I have three sons and in precisely five days, my eldest will fly away with a backpack and an itinerary with destination points such as Bangkok, Phnom Penn, Hanoi and Luang Prabang. He and his girlfriend have earned their degrees, worked and saved for a year, now they’re off!
How can I not be thrilled for them, I did the same when I was just a few years older than they are now. At the time, I promised I’d be back in six months, yet didn’t return to live until last summer. Some twenty-four years later and that’s what I am afraid of, and yet not.
I’ve just had the pleasure of living with the ‘vagabond to be’ these past nine months. After four years of separation while he was at university on one continent and I on another, it was a joy to have shared this time with him. The fact that he worked at a wine boutique was an unexpected bonus. I’d often be preparing dinner and receive a text asking what was on the menu so the wine could be paired. I shall miss that, and him, as we would chat about life over a glass of Grenache or Merlot until well past bedtime. Yet, I’m faced with the realization that once this young man steps on that airplane, he will have officially flown the nest. Grad school in Sweden awaits after the trip and I stoically write… it is how it is meant to be.
Almost five years ago, our nest dramatically emptied by two. It was arguably the worst months of being a parent that I’ve known. I ‘lost’ two kids in the space of a week and moved to a new country just to top it off. With my husband and youngest son already relocated to Norway from Houston, it was I who had the daunting task of settling the other two in Canada. It was their home country and yet they had never lived here which concerned us greatly. Our middle son went to a boarding school in the West and the eldest to university on the other side of the country. Those of you who have experienced this know how utterly difficult it is to walk away and leave your ‘babies’ to fend for themselves. It definitely is not how it’s portrayed in the movies with smiles and a quick hug goodbye. No, it’s wrenching and traumatic. After the second ‘delivery’, I drove through tears to the Toronto airport to catch a flight to my new life in Stavanger. All the while, vowing under no circumstance would I deliver the third son alone to university when the time came.
After collapsing in my husband’s arms once I arrived across the ocean, I spent many days of those first months curled up in a ball. With the rain pouring and the wind howling around me, I struggled to cope. Not only was I dealing with transition, I was in the throws of empty nest syndrome. I remember feeling as if part of me had been amputated.
Evening dinners were the worst. Three places set instead of five. Three of us struggling not to pine for that busy household of five. It was too quiet, too lonesome and many nights I would burst into tears, not able to contain my emotions. The beautiful surroundings and our view to the fjord helped somewhat. However, our youngest was also in turmoil and yet it was his humour that got me through the worst of it. He was suddenly an ‘only’ child with no bros to hang out with or kick a ball around with on a whim. No, now he got all the attention; just he alone which isn’t exactly what a sixteen year old finds ideal. It is well known that the effects of an empty nest also impacts siblings and they also can deal with a sense of loss and bewilderment. They require attention and understanding as they cope with new family dynamics. I remember many chats and hugs as the three of us did our best to adjust.
The reality is that nothing can truly ready us for this new phase in life and the advice I can give is thus; prepare yourself. With the relative ease of having only one teenager at home instead of three, I made the conscious decision to take on new challenges. It was essential to the process of moving forward. I wandered off to a writing retreat, studied art in Florence* and started a book club. I also took on a job that I adored. The silver lining is that it gives you the green light to do something different once that role of motherhood is more ‘part-time’. It may be trying something new such as a class, volunteering or finally finding time to complete projects that you’ve put off. I have friends that have taken up quilting, produced photo books and learned a new language now that they have more time on their hands. Some of us also started power walking which helped me cope as we walked, while we talked and talked. A number of dear friends helped me get through the worst of it. They know who they are and I will always be thankful for those long walks along the fjords and through the mossy woods.
At the recent #FIGT conference*, empty nest syndrome was mentioned a number of times as women cope with the realities of their changing role. However, some of us agreed that it was also liberating. It was allowing us to explore new experiences and even job opportunities. I whole heartedly agree with Robin Pascoe in her excellent book, Homeward Bound.* She writes, “Your life is your career. Women would better serve themselves by defining the word career as a path through life.”
How true, being a mother is a ‘job’ that we have for life and the skills that we gain are endless. Yet as the saying goes, there are two things we must give our children; roots and then wings with which to fly away. As mothers we have to be prepared to pat ourselves on the back for the good job we’ve done, yet try to move forward.
Opportunities lie ahead for us, just as they do for our young adults. I know my parents gave me their blessing to move away and as painful as the separation was at times, they’ve seen places in the world they wouldn’t have had the privilege of doing so. They’ve scoured beaches in Oman with us, rode camels in Qatar and happily sweltered at baseball fields in Texas, watching their grandchildren play ball. All part of where that road may lead when we leave home for a path unknown. It’s brave to recognize that leaving the nest that we’ve been raised in and comfortable with is part of life’s rich tapestry, if that is what is chosen.
At the end of this summer, we’ll be empty nesters. Will we miss these three guys of ours, yes most assuredly. However, I’m excited about their next chapter, as I am my own. A few years ago my sons gave me a mother’s day card that I cherish. It’s elongated and folds out to the shape of Cleopatra. Listed on her dress from A to Z, is what my role has been these past years. What we’ve all achieved by being ‘just’ a mother. And it reads;
Accountant Babysitter Chauffeur Decorator Educator Fashion Guru Guidance Counselor Head Chef Interior Designer Janitor Kitchen Supervisor Landscaper Mechanic Nurse Officer Psychiatrist Quality Control Director Referee Storyteller Travel Agent Underwater Swim Instructor Valet Warden X-pert Caretaker Yard Technician Zookeeper
Yes, just a few skills for that well honed resume we acquire through the years of raising children. A priceless and noble job, but also one that we can use as a stepping stone to a continued, fulfilled life. Also, we can be consoled by the fact that we are always home, meaning we parents endeavour to provide a nest for those kids to come back to, whatever the age. And that’s a wonderful thing.
And, so as I write this I’m thinking of those two young university grads setting out on their adventure of a lifetime. They’re elated and I know we all wish them, simply…the time of their lives!
P.S. Hubby was indeed with me to take the youngest to University of Victoria last summer. How could he refuse as we dallied in Canada’s wine region on the return, the beautiful Okanagan Valley. Thankfully, it was all just a little easier the third time round!
*Renaissance Art at the British Institute of Florence
*FIGT as mentioned in my first blog
*Robin Pascoe is the author of numerous books on the subject of global living. They can be found at expatbookshop.com