The Singular Loneliness of My Empty Nest

Reflecting on my strange longing for those long days of my son’s childhood

Psychology Today, September 14, 2018

This year the autumn seemed to come overnight, with raw temperatures and raw nerves. And even though all three of my sons had already moved out a few years ago to start new phases in their lives, I find myself facing long moments of loneliness—for them. Each of my sons presents unique situations of challenge and growth, but it is from recent thoughts of my middle son Max that gave me a powerful new insight into my particular empty nest syndrome this fall.

I can still see myself all those years ago in Max’s room, on the floor, both of us bent over Legos. The floor is yellow pine and relentlessly hard on my bones. The backs of my thighs are starting to itch from sitting so long. The board in front of me is half-filled with yellow Legos of all different sizes and heights. The other half is all blue, also a mishmash of shapes, mostly blue, some white, some clear. The clear ones were kind of a new thing back then. We’re making a beach.

I remember really liking the Lego beach-building project. It was a good task, to sculpt dunes and waves from all the yellow and beige and blue and green bricks. And we loved the beach; Cape Cod was our vacation place, after all, and of course Max was happy there. He’d make a list of all the things he wanted to experience when we’d go. The high-class mini golf place at the Orleans rotary. The now-gone Army Navy store. Hunt hermit crabs with the really good nets my husband Ned had found at that hardware store with the odd name—not the bendy pink ones from Christmas Tree Shops. I wish I could remember the rest of Maxi’s dear list.

But I dropped that list somewhere along the way, in my careless haste to Get It Done, whatever “It” was. Mothering two. Then three. I was so tired. The sense of tired time is what I’m thinking about now, and it’s strange how I miss that. It’s like, whatever the thing was that was hardest about the boys when they were little, that’s the thing I remember now. That’s the thing I now open up and reread. The feeling of boundless time, of nothing to do but this, with Max bouncing around me, a simmering little pot of boy. Or Nat, Max’s older brother. Or Ben, the youngest. I want to understand why that time was so hard, because now that it’s over, when I look at it now, it is everything I want. I want it back.

And so suddenly it occurred to me what that is about. It’s that those long days of being low to the floor with a little guy is the essence of mothering: of becoming almost literally, ground, an all-nourishing earth, to be played upon, grown from. But it’s not a passive lying-down; it is active, a push-and-pull, this new and vividly alive person who was reaching down inside of me and pulling forth the best of me, exhausting because it was probably the most important thing I ever did: raising him so that he (they) could leave.

What I didn’t realize then the way I do now is that it comes to an end. While you’re feeling so tired and so stuck in one place, this miraculous dynamic thing is happening. That child is growing up and away from you, becoming way more than you ever were, and he is going to find a whole new garden—or beach—someplace else.

I have no conclusion here, no words of wisdom, because like most life phases, this one will pass and I’ll be okay.

So for now I wait on that old shoreline, I wait for the tide to turn, when I can see my Max again, my boys again, and when we can play again.

Author’s note: After I showed Max, now 26, this piece for his approval, he wrote back, “I’m down to pull out the Legos again whenever you want, we can do it at a table this time haha.”