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Question of the Month: Nest

by Susan Henderson on April 4, 2015

Anyone here have kids leaving the nest, or already flown? How is it for you? For your children? I don’t just want to hear your stories; I need to hear them.

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Two autumns ago, my oldest went off to MIT. I can’t count how many times I passed his empty room or sat at the dining room table beside his empty seat and just started crying. I waited for phone calls, emails, texts, but his life was not about missing what he’d left behind and waiting to hear from us. His life was full, fast-moving. He was stretching his wings, deciding for himself how he would spend his day, how he would decorate his dorm room, who he’d share his time with, what he would choose to study. Each time he comes home, he is new and changed in remarkable ways—deeper, with more life experience, and more opinions about the world and the direction of his own life. He left for college thinking he wanted to be a mathematician, but he’s since fallen in love with the space where quantum physics meets quantum computing. And more importantly, his friends, the music he creates in his free time, and the larger world interests him as much as his studies.

Now it’s my youngest’s turn. He just said yes to the Eastman School of Music, where he’ll study jazz guitar. That’s a photo of the beautiful school up above and a shot of one of the concert halls below. He got an absolutely massive 4-year scholarship and will be a part of a tight-knit conservatory, only 500 undergrads total, most of them classical musicians. Soon, he’ll begin his great adventure and spread his wings. Our home will be so terribly quiet.

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My youngest has always been creative. Even before he discovered the guitar, he’s been all about creating art of one kind or another. When he was small, he loved costumes, wearing several a day.

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He went through a phase of patterning and sewing shirts. I’d find needles and thread under his pillow and realize he was only pretending to go to sleep. As soon as we left the room, he would thread a needle and get to work.

He tried to create board games and often wrote the first chapters of novels. He’d say things like, “This one’s Treasure Island meets The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

For a while he loved gourmet cooking—especially intricate recipes and anything requiring a blow torch. And there was a drawing phase. He drew these at eleven.

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He loves watching, critiquing, writing, editing and scoring films. (He’s quite the expert at mixing batches of fake blood!)

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But it’s his love for playing the guitar that’s been constant over the years. He’s had amazing teachers, all gifted artists themselves: Ed LozanoCarl RoaPatrick BrennanNils WeinholdRick Stone. And there are the teachers he’s never met, those artists he listens to when he walks around wearing his ear buds: Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Charles Mingus, Art Blakey, Mike Stern, George Benson, John Scofield, Snarky Puppy.

Next fall, as he lugs his guitar through the Eastman hallways (this original Maxfield Parrish is hanging in one of them!), he’ll start to grow and change in ways I will be so interested to discover. But until then, I only hope that time will slow down, because I love this here and now in the nest.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

billie hinton April 4, 2015 at 1:18 am

Just saw your question on Twitter and had to pop over and jump in here. 🙂

Congratulations to your son for such a great acceptance to what sounds like an amazing program!

As you know, my son left two years ago too and I miss him terribly – but as you say so beautifully it is also a wonderful thing to see them spread their wings and grow and learn and start to make their paths out into the world. He is double-majoring in physics and pure mathematics and he is completely smitten with his classes and the work and research. So much so that he has gotten me interested in reading physics and doing the occasional math problem.

This week my daughter got accepted to the last of the schools she’s applied to so now we’re in the midst of visits and meetings with professors and decisions. She got merit scholarship packages at all 3 but there is one that has gone further than the other two so it’s been interesting as the pieces fall into place. She now wants to study computer science and physics and there is a possibility she will go to a university close by and live at home. I am trying to be completely neutral about it but I would be thrilled if she ended up doing that!

I’m finding it to be a sort of roller coaster ride – I feel so happy and so excited along with them but then I feel the sadness at not having them here. I have stayed home with them and we homeschooled the entire journey so I keep having to remind myself that it’s normal to feel sad when my near-constant companions of 18 and 20 years move out! We’ve had a lot of fun over the years and I don’t think I realized how much their creative “messes” fueled me.

