Personal Essay: That Empty Nest Feeling

woman drinking coffee

My youngest had gone off to Kindergarten, and what I thought would feel like freedom felt more like an identity crisis. I was a stay-at-home mom, and suddenly I had no one to take care of.

I thought I’d like having both my kids in school. For one thing, I hadn’t had a break from parenting in over eight years. Sure, my husband took the kids, now 8 and 5, out on weekends so I had time to myself (which usually ended up with me folding laundry). And I’d gone on my share of mini-vacations, like the romantic weekend getaway where, in my kid-free zeal, I spent too much time in the hot tub and passed out. But, for the most part, my days were spent largely with my children.

Now, however, it would be me, by myself, all day long!

There was a lot I wanted to get done. I had projects I’d been wanting to tackle for years but hadn’t had the time and energy for. Like the out-of-control Tupperware cupboard filled with dozens of containers and no matching lids. And the pile of clothes in the back of my closet I’d been meaning to take to the dry cleaners since 2013. Not to mention my kids’ artwork stored in overflowing bins under their beds; every time I stuffed in just one more cotton-ball laden creation, I felt a wave of guilt for not taking better care of their life’s work.

But while there was a lot to get done, I wasn’t planning on spending all my newfound time organizing. I also needed “me time” to make up for all those years of putting my family first. I imagined leisurely mornings at the library, amassing novels I’d read in yet-to-be-discovered cafes. I’d finally visit all the museums in my town that did not have children’s programming.

Then, of course, there was the tantalizing prospect of doing nothing. I craved unstructured time. Or at least, the pre-mom me did. Before I had kids, I could wander around the house with a cup of coffee, staring out the windows and watching delinquent squirrels destroy my flowerpots for hours. I could binge-watch historical dramas on BBC like it was my full-time job. I could browse through old high-school photos for way too long, to the point of feeling strangely bereft.

However, the start of Kindergarten came and went, and none of this happened (except the Tupperware project, which I am proud of). After the novelty of the first few days of time to myself wore off, I didn’t feel free. I felt lonely. My body physically ached for my children. I wasn’t used to going so long without seeing one of them. I missed their sweaty palms, their need for snacks, their clobbering footsteps. By lunchtime each day, I’d had enough of time to myself.

I also found that, paradoxically, with more time to myself, I somehow managed to get less done. Grocery shopping took twice as long because, with no one on the verge of a meltdown, I had no reason to rush and plenty of time to browse. I also started adding things to my daily routine that had fallen by the wayside post-kids—like blow drying my hair and eating breakfast—which left me with less time for, say, squirrels.

But I would have gladly traded these little luxuries—and, as any mom knows, time, even for personal care, is a luxury!—to return to the utterly exhausting years of early motherhood. When my son got a bad cold and had to stay home one day this fall, I felt relieved. Finally, someone to take care of! I was in my element amidst 101-degree fevers and throw up. When he started to feel better, we spent the afternoon playing board games and reading books. It felt good to share the house with someone, instead of luxuriating in it by myself.

I know I can’t resist the next phase of my life forever, though. Slowly, as the months go on, I am adjusting. I am remembering that I’m a person with skills, interests and dreams that go beyond parenting (and Tupperware). It’s hard to switch gears when you’ve been immersed in one thing—in this case, motherhood—for so long. But I’m learning to value my own time again—and make the most of it.

Leah Black is a writer and mom-of-two.