Empty Nest or Empty Next?

I often have thought that children serve the purpose of keeping you connected to the passage of time. Their distinct milestones cartwheel past each other, some predictably, some simultaneously, others off course.

The marks of accomplishments and events are as clear as the pencil marks on the walls and doorways in the homes of parents who would allow their children to write on the walls. These marks show you that you are not standing still, that you mark time in terms of how you affect the other people you touch and care for.

You think for some reason—perhaps because the movies, TV shows with laugh tracks, and parenting books said as much for the past 50 years—that your job as a mother is finite. All those “it goes so fast” sayings giggled at cocktail parties by all the women and men who seem to be mourning that they are no longer in a tango with children who now have to call to argue.

And it doesn’t seem selfish or mean to begin to count on that, calculating the steps taken. You want them to move ahead; this is, after all, the point. Why is it wrong for me to imagine the steps will be for me alone, please, soon let the steps be for me alone?

I have lived alone without my children for a total of nine months over the past 28 years of parenting. It was when my middle son and my youngest son were both away at college—different colleges with different tuition amounts but the same due date. Alone August 2012 to May 2013.

Since then, two sons have moved back home; a third has said he is considering it. I love them, of course, but I also love me. And the realities are, I cannot find my favorite coffee mug. The laundry basket is always full of clothes that are not mine, towels I did not use. The waste basket in the bathroom is always full. The toilet paper holder is always empty until I change it.

In hotel rooms where I touch down for a work trip, I greedily watch reality shows about bed-bound women losing hundreds of pounds, or preparing an elaborate cake for an event, even tearing down houses to rebuild mansions. The befores and afters seem so simple and exact, a defining moment as clear as a road stripe, white on black tar.
Empty, then full. Full, then empty.

I know that sounds heartless and selfish and dark. Mostly, this is informed by my weariness of feeling as if I am on a perpetual treadmill, with no off switch, no possibility to jump to solid ground. Punctuated by my privilege, my expectation that all would go according to plan.

Shame on me.

I acknowledge I am built with full-on inhabitance of emotion that grants me a sadness so life-size it gives me hives and a throat-tightening despair. I also see how a small gesture can shift to rapture, over a butterfly on the front porch or a text from a friend who makes me laugh.

I thought this was my time. I have done what I was supposed to do.

Write the bills for the mortgage, the insurance, the tuition, Verizon, AT&T, Commonwealth Edison, Ni-Cor Gas. Snow removal. Have someone mow the lawn, $15 a week, then $20, without the inclusion of trimming the bushes in the backyard, oh goodness never mulch. Late fees. The parking tickets, not from me, but from the sons driving the cars I own. The refrigerator is empty, the refrigerator is full. So many cereal boxes—all of them opened and none of them with the wax paper closed tightly. Nothing has time to spoil, nothing except me.

The young man is seated at a table in the dining room in a small diner in Chinatown, off Cermak Road in Chicago. The table is a yell’s length from the kitchen near the cramped public bathroom where a silk white orchid is perched on the toilet tank.

On his left is a large steel pot the size of a small child; a steel tray is on his right, heaped with pea pods he has clipped on each end with a small utensil he holds tightly. The mountain of neat bright green pods are the size of a duffle bag. Hundreds, maybe thousands of pea pods.

Snip, snip. One side of the pea pod, then the other. Toss on the pile. No words. Snip, snip, toss. An aproned older woman swipes out of the kitchen and lifts the top tray, carrying it back with her. An empty steel tray is underneath. He continues without speaking. Snip, snip, toss. There is beauty in the repetition and the growing pile, but he does not smile. Snip, snip, toss.

Michele Weldon

About the Author | Michele Weldon

Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, emerita faculty at Northwestern University, editorial director at Take The Lead, and a leader with The OpEd Project. Michele is the award-winning author of five nonfiction books, including her latest, Escape Points. Her commentary appears in outlets such as the New York Times, USA Today, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, CNN, Cosmopolitan, Guardian, and more.

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