The thing that saves me are the 12 animal family members that aren’t going to go off to college. 🙂 And the month-long semester breaks and visits. There is nothing better than having all of us home – I can’t quite explain it but I’m sure you know – I just sleep more peacefully during my son’s time back home.

We might need to start an empty nest group in the fall.

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Susan Henderson April 4, 2015 at 1:30 am

That is so true about sleeping better when they’re home.

Billie, It’s been such a comfort to me having you to walk through this together. Like you, there’s so much joy watching their creativity and passion and hard work lead them in such interesting directions. And I also feel grounded by our animals.

But you find, as a mom, how much of your day and your identity has been interwoven with being the protector and reminder and taxi driver and provider. I’m also not sure what it will feel like to have our house empty of the constant stream of their friends. The sound of voices and laughter, the smell of microwaved Hot Pockets. It’s just been so much of my world.

How exciting, all of what your kids are up to, and the choices your daughter has before her! I don’t know what it will be like having such a huge change next fall, but I’m glad to know you’ll be here. : )

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Billie Hinton April 4, 2015 at 2:15 am

I forgot to say: the photo with the cute costume and sweet little face is killing me. I have photos in my bedroom of my two when they were toddlers b/c during some of the more expressive of the teen years some nights I would gaze over at the toddler photos and remember how sweet they had been and cuddly and it got me through the adolescent changes and transitions.

But now I almost can’t look at the toddler photos b/c it brings on the sadness! And a sort of time travelish wish that I could go back and start over and just go through the whole thing again.

I don’t know how it will feel either if they both are gone in the fall. It’s still far enough away (and in my mind I probably put more distance there to make it easier right now) that I simply can’t fathom it yet. It really does make everything else pale in comparison in terms of leave-takings.

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Susan Henderson April 4, 2015 at 10:55 am

I miss those days when he regularly wore a tape measure or a whistle or a belt right across his chest! I know what you mean about tears being right there near the surface. I felt the same when they became too old to climb into bed with me when they had a nightmare. I never slept so well as when they were tucked in close and I could hear them breathing right beside me.

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Nancy M. Clarke April 4, 2015 at 5:42 pm

Having only one child (the love of my life) Katharine Warren Clarke (Katie), my nest blew away when she went off to Endicott College in 2009. It took me two years to be rid of the constant gnawing that grew in my heart. Looking back, I realize the sorrow was only normal. She missed me as well but her growth and adventures in the classrooms at such an amazing college changed her life. What great and new adventures she eagerly grasped with all of her being. I was proud of her perseverance, coming from the tiny island of Martha’s Vineyard to an unfamiliar world with stoplights ! (For real, we don’t have any lights on our little slice of heaven.) But I have given Katie many lights in which she may shine and she has made me shine with lights of pride. She is a successful young woman, living in Boston and in the fall she will attend grad school at Emerson College for a degree in Theatre Education. The nest comes together all by itself. And I….I have found myself.

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Susan Henderson April 4, 2015 at 6:02 pm

What a beautiful story, and it helps so much to hear it. The ache, the pride, the culture shock, the changes for both of you. Exciting to hear she’s going to study Theater Ed at Emerson! Can you say more about finding yourself? I feel like I’m in learning mode and just want to soak up other people’s stories.

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Maury Feinsilber April 4, 2015 at 7:08 pm

If I were to suppose and put a single word on the pain you’re going through, I would deem it an “exquisite” pain. To know that you and your husband have together guided and nurtured and witnessed and stood helpless before these two (literally) brilliant young beinga, it must often leave you in awe.

My never having had kids (and I ADORE kids), not through design, but time, circumstance, the women who had been my longterm partners, a variety of external factors, it, not having kids, has been a haunting pain, one that comes and goes unexpectedly. And even though it is a phantom pain for something that isn’t there, it had proven enough to be the thread that runs through a short story collect I’d written (but am waiting to share with “the world” (aka agents) until my novel is finally complete). The title? MEN WITHOUT CHILDREN. (Yeah, a tip of the hat of awe to Mr. Hemingway).

