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Field Notes on an Empty Nest

A mother reflects on the moment her son spread his wings and went off to college.

an empty bird nest

Working in our perennial garden last week, I found an empty bird’s nest on the brick walk leading to the backyard. I’m guessing the nest fell from a nearby silver maple, or maybe a neighbor found it while jogging and left it by the gate for us to admire.

Not much larger than a cereal bowl, the nest now perches indoors on a shelf near my writing desk. Crafted from hundreds of delicate twigs, strands of grass, and dried moss, it’s truly a work of art–and a timely reminder to prepare for my son’s return to college after the long summer break.

I’ve been discussing this tender rite of passage with other middle-aged mothers, all of whom agree that there has to be a better term to describe our next season of parenting–a phrase that doesn’t sound as final or forlorn as “the empty nest.”

Our nests, after all, are not completely empty. Not yet. My only child, for example, still has a bedroom at home in addition to a loft in a crowded dormitory on the other side of the state.  But a lot has changed since my son started college.

For starters, the calendar in our kitchen now shows some blank spaces and is no longer decorated with colorful sticky notes to remind us of band concerts, school conferences, football games, and carpool schedules.

At first, this was not cause for celebration. I’d suddenly become what our high school mothers’ club affectionately refers to as one of the “alumni moms.” I mourned the inevitable loss of my role as a hands-on parent. And despite the fact that I was left with a cleaner, quieter house, I missed all the athletic shoes and flip-flops piled near the back door. I missed the hungry teenagers snacking at my kitchen counter after school. I missed bumping into other parents at our weekly school functions–and I wondered if life would ever be the same.

Life isn’t the same, but I’m okay with that now. I’ve come to realize that a mom is always a mom, though her parenting role evolves and changes
over time. Not long ago, I stayed at my own mother’s place for a few weeks while I recovered from major surgery. When I apologized for disrupting Mom’s normal routine, she said, “My home will always be your home too.”

Of course, I found comfort in that. Yet at the same time, I realized how grateful I was that my parents had encouraged me, years ago, to spread my wings and create a loving home and family of my own. It’s hard to believe my son starts another year of college this month.

I’m still not very good at saying good-bye when his dad and I leave him at the dormitory and steer back to the expressway. I usually manage to compose myself until I notice the tearful parents of college freshmen going through this bittersweet ritual for the first time. But it does get easier with each new school term.

So, is my nest half full or half empty?

Reflecting on the small bird’s nest perched near my desk, I’m at peace with the idea that our household is just one stop on our son’s path to his future. He’ll be flying back and forth over the next couple of years or so. And hopefully, patience and love will be the threads that weave our family together, no matter how far he travels.

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