Last summer, when the half-hearted breezes faltering in through the window just seemed to stir up the humidity, I had an insight. I’d started watching a Christmas movie, and the mother in it was grieving for her children who needed her less and less and would soon be headed for college. I am close to that point myself, so I could relate.
I was thinking, “Yep, empty nest.” That’s when the insight hurtled itself at me with enough weight and force I had to put the movie on hold.
Empty nest is a clunker of a name if I ever heard one. Think of the names we give all our other life transitions. Birth, baptism, confirmation and commencement are all bright and shining. Retirement has resonance. We Methodists even do better by the ultimate transformation.
Empty nest. Say it seven times.
This isn’t to say there isn’t pain. I dread the day when the excitement, spontaneity and joie de vivre that children bring to a household are gone from mine. However, this that we proclaim to be the whole story is only half the picture.
A mentor, Bangor schools Superintendent Betsy Webb, informed me that this is a time for me to take up the things I put on hold when I became a parent. She was the first person I heard add a positive spin. As a society, we don’t tend to. We also don’t tend to support women in it beyond suggestions for psychological counseling or Valium.
Think about it. A woman is still healthy and vital with a lot of potential when her children move out. There’s a lot more to her than “too bad, so sad.” In what I consider real irony, she is at a point of transition that is incredibly similar to the children. While they are trying to figure out who they are in the larger world beyond home and family, she needs to discover who she is besides a parent.
This transition is especially difficult for women like me who, through choice, necessity or a combination of the two, are stay-at-home parents. When I had my first baby and then my second and third, I fell head over heels in love in a way I’d never imagined possible. I treasured being the one to see the children’s first steps, read to them, take them everywhere — share all those special moments.
There were also practicalities. Having a construction worker husband with unpredictable hours and being unable to drive in a rural state made finding adequate child care probably impossible. And this doesn’t take into account that I can’t imagine the job that would have given enough sick days to cover the normal illnesses of three children, such as the staggered cases of chickenpox one summer.
I treasured my parenting years, which I saw as a delightful detour. At the same time, I did all the things I could to prepare for reentry. I earned money from home, fitting first a typing business and then freelance writing around the children’s schedules. I did lots of library volunteering and networked. I got elected to school committee and vice chairpersonship.
As I got to where the children needed me less, I took a year’s worth of free classes from Women, Work and Community at the University of Maine at Augusta, located in Bangor.
Only as I tried to work the transition, I discovered that what I saw as a love-inspired detour had the potential to be a dead end. I also discovered I wasn’t alone in this predicament. A lot of people told me of mothers feeling trapped.
Something is very wrong with this picture. It’s time for us to stop acquiescing and fight back for ourselves and our families. Our loved ones deserve our vibrant presence, not a prolonged period of mourning. Our kids can move on to their adult lives most easily when we have enough validation and authenticity to release them gracefully with our blessings. Our daughters deserve the security of knowing they can thrive in post-child-raising adulthood even if they stay home.
We need to create a wide range of options for women on the verge of this transition: further education, internships to develop needed skills, maybe a gap year for centering. We need to create social support for women to do something empowering rather than settle for dead ends. We need to find financial resources for women who need them.
Oh, yeah, and we need to change that clunker of a name, “empty nest,” because words define our thinking more than we realize.
Julia Emily Hathaway is vice chairperson of Veazie School Committee and proud mother of three.