My daughter has graduated from high school. It’s been two weeks but I’m still up to my chest in emotion, all the stronger this time around because she’s my youngest child.
There’s no holding back the swelling pride and wonder that comes along with seeing your child, in the long black robe, walking down the aisle as you look on, in this case under the vast vaulted nave of St. John the Divine in northern Manhattan.
It was a joyful, celebratory day, but—underneath it all, for me, the sadness of knowing that life as I know it—the parenting life—is coming to an end. Do I have to say I’m empty nester? The bird analogy is so cheesy.
Do people who are empty nesters actually call themselves empty nesters? I’m starting to think only people who are about to be empty nesters—and are dreading it, like I am—use that term. Sort of like people who are about to turn forty or fifty can’t stop talking about how awful it is to be turning forty or fifty. Once you’re actually there, once the condition is real instead of speculative, then you don’t need to label it. You’re simply in it. It’s once again your life, but a new way of living in which the kids are in college. Once they are out of college, they are officially grown up. “Our children are grown.” I’m going to feel so old when I have to start saying that. That’s a whole other issue: How old I’m going to feel without kids in the house. There’s no getting around it. Once you have to say your kids are in college, people know pretty much how old you are. They know you’re at least in your 40s, and probably older. Which is fine, I’m not at all trying to hide my age, but it’s just unsettling, that the math is so obvious. It’s less so when you’re in your 40s and have toddlers. People may suspect you had kids late, but no one’s going to ask; it’s info that’s yours to share or not.
It’s weird to think of the free time awaiting us. Granted, Vanessa doesn’t take up a ton of time at this point; long gone are the crazy days of 6 am-9pm parenting. I’ll miss what little I do do, though. Making sure we have Vanessa-only foods—almond milk and almond butter, sweet potatoes and cartloads of bananas and those amazing dark-chocolate-covered pretzels from the fancy market around the corner. Come to think of it, keeping her fed is the main thing. I love that role. I’ll miss having coffee with her in the morning before school, one of the day’s few quiet moments. I’d commiserate about tests coming up, with any luck get a snatch of high-school gossip. Only a few moments, ten, fifteen minutes. Then a few words maybe after school, but then then we convene again at dinnertime. We mostly love the same foods and on weekends we cook together. It’s usually just the two of us, because Dan travels frequently and is often home late. Throughout the kids’ childhood, he’s rarely been home when the kids ate at 6:30 pm. Vanessa and I still generally eat around then. When she leaves, so will the dinner routine of twenty years. That’s an odd thing to contemplate. I’m likely going to have many nights when I’m on my own for dinner. Will I go European and have something like soup or bread and cheese? Will I drag empty-nester friends out to hip Bklyn eateries? I could become a regular at a cool but low-key local joint (there are some definite possibilities in my ‘hood). “I’ll have my usual, Louie.”
I have to concentrate on how absolutely great it’ll be to have all this new time—for writing, for one thing—and not on why I have all this free time. I get all weepy when I think about all that is coming to an end—not just child-rearing but a twenty-year period that looking back, were the bounty years. The years of being young but with responsibilities, years of energy and ambition, when the future was still vast.
I know I’ll shake off this melancholy and come to terms with the next stage. I figure by mid-fall—a month or two after Vanessa’s gone. With my first-born, Davison, I moped for three months, but everything’s faster the second time around. I’ll shoot for one month, because I have a terrible feeling Vanessa will has some kind of school break come October, and I’ll need to be on solid emotional footing by then. Wish me luck.