California Forum

Jenifer Warren: Taking flight in empty nest a trying task

I ran into an old acquaintance recently and mentioned Daughter No. 2 was heading off to college, leaving me and my husband with an empty nest.

“No, no!” he chirped with a startling level of enthusiasm. “We call it the reclaimed nest now!”

I thought about the positive spin he had put on this major life transition and even looked up the word “reclaim.” The definition offered hope: to retrieve or recover (something previously lost, given or paid).

As an optimist with a wonderful spouse, I’m confident the benefits of a childless home will soon emerge. But so far, I’m not feeling it. Is there something wrong with me? Should I be celebrating the fact that a major part of life, an incredibly rewarding part, is largely over?

When Daughter No. 1 left in 2012, I closed the door to her bedroom and did not reopen it for a month. It seemed safer to avoid glimpses of the soccer trophies, swim goggles, Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs and other artifacts that defined her youth.

But that child had always been a self-sufficient sort – we joked that she could have moved out at age 4 – and back then, Daughter No. 2 was still around and still needed me, if only to find a missing flip-flop or calculus book. When she left, the nest turned eerily quiet. My maternal worth had plummeted overnight.

I moped for a few days but that, coupled with copious amounts of red wine, seemed like a losing, if not downright dangerous, strategy. So I reached out to experts and friends who seem to be thriving in their empty nests.

The Mayo Clinic website was my first stop, where I learned that “empty-nest syndrome” is a phenomenon “in which parents experience feelings of sadness and loss when the last child leaves home.” Duh!!! Reading on, I learned that I should “stay positive,” “keep busy” and “look for new opportunities” in my personal and professional life.

This made sense, so I put on a happy face and went into overdrive on the work front, beating deadlines and cranking out copy at a furious pace. I planted flowers in pots I’d long ago abandoned. I played tennis. I sat down at the piano for the first time in years.

I sought deeper companionship with our pets, but it turns out they were feeling unsettled too. Our Shetland sheepdog, absurdly neurotic in the best of times, looks bewildered. The cats sense a disturbing reduction in lap space. Only the miniature schnauzer, blind and feeble, appears to be soldiering on unfazed.

Friends who had preceded me in this transition, responding to my plaintive cries for help, came through like champs, sharing coping tips and assuring me that empty is not bad, just different.

A Bay Area mother of two far-flung kids said one silver lining was reconnecting with her spouse and “remembering what led you to create those damn children in the first place.”

Other pluses: “Spontaneous days or weekends away without wondering who’s drinking your vodka,” and, more seriously, “seeing your kid launched and happy – what we’re all striving for as parents.”

Another mom reminded me that “any night can be date night” and “if you invite almost-grown children on a cool vacation, and pay for them, they will come!”

A friend in Davis loves her new life but confessed a lingering, almost primal need to be needed. Her advice – repopulate the nest with chickens: “They are virtually guilt-free, very low-maintenance, really funny to watch, and they lay eggs. But they do depend on me. Better than children in many ways.”

Armed with such insights, I resolved to embrace life’s next phase and to refrain from being one of those moms in constant contact with her kids, intruding on every collegiate experience like a desperate party crasher. Still, on quiet afternoons, I catch myself listening for my cellphone’s telltale tweet, signaling the arrival of a text.

Initially, it seemed like Daughter No. 2 would keep the lines open. Twenty minutes after leaving her at the airport, we received this news: “Through security!!!” Thirty minutes later, another text rolled in: “About to take off!!!!” And then, “Landed!!!”

After that, however, it was pretty much radio silence, as the new life began, nudging the old one aside.

As the days roll on, I find it helpful to avoid photographs and other tangible reminders of our offspring. But that’s not always possible. A friend in her late 20s has a newborn girl, and I recently got a peek at her in the stroller. Seeing her gleeful smile and tiny, flapping hands, I was transported back 20 years, to my first moments as a new mom.

As my eyes grew moist behind my sunglasses, my friend, perhaps sensing my emotions, said: “You can hold her any time you want.”

I couldn’t manage to thank her, but I gave a grateful smile as I walked away.