When we have children, we begin the only relationship in our lives built on the absolute understanding and expectation that they will grow beyond us and leave. And yet somehow when it happens, it can come as a shock. (Tobyotter/flickr)

This empty nest thing? Feh. For the birds.

Yes, that would be me — whining about the very achievement that every parent should be so lucky to experience.

Just another of my many charms.

Let’s face it. Raising children means hoping from day one — and doing everything possible to make sure — that they will thrive and find their own way.

So when the kids reach a huge milestone towards that goal, you might think all parents would high five, swig some Gatorade, and do a little jig. You might, in fact, think it’s downright perverse for parents like me to carry on with the moping, the weeping, the rending of garments.

Simultaneously, I cherish memories of the pipsqueaks they once were, feel great hope for the future, and cry over the realization that I no longer need to buy milk.

But the situation isn’t quite so simple. Much as some people would argue that it is. Perhaps you’ve met those people? The ones who insist that after the kids are on their own, you need to, as it were, man up. The ones who say if any melancholy lingers in your soul once the offspring are tossing Frisbees on sun-dappled quads, then you have Issues. The ones who maintain that when you’re sad, you can’t also be happy for your children, and who imply that this might make you selfish, weak, histrionic, or over-invested in your role as center-of-universe-for-the-spawn. The ones who roll their eyes and declare, “What a tragedy — you’re sending your child to college!” And then resort to air quotes while stage-whispering “Hashtag: First World Problems.”

Hey, it takes all kinds, including the kinds who enjoy finding excuses to say “hashtag.” To each his own.

And I suppose it’s always easier to see the world in black and white.

But in the gray, where I live, one of the marvels of being human involves being able to hold more than one feeling in our hearts at a time.

I lament what is lost even while celebrating what is gained. Simultaneously, I cherish memories of the pipsqueaks they once were, feel great hope for the future, and cry over the realization that I no longer need to buy milk.

I’m thankful that my sons are getting a great education and that — knock wood — they’re healthy and — knock wood — they’re happy.

But like so many other parents I know, my emotions are a potent mix. We’ve devoted a couple of decades to these squirts. No matter how proud we are of what they are becoming away from us, it can still come as a shock that they are indeed away from us. How can they be living hundreds of miles from home and wearing size 13 shoes and studying formulas and theories that we cannot begin to grasp, when surely we could still reach out and take their tiny grimy hands in ours to cross the street?

I think about my sons and grin, thrilled to ponder all their new adventures and opportunities. But sometimes I still find myself yearning for how it used to be.

That would be me, again, wallowing in a puddle of wistful.

I miss them.

I miss being around my sons as they are now, and I miss their little-boy selves.

I miss their physical presence and I miss the era that I treasured and now is over.

Over the long days and the short years, a rhythm built that was uniquely ours; every family has one. I miss the one we had.

But here we are, halfway through the school year. The new normal has staked its claim. The college boys are settled on campus again after winter break. I’m accustomed now to the untouched beds and clean desks and empty laundry baskets that just a few months ago could stop me in my tracks. And yet… sometimes I still find myself yearning for how it used to be. It’s as if I’m caught in the old movie image of calendar pages flipping over and over, too fast, too fast, too fast.

What strikes me though is this: when we have children, we begin the only relationship in our lives built on the absolute understanding and expectation that they will grow beyond us and leave.

So we know it from the start, we plan for it, we dream of this very path. And still somehow when it happens, it can come as a shock. A lot of us aren’t quite ready, not yet, not now.

We humans, feh. We aren’t always so bright.

However, what we lack in anticipatory skills, we make up for in the complexity of love.

My guys have left for college and soon for the world beyond.

I am delighted, and I am blue, and I am everything in between. Air quote: Hashtag Mama.


Tags: Family

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  • Becky B

    Sharon, you’ve brought me to tears. I feel just what you are describing, although mine is over my daughter who happily went off to boarding school at 14 years old in Fall 2011. She’s getting the best education ever, loves her new world and has never looked back, but my heart aches in her absence. Fabulous for her, too soon for her mama! – Becky B.

  • Sheri

    Yet another wonderful piece by Sharon Brody. She cannot only see these shared experiences of parenting, she is able to apply the words we couldn’t come up with on our own.

  • Janice

    Thanks for putting into words what so many of us feel. Great piece!

  • Susan Whitman-Helfgot

    Ah, the soft sweet smell of the crown of our baby’s fuzzy head to the sweats and socks locker room funk of recent days – we miss it all. Terrific piece. Thanks.

  • PAS

    What a great read. It’s the only job that if you do it right, you’re fired after twenty years.

  • Armando Gespacho

    Sharon – Once again you are adept at putting your finger on the parental pulse and give voice to the conflicts and emotions common to all us so-called grown-ups. While our kids are the axle we have grown used to being the drive chain that keeps the world revolving around them. When they start to turn on their own we are derailed. Even if that is how it is supposed to be the machine still seems broken. But Sharon, don’t stop buying milk altogether; in this grey world the no longer growing bones need it too.

  • Jonathan Small

    Terrific piece, Sharon! So glad we bought (air quote) Empty Nester Insurance by having a second wave of kids. But these emotions are real for us too, nonetheless.

  • FY

    Tears in my eyes as I write. I have two kids under the age of 4, and another on the way. Already I am dreading (for myself, but happy for them of course I suppose…) the day that they will be all grown up and can do everything on their own, let alone be out of the house. The “tiny grimy hands”…. I miss already. The long days and the short years – so so true. Thank you for your piece.

