’ next homecoming and the return of the familiar, comforting laundry room hum.