Of course, there is a progeny we DO have, Sue, that remains. Our words, our work, our books. Always. A certain author that we’re both fond of had said this:
“Like many fond parents, I have in my heart of hearts a favorite child. And his name is David Copperfield.”

And so…

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Susan Henderson April 4, 2015 at 9:45 pm

That is the perfect word. You’re right.

It’s funny, it’s there all along. I hadn’t even thought of it. When a child is only in the womb, or only just a thought, you’re already planning. You’re already feeling protective. Dreamy. You’re already imagining them dancing in a puddle in a pair of rain boots. You’re already holding them. Feeling protective. You’re imagining who they’ll become with your gene pool and guidance. Oh, God, all the possible traits you could pass down! The bad knees. The selfishness. The temper. Is there a way to raise them without doing that, without even letting them see all the crud you carry and work so hard to hide? Can you shield them from yourself, only allow the good parts of you to reach them? Do you even know which are the good and bad parts of yourself? God, the worries. And then, somehow, down the road, despite the fact that they’ve actually seen the whole gamut of who you are, they’re kind of remarkable. Despite you.

I took Thera Flu a half hour ago. This may be the Thera Flu talking. : )

Your title, Maury. And the description. Can I be first in line to offer a blurb for this unfinished book? It sounds absolutely magnificent. If it has even the slightest nod to Hemingway or Dickens, that seals it.

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Maury Feinsilber April 6, 2015 at 8:37 pm

Finally reading this now, you didn’t just make my day, you shot me out of a damn cannon, glitter and all, and I’m now soaring. God, yes, please, I would be phenomenally honored to have you even blurb it with a series of ellipses.

But that’s the “selfish gene” speaking now.

Your comments/reply sort of blew my mind. If it is the Thera Flu, I’m sorry, but I’m gonna start mainlining that stuff. Your thoughts continually amaze me.

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Susan Henderson April 6, 2015 at 11:47 pm

Oh dear, my nearly coherent Thera Flu moment! Thank you for being such a good and gracious sport about it. I’ve been spiking a fever several times a day for the past couple of weeks, and some nights I can’t take it and just conk myself out. That was a pre-conk post. But absolutely genuine in terms of my awe and serious delight in your book description. I can’t think of anything that sounds more like what I would like to read… and what is not out there yet. (When you’re ready for a blurb, I’ll be really mad if you forget to ask me!) : )

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Caroline Leavitt April 6, 2015 at 10:51 pm

Oh yes. Months before our son went off to college (and he was going to be only 15 minutes away in Manhattan), I started being really depressed and upset and very, very soggy. But once he was there, and I saw how happy he was–it was better. And now, approaching his sophomore year, he’s getting his first apartment–in Brooklyn–and that somehow has roiled up all the sorrow again. So this is what helps, at least for me.
1. Knowing that it’s true sorrow. it’s not to be made fun of. You’re realizing your child is his own person now and that he is going to be needing you less and less. And that’s hard.
2. A happy marriage or lots of great friends help. It really does.
3. Work you love. Always important!
4. A friend of mine, a writer, who is about six years ahead of me on this, tells me this is all part of practicing the art of letting go, that when she finally was able to do that–her daughter came back–really back–and now they are writing a script together.

We didn’t have them to keep them, alas. And yes, I s till can’t look at old photos or videos without tearing up. But I keep telling myself isn’t it better to have a kid who is happy, pursuing his passion, and working with his independence?

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Susan Henderson April 6, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Oh Caroline, this helps in so many ways! For one, thank you for validating the true sorrow of letting go… happy as we are that they’ve grown so independent and passionate and capable. It really is sad to let go of all that has been the last 18 years of our roles in each others’ lives.

I love how you describe the 15-minutes away and the searching for a Brooklyn apartment as significant. As having a different feel. I’m glad to hear all that helps, and I’m glad to have your company through this.