  • toni lansbury

    ah, yes. what she said! with number one going off in a few short months, i have been anticipating these very feelings. what a big complex mess we humans have to live in, filled with love and loss and all sorts of other junk. well put, as usual! xo

  • CircusMcGurkus

    There is one other relationship that is all-encompassing and self-defining that ends far too soon, and far too permanently. With the children on their own and a sense of needing to be needed, adopting a dog could bring tremendous joy and fun and excitement and adventure and a new rhythm of life…kind of like kids, only less expensive and furrier. But they don’t really grow up and they never, ever want to leave us and, there is never a moment when we want them to.

    As Roger Caras said, dogs are not our whole life but they make our lives whole. They need you, love you, will go anywhere with you, greet you with the enthusiasm of a young child no matter how old they get and will happily provide messy pawprints to clean up and make you remember why snow is fun. And when they leave, the wistful longing for them is a stunned sadness, otherwise unknowable, bathed in a puddle of wistful that inhabits the heart forever.

    But, kind of like the back of the mind knowledge that the kid dressed up for Halloween will one day find that childish and the next day be off on his own, when you’re in that moment, walking the neighborhood for candy, full of love and joy, you never once think that it could ever end.

    It’s worth every minute – think abut trading in those hashtags for dogtags.

  • Ann Silver

    Terrific piece, and I couldn’t agree more! All the feelings in this piece are mine, as I became an empty nester the same time Sharon did. Well done!

  • Diane Benatar

    That was lovely, insightful, exactly right on target, and tear-invoking.
    Sharon, thank you for that.


    Thanks for putting into words what I am already anticipating…and not sure I want to do.but, alas, as you said…we know it is gonna happen.

  • Loud Howard

    For over 28 years I was the coach of the team, my wife was the manager. The older children brought on recruits of their own (grandchildren), the youngest left for college, came home after 4, maybe 5 years later and then went straight to Colorado.
    Over the last 3 years, my wife the ‘”Manager” has handled all the adjustment well. She is happy not going to the food store. However I have felt “Benched” by our success, in a great way of course. We raised great kids and grandchildren are awesome. Warning, this past Thanksgiving, we only had to show up at a house, no work or planning, now that was really strange.


    1) They come back
    2) In many ways, grandchildren are muuuuch better

  • Lizzie

    Sharon Brody is an outstanding writer, almost always “getting it right” on ideas and subjects to which she applies her considered, humorous, yet thoughtful pronouncements.

    However, (and yes, you knew this was coming) on this one I am not entirely “simpatico”. I do feel more in agreement with those who say all these empty nesters might “have issues.”

    And from where and when did this expression (empty nesters) enter our language as applied to human beings?

    Once upon a time I came across a saying, attributed to the Buddha: “Learn to let go. That is the key to happiness.”

    My sentiments exactly, though of course I do not follow that precept as much as I should or truth be told, hardly ever, except in the case of the empty nest.

  • Frank

    Great article! Next up — tell us what’s it like to have older brother(s) head off to college and beyond, then be a pseudo-only-child ;-) …?

    • sharon

      ladies and gentlemen, meet my oldest brother! and lest he think i was terribly lonely when my big brothers flew the coop, allow me to disabuse him of that notion. yes, my brothers are great, sure, right, of course. but as a pseudo only child i was too busy driving our parents crazy with my capricious teen ridiculousness to miss anybody or anything. so there. (sibling squabbles never die, they just migrate to the comments section of cognoscenti?)

  • Roy Liu

    The fact that child-rearing is fleeting in time is kind of the whole point, isn’t it? That’s what motivates you to cherish it, just like Mother Nature designs your teenager to make you crazy enough to get over the separation anxiety when they leave…

  • Juli Gould

    I had tears streaming down my face while reading this pieces. And my daughter doesn’t go off to college for 6 more months. Before my daughter became a teenager I suspected that one of the reasons that teenagers evolved to be so annoying is that it eases the separation because parents are relieved they are gone. Unfortunately (fortunately actually) my daughter and I bonded while driving and driving and driving (she loved to drive) while she had her learners permit and we are closer than ever. Sure the dirty dishes and clothes strewn in her wake are annoying, but I’m really going to miss her. I guess job well done because she has grown into a lovely young lady. She just got a new kitty, who I plan to hang on to to use as “daughter bait” so that she will come visit more often :)

  • C Bays

    I too have friends who don’t understand the complex emotions I have been going through since my youngest left. Luckily I avoided my friends judgement by sorting out who I could share my feelings with before my children left. When I mentioned trepidation at my children’s imminent departure, any friend who said “Oh, you’ll love it – we’ve enjoyed being alone” was removed from my sharing list after my children left. Those who looked at me with concern and said, “Yes, I’m worried about my kids leaving too” have been the friends I’ve shared my feelings with and they have been wonderfully supportive!

  • Shawna Faddis Ford

    Finally…….someone who gets it!!!! So well said.

  • anon

    If we didn’t love them so much it wouldn’t hurt

  • Kate Cone

    Lovely piece, Sharon! I am four years into my own empty nest and I am still bumping into walls. I have a gift of not having to work now, so I can finish that novel I’ve been “finishing” for 20 years. I have a wonderful husband who has been empty nested for over 30 years with his own kids, so he listens to my “external processing,” (read whining) about my sadness. And I have time, time, time! Did I say that? I guess having a sense of humor about ourselves and our frailties is important, too. Kate Cone, Waterville, Maine

  • Joe Wheeler

    As a Gay man who always wanted to be a Dad, this is really moving. Yet, it’s better to have loved and … you know the rest.

  • Jan

    What a wonderful article. I know people who are thrilled for their children to fly the nest so they can have their old life back – and others who can not imagine them going more than a few miles from home. What I love most is that you talk about this grey area. Of course, I am thrilled to see my children on their way, spreading their wings – sometimes far from home – but, I do so miss them and what has become a very short time together. It was refreshing to know that others live in this grey area too. Thank you so much for your insightful writing and putting into words what I have struggled with.