Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Not Empty Nest Syndrome

Last fall, I ran into a friend of mine who had recently sent her only child off to college.

“I fell into bed for a month,” she said. “I was so depressed, I didn’t want to move.”

As I listened to her describe how the sadness began to ease after his first few visits home, I was thinking that surely I would be better prepared to let my first-born go the next year. My friend, I reasoned, must have suffered so because her nest was emptied, something I wouldn’t be facing for another decade.

The summer before Ben left for college, I kept checking in with friends who were priming for the same event. We talked about how relieved we would be not to lie awake nights until they came home, not having to wonder where they were or what they were doing. We patted each other on the back for having raised capable, independent young men. But we also imagined our sadness, acknowledging that a phase of life was over and we’d have to move on.

The day came. Pulling our minivan in front of his dorm to unload felt as if we were taking part in some ancient ritual. Ben let me make his bed, arrange the bath towels. We met the roommates, the roommates’ parents, stayed only a little longer than we probably should have, and then said goodbye, making as small a scene as six people in the hallway can.

Then I lost it. My heart, that is. I really didn’t know how to explain the tears that would well up with blinding suddenness, the ache that made my breath short, my fixation on the little bubble on my computer screen where we would sometimes instant message. I tried not to tell him too often that I missed him. I didn’t tell him that I’m incredulous that 18 years have passed so quickly, that I don’t know how to think of him abstractly, or that I don’t know how I can be so happy for him and so terribly distraught at the same time.

I thought I had become used to his absence during his senior year of high school as the necessities of his life become less and less a part of our family routine. I got it; I applauded and supported the independence that he has been insisting on since he was a little boy. My role wasn’t changing that much: we still have two adolescents and an eight-year old at home. So what hurts so much?

Maybe it’s that letting Ben go has shed new light images etched in my mind unchanged for 36 years. When I decided at 18 that instead of college in the US I wanted to go to France, my parents, without much fuss, sent me to the University of Grenoble. In 1972, there was no email, no instant messenger or cell phones, and overseas phone calls were made only in duress. I still have the stack of blue, paper-thin aerogrammes with my mother’s breezy record of what my brothers and sister were up to, who came to dinner, and what she fixed. She wrote about her piano students and tennis games, my grandparents’ visits. She responded to descriptions of my adventures and told me that she was proud of me.

In the spring of that year, my mother and father came to visit me in France and we spent a week traveling together. We drove a rented car and stayed at the kind of hotels I couldn’t afford on my own. I remember being proud that I could speak French, and I remember laughing—a lot. I don’t remember my mother complaining about the indigestion that must have been the earliest signs of the cancer that would kill her less than two years later. When I returned home, I had a few more months before her diagnosis changed the trajectory and foundation of my life.

So of course I wonder how my grief over the departure of my boy is bound up with the most traumatic and fundamental loss of my life. Already six years older than my mother was when she died, I think I’ve had enough therapy to realize that my fate and her’s need not be the same. But maybe I’m stuck with this sense of loss just a bit longer than I would like because I have no clear idea of what is next. Having lost my mother just as I was becoming an adult, I can only imagine what our relationship might have become. With no experience of what might lie ahead for Ben and me, I fall back on what never was.

As we were getting ready to see Ben for the first time since he left home, I thought about arriving at his school and wrapping my arms around him. But I could get no further than that. Because he’s a sweet boy, I knew he’d return my embrace and probably accept my need to hold on just a bit longer than he might like. And although I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to let go, I knew I would, and then we would see what came next.


  1. I want to thank you for this post, it made me refect on many things.
    I had never connected my lack of tears at the drop off at the dorm,to my Mothers death. I am now more than a decade older than my Mother was when she passed of cancer. She never lived to see me enter highschool. I think there is a very large part of my heart that celebrates the moments with my kids that I never shared with my Mother.
    A sadness never came over me, I was thrilled and in the moment when I dropped my daughter at the dorm, as we kissed and I walked down the hall..."talk to you later". Of course cell phones and IM's keep her in my day to day life.
    I wonder what my Mother would have said if she had been the one to drop me off at school? I wonder if a memory of that would have brought tears to my eyes when I left mine at the dorm......I will say this, the hugs are longerer and the time spent together is sweeter.

  2. I didn't know we had this in common, Heidi. It's quite the defining fact of life.

  3. When my son left for college, I was completely blindsided by the depth of my feelings. After all, he had worked hard, got in to a good school, and was going off to do exactly what I had hoped he would. Why then, did I feel as if I had a hole in my heart for a full year? I still had his teenage sister at home... Didn't matter. They apparently each occupy their own distinct space in my heart. That awful feeling miraculously began to resolve a year later, when I took him back to school, and witnessed the pure joy when he and his school friends reconnected after their summer apart. In that moment, as they grinned and hugged their hellos, I got this sense that all was right with the world; he was right where he was supposed to be. And it continued to get easier. The years have flown by ever faster, and this May, I'll be going to his college graduation. Thankfully, what I've also noticed is that, as he's grown up and out, so has his appreciation for his mother, and his ability to express it. A nice bonus, especially when still dealing with his teenage sister, still at home, and not quite there yet. Even so, I confess I'm in no hurry for the less than 2 years to pass, when she'll head off to her first year of college, and wonder if there'll be another hole in my heart...

  4. I can relate to all of you very well. When my oldest went off to college ( I had a teenager and 8 year old at home) I never expected to feel so depressed and alone. Right up to the day we drove her down to Orlando and helped her move in I was in denial. On the drive home I cried and cried and could barely drive. For weeks I could not pull out of it. I had thought this kind of feeling was only for moms whose LAST child had left home. I remember lying the bathtub crying and sobbing for hours and not knowing quite why I was going through all of this- I still had my other two- but I missed my Angie!

    She is now in her final year of nursing school and will graduate in May. She already works as a nusring assistant and I am so proud of her! I still miss her!!!I talk to her often. I just found out last month that she is getting married and is very happy and content. This makes me so happy for her.

    Now my 18-year-old is going to finish up her A.A. degree in June and I have no idea what she will be doing after that. At least this time I will be bit more prepared for the sadness! :(