the empty nest anti-climax
The author hiking in Olympic National Park.

Since Jane has not yet been gone for a month, it’s a little early to call it. “It” being the long-dreaded experience of the empty nest. The nest in question had been in operation for 32 years, if we count from the day in 1986 when I quit drugs, drinking, coffee and everything else I knew as the staff of life to begin the absorbing process of having babies and raising them, ultimately sending off into the world three biological progeny and two stepbabies. In the process, enriching the coffers of numerous educational institutions, now including Bard College in New York State, where Jane is currently renting calculus books and eating farm-grown vegetarian meals.

Now, for the first time ever, I am living alone. Living alone is not something I ever aspired to and at times imagined almost as a punishment for something you did that made you unbearable to others. I mean, many people get to this point in life with a partner in tow, but I’m two husbands down with no replacement in sight.

Before I share my preliminary conclusions, I should note that my perception of the situation has been skewed by an unexpected series of events in the run-up.

In June, coinciding with Jane’s last week of high school, I had contractually obligated myself to a teaching job out of town. As a result, I had to miss all the sentimental culminating activities her school had planned, returning to Baltimore just in time for the graduation ceremony itself. I spent the preceding six months feeling so profoundly sad about this that I may have actually burned out some of my self-pity and grief circuits, or at least temporarily depleted their functionality, for I’m pretty sure I have not been as miserable since. 

In late July, I learned that my son Hayes would NOT stay in nearby Bethesda, with his wife to join him here next year when she finishes her orthodontic residency. I had an elaborate fantasy about my future based on the Bethesda scenario, and balled up in it was the decision to renovate my kitchen because lalala, I’ll be in Baltimore forever playing with my grandchildren, lalala. But Hayes got an unrefuse-able job offer in Boston. As I was attempting to put aside all but enthusiastic responses to this news, I learned that my other son Vince would be moving to Texas this fall, but first going on tour with The Killers to Asia. Okay, wow. At least the dog and the cat don’t have plans to move, as far as I know. 

On August 2, with Jane due at Bard on August 9, I got such a bad stomachache that I went to the emergency room. Two days later, I had an appendectomy and partial colectomy and thus spent the last week of my life as a live-in mom in the hospital. Major mama drama! Clearly, I would not be able to drive Jane to college. Fortunately, Hayes was, as noted, moving to Boston, and offered to pick up his sister and her stuff on the way. On August 8, I checked out of the hospital, a little earlier than recommended but not life-threateningly so, and was so ecstatically happy to ride along to Bard that feeling sad never even occurred to me. My dear sister Nancy, who lives up that way, drove me all the way back to Baltimore and stayed with me the first night.

Hayes, who had a month off between old job and new job, offered a little consolation prize to his poor old mother, suggesting that we go on a trip, just the two of us, anywhere I wanted. I was thirteen days out of the hospital, with five free days in between the mandatory back-to-school meetings at UB and the actual start of classes — so sure, why not? I called a travel editor I work with and asked what destination he would like a story about. He said, the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State. I had barely even heard of it, but I did a ton of research and talked to tourism people and planned a five-day itinerary with restaurants and hotels and hiking, biking, and kayaking (not the young, hardbody versions of these things, but still). We even had a wonderful, destination-appropriate audiobook for all the driving — The Boys in the Boat, about the 1936 Olympic rowing team, a bunch of University of Washington students who grew up in the little towns we were driving through, Sequim and Port Angeles and Montesano. The very dramatic and vivid narration generated a raft of silly jokes that kept us endlessly entertained.

All in all, it was so fun and unexpected to take a trip with my oldest child and no siblings or partners that all I can say is, “How about them oysters?—George Yeoman Pocock.” (Yup, that’s one of the inside jokes. Every chapter began with a stirring epigraph from the British boat builder who fashioned the team’s cedarwood shells, and somehow he just took over our lives. If you say “George Yeoman Pocock” aloud a few times you may see why.)

I arrived at BWI with an hour to spare before my first class, and when it was over I came home and ate some tamales that have been in the freezer for a while with half a can of black beans, dolled up with salsa and a smidge of sour cream. The next morning, I woke up with a ginger cat purring on my chest and a graying dachshund licking my ankle. It was the first day of the rest of my life. I decided to make some yogurt from scratch with my dusty old yogurt maker and lay in a few bottles of rosé for the end of the season. I told the Google Home to play Joni Mitchell. I had many books to read and pieces to write and checks to deposit for the National Book Critics Circle, my volunteer job.

Now, after three weeks, I barely have enough laundry to make a load (and have I ever done laundry with only my own clothes before? Maybe a couple times in college?). I have dinner plans with this one and that one and a long list of TV shows people have told me to watch, Six Feet Under, Atlanta, Sharp Objects, The Americans —but it’s funny, I still don’t have much time for TV. Jane phones or texts almost every day. So far, she is very happy at school and so excited about her classes. I’m going to drive up there and bring her some stuff she forgot in about a week.

Like I said, it’s a bit early to call it. But so far it all seems more like a reward than a punishment. Perhaps that’s the dirty little secret that’s being covered up with all this cultural anxiety about empty nesting. You finally get rid of the little brats and eat whatever you want for dinner. Mwah ha ha ha.

Well, not quite. But hold off on the sympathy cards.

University of Baltimore Professor Marion Winik is the author of "The Big Book of the Dead,” “First Comes Love,” and several other books, and the host of The Weekly Reader on WYPR. Sign up for her...

6 replies on “Welcome to My Anticlimax: The Empty Nest Report”

  1. My favorite empty nest inelegant epigram so far–You know that your questions are still being ignored, but did you momentarily forget that the physical recipient of them has actually flown the coop?

  2. Congrats, Marion, on all your and your children’s accomplishments!

    (But skip “Six Feet Under” — too self-consciously ‘edgy’ and pretentious — and “The Americans” — after a hard night of kidnapping and/or killing adversaries, Mommy still has the energy to bake cookies and go to PTA meetings the next day, and Daddy to work on his car, pal around with his buds, and swim with the kids!)

  3. You are just the greatest, forever and ever, in every era!!! And trust me – they’ll all be back – with accompaniments!
    Love you. XXX

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