One bird, two nests.

Everyone knows that when your children grow up and leave home, the parents left behind may experience what many have termed, “empty nest syndrome”. For approximately 18 years, your children live under your roof and so much of your time and energy as a parent is spent watching over them, helping them, guiding them, teaching them, and so much more. Since my kids are still relatively little, I felt nothing in common with these Empty Nesters, nor did I really give that future phase of my life much consideration.

I had years and years before I would experience an empty nest.

Except I didn’t. No one warned me about the junior version of the Empty Nest: when all of your children are in school.

It only dawned on me late Tuesday afternoon, the last true day of summer vacation, that while all of the focus had been on our children starting a new grade and new school, that my own identity, so much wrapped up in being a stay at home mom, was also about to drastically change. I hadn’t given it one iota of thought until then. I felt sadness creep in, tinged with a dose of panic: “My babies are all gone! Flown away to school! What will I do? Who will I be?” I calmed myself down with visions of skipping home along the short-cut path, beaten down by little feet walking to and from school in years past. I imagined myself drinking cup after cup of hot tea, Netflix on the TV, house sparkling clean and a state of total mental zen.

This first few hours of Wednesday morning was totally child-centered: ensuring I did whatever I could to calm their nervous tummies; packing their bags with hearty lunches and their hearts with extra hugs; staying positive and reassuring; remembering to pack water bottles and indoor shoes; reminding them how brave they are and how proud I am. Our drop off was less painful than I had feared. In fact, I’m going to go out there and say it went great! I left them both and as I made my way through the throng of parents and towards the short-cut path, I waited for the joy and exhilaration to flood in.

But it never came. Instead, I floated through that short-cut path like someone who isn’t fully present. I forced myself to concentrate on the beauty of the monarchs and grasshoppers along the path. I reminded myself, “Be happy! They did great!”. I came home and I did warm up my tea and I did put my feet up and watch Netflix. But after a period of time far shorter than what I had predicted, I grew restless. I thought I’d spend a few hours browsing the aisles of Walmart that the kids never have patience for. But I was in and out of the store in less than 20 minutes. I came home and did a few chores and while I did enjoy the solitude, I also checked the clock every 20 minutes to see how much time was left before I could pick them up again.

I didn’t expect this. I suppose it’s good to know that after 35 years on this planet I can still surprise even myself. Right?

You see, I believe that we all wear a set of invisible labels. Like name tags that proclaim exactly who we are, what we do, and how we relate to others, our entire vision of ourselves is made up of the total summary of these labels. “Military wife”, “Mom of two young boys”, “daughter”, “sister”, “aunt”, “stay at home Mom of a baby/toddler/preschooler”, “past teacher”, etc. etc. We have these labels so we can understand ourselves and figure out where and how we fit in with the people around us. They give us a schema for understanding ourselves and while we know that we are so very much more than simply the culmination of simple identifiers, they do truly help us figure ourselves out. So when we take a label off, our whole self-identity recalculates. This takes time. And heaven forbid we remove more than one label at a time – that’s just inner chaos!

So this week I took off the “stay at home Mom of young child” label. It has been closest to my heart for nearly 9 years in some way or another except for a few brief periods. The skin beneath where that label has been is exposed and raw. I thought it would be liberating to remove it (after all, there were many days on this busy summer that I was counting down the days until it could come off). But it turns out, I think I’m going to need to do some recalculating.

Of course, being a stay at home Mom isn’t necessarily a forever job. I’m on the hunt for new opportunities but meanwhile I still love being the one at home to help get ready for school, and do homework and spelling lists, and unpack backpacks, and pick them up when they aren’t feeling well. I know that a new label will be put on instead: “Stay at home Mom of school-aged kids”. But that isn’t quite the same. And I rather liked my old label: it was well worn and comfortable and had soft edges. It was a privilege to wear it.

Here is to all the Moms in the same boat: I wanted to take a moment to send a big shout out and virtual hug to those of you experiencing the same temporary but overwhelming period of Junior Empty Nest Syndrome. I’m willing to bet you didn’t see it coming, either.

So what do we do now, with our quiet days until we have a job or a thriving daytime social life or a volunteer position to occupy our time? I plan to embrace this fall. Just as the trees’ leaves become their most beautiful before they drop and leave the branches bare, I will embrace the bold changes in my own children as they leave me, too. I intend to slow down and breathe deep. To take this as a season to focus on my own well-being and mental health. To read books and drink tea and volunteer and make friends and go for long, quiet walks along the river. Busier times are ahead, I am sure (even though I don’t yet know what they will be). Like the very path we walk to school, some parts will be smooth and well travelled, others will be rocky and difficult to navigate, and some of it might even be just garbage 😛

And while I’m over here and you’re over there and maybe we talk often or rarely or might even be strangers, know that my next cup of hot tea is dedicated to you.

Take care of yourself (and clean the toilets while you have the time!)
Love Mel

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