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The Horror and Bliss of an Empty Nest

Monday, September 12, 2022

By Kristan Higgins

My kids no longer live with us. One is married, one is getting a master’s degree and plans to move to the Pacific Northwest—3029 miles from his mama (but who’s counting?).

It’s heartbreaking! They’ll never live with me again if all goes well in their lives, and of course I want them to be happy, productive adults. But, never…? That’s a long time. Sure, they’ll come home for the holidays, but for over two decades, my life has revolved around being their mother, actively taking part in their lives. And home is just not the same without them.

Their rooms had a certain smell I could identify anywhere—not just damp towels stiffening on the floor or hair products or sweaty athletic clothes moldering in a laundry basket, but the smell of them. The first thing I did when I held my newborns was sniff their heads. I’d know their smell anywhere. Now, their rooms just smell…clean. Clean and lonely.

I miss the daily participation in their lives. Once, I got the skinny on who was doing what, and which teachers were jerks and which were fabulous. I’d hear about social circle scuffles, choir rehearsals, sit through karate class and piano lessons. I’d lug home four bags of groceries to feed them.

My work day would stop when they came home, and for those blissful hours, I was just Mommy (until my son started calling me Mom). They were — and are — everything to me.

However, as Lillie says in my upcoming novel, Out of the Clear Blue Sky, “For the rest of your life, your child will remain your heart…but it’s not mutual. It’s not supposed to be. You get left behind at a certain exit in their life, and all you can do is look down the road after them and remember when you were so needed, so loved, so sure of your place in the world, because you were Mommy, and that was everything.”

My work day would stop when they came home, and for those blissful hours, I was just Mommy (until my son started calling me Mom). They were — and are — everything to me.

Insert the sound of my sobs. Those wretched, well-adjusted children! How dare they mature so well!

That was Phase I of the empty nest.

Then came Phase II. My husband and I have a name for it: “Unadulterated Joy.”

Did I mention the kids are doing just fine on their own? That the raising part of them is done? That we now have roughly 50% more time on our hands? All those rides and shopping for school supplies and clothes, taking care of them when they had colds, worrying about them when they were out with friends—not our business anymore!

No more managing moods — is one of them sad? Mad? Disappointed? Scared? Worried? Feeling left out? They’re adults now. If they want to share that with us, they can, and we’ll give them the best advice we have…if they ask. No more bellowing upstairs to alert the kids (for the third time) that dinner is ready. No more sibling arguments or meting out consequences for bad behavior. No more debating the kids on what is fair, no more accusations of favoritism, no more explaining that it’s our house, our rules. I can’t say I miss it.

Now, my husband and I eat when we want. Sometimes, it’s 8 p.m. — very European — sometimes we just eat popcorn. Our schedule is our own. For 21 years, I woke up at or before 6 a.m., and I don’t ever have to do that again.

There’s 200% less laundry, now that the kids don’t wash their towels every single time they use them, now that there are no sweaty running clothes or two outfits a day. Our grocery bills have plummeted. We can watch whatever we want, with the subtitles on all the time if we like. The car is always available. We don’t shell out money for extra trips taken during high school and college, for semesters abroad or cross country fees or “Here’s some cash in case you need it.”

Then, there’s the nudity. A friend of mine said the best part of the empty nest was walking around naked. I wondered about that at the time. She was right! Dirty clothes from gardening? Strip down in the mud room and toss them right in the washing machine. Can’t find a towel? Walk upstairs starkers and get one. Feel like copping a feel on your spouse? Go right ahead. Grown up snuggling time? Any time, day or night.

When the kids were little, life changed, and we became adults in a different sense. We were responsible for two lives. A humbling, occasionally terrifying privilege. Now, without the kiddies, there’s a new kind of adult feeling. Freedom. Masters of our own universe. The sacred work of raising a child into adulthood is over.

Recently, we sat on our deck with a glass of wine, holding hands, looking out into our woods. “I miss the kids,” I said. “Me, too,” said my husband. And we do. We talk about them, plan for the next time we’ll see them, shoot them a text and a picture of the dog and tell them we love them.

Then we look at each other, smile, and carry on doing our own thing.


Kristan Higgins is the New York Times, USA TODAY and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of Out of the Clear Blue Sky and more than twenty other novels, which have been translated into more than two dozen languages and have sold millions of copies worldwide. Her books have received dozens of awards and accolades, including starred reviews from Entertainment Weekly, People, Kirkus, The New York Journal of Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Booklist.

The happy mother of two snarky and well-adjusted adults, Kristan enjoys gardening, mixology, the National Parks and complimenting strangers on their children. She lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband, cuddly dog and indifferent cat. Find her online at KristanHiggins.com, twitter.com/Kristan_Higgins, and facebook.com/KristanHigginsBooks.