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Caroline Leavitt April 6, 2015 at 10:52 pm

Oh yes. Months before our son went off to college (and he was going to be only 15 minutes away in Manhattan), I started being really depressed and upset and very, very soggy. But once he was there, and I saw how happy he was–it was better. And now, approaching his sophomore year, he’s getting his first apartment–in Brooklyn–and that somehow has roiled up all the sorrow again. So this is what helps, at least for me.
1. Knowing that it’s true sorrow. it’s not to be made fun of. You’re realizing your child is his own person now and that he is going to be needing you less and less. And that’s hard.
2. A happy marriage or lots of great friends help. It really does.
3. Work you love. Always important!
4. A friend of mine, a writer, who is about six years ahead of me on this, tells me this is all part of practicing the art of letting go, that when she finally was able to do that–her daughter came back–really back–and now they are writing a script together.

We didn’t have them to keep them, alas. And yes, I s till can’t look at old photos or videos without tearing up. But I keep telling myself isn’t it better to have a kid who is happy, pursuing his passion, and working with his independence? I miss him all the time. I find old memories of when he was 5 or 10 keep coming back. I so loved being a mom, but I still am. It just has to grow into something different now. Maybe too, there is also the sense of mortality. When my boy was little, I didn’t have time to think or care about age. now I do! Yipes.

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Susan Henderson April 7, 2015 at 1:19 pm

Hey, there’s an addition to this post that moves my heart so much. Glad I had a closer look!

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Caroline Leavitt April 6, 2015 at 10:52 pm

Oh, I posted twice. I’m sorry, Susan!

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Susan Henderson April 6, 2015 at 11:48 pm

Double posts are adorable!

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GC Smith April 7, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Nests empty and that’s a good thing. Our ki ds left more than 30 years ago and, excepting visits, they stayed gone, another good thing. Jerry (Gerard W. not Gerard C,. so as not to be tagged junior) is fifty two and the father of two boys, Emmett 8 and Liam (adopted from China) 7. At the moment, with wife Christine, they are all in Jamica having spring fun. Lisa Anne, fifty, is in California with husband Bob. We’re all close friends, including the in-laws. Life is good.

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GC Smith April 7, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Nests empty and that’s a good thing. Our kids left more than 30 years ago and, excepting visits, they stayed gone, another good thing. Jerry (Gerard W. not Gerard C,. so as not to be tagged junior) is fifty two and the father of two boys, Emmett 8 and Liam (adopted from China) 7. At the moment, with wife Christine, they are all in Jamica having spring fun. Lisa Anne, fifty, is in California with husband Bob. We’re all close friends, including the in-laws. Life is good.

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RIc Marion April 11, 2015 at 5:19 pm

Our youngest, who graduates in 3 weeks with his Masters, announced he is moving to California, hooking up with some friends and former roommates who are already established there. This caused my wife to break down in tears. “My baby is moving away….”
My response was “Road Trip! Do you know how close Palo Alto is to Napa?” The mention of good wine calmed her down.

I have a good friend with two boys close in age like yours. They both left at the same time and she said it was horrible. “I come home to a dark house, the lights are never left on, the laundry doesn’t pile up, the refrigerator has milk, the kitchen counters are clean, everything is clean and neat, and quiet. It’s a nightmare, but one you get used to in a hurry.”

And we get to live vicariously through their eyes. A stretch limo full of Detroit Pistons and my short son stuck in the drive through at McDonalds at three in the morning, too long to navigate the curbs. An online interview with a well known rock band in which you can hear the awe in my son’s voice as he chats with his childhood heroes. The look of surprise in my oldest son’s face while helping him unpack in a new apartment when I said, “I am so jealous. You get to start anew, have great adventures, and discover life.”

“It is a path we all must travel.” Gandalf.

It helps if you have a supportive spouse, good friends who are going through it with you, and a sense of wonder at how your busy, noisy household became so quiet, so peaceful, and so calming. It is never the same after they leave, but it gets better because you can see, in their everyday actions and the way they carry themselves, that you did a good job raising them. And, that, my dear Susan, is the whole point.

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Susan Henderson April 11, 2015 at 6:09 pm

Ric, This is pretty much the most beautiful, helpful advice on empty nesting I’ve ever read. I hope everyone else who stops by reads this. I also think you might find a newspaper that’ll publish something very close to it.

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