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What No One Told Me About Being an Empty Nester

Friday, October 22, 2021

By Darcey Gohring

The last week of August, my husband and I dropped the twins, our only two children, off at college. On two consecutive days standing outside two college dorms, I hugged each of my children tightly, got in the car, and sobbed.

Everyone said it was going to be hard. “You are going to cry for days,” my friend warned me.

Others told me about how empty my house would feel. How the quiet was hard to get used to. And they were right — all those things were true.

In the weeks leading up to their departure, I found myself remembering moments from when they were little. Two toddlers playing Thomas the Tank Engine for hours at a train table. The way my preschool-aged son would ride his big wheel fearlessly down the steep hill of our driveway. Me standing at the bottom, waiting to break his fall, knowing it was unsafe but unable to bring myself to tell him not to because of the joy on his face as he came barreling toward me. My daughter popping her sweet smiling face out of the window of her backyard playhouse and offering me a serving of plastic play food. On hot summer days, they would eat popsicles on the back steps side by side talking about things no one else understood but them.

All summer before they left, I walked by their rooms and stood in the doorway staring at them longingly, unable to believe it had finally come to this. My days as a mom who cooks food just the way they like it, who makes sure their uniforms are washed for the big game, who stands rain or shine on the sidelines cheering for them, who knows when they need space and when they need a late-night pep talk, were coming to an end.

When we arrived home from the drop-offs, our dog Cleo spent days holding a vigil, going from one of their bedrooms to the other. Her eyes pleading with me, seeming to ask, is this as hard for you as it is for me? More than once, I curled up next to her on my son’s bed, the scent of him still fresh in the air, and cried. “I miss them, too,” I told her.

A week had gone by when my husband announced he made plans for the following Sunday. He said it was a surprise. My first thought was, I don’t want a surprise. I want to wallow. I want to keep checking the twin’s location on Find My Phone to see if they have left their dorm rooms. I want to keep sending casual texts and looking at their social media for clues about how college was going. Were they sitting in their rooms all alone? Were they making friends? Were they going to parties? Who were they eating with? And, for that matter, what were they eating?

In the days leading up to Sunday, my husband would ask, “Any idea where we are going? Are you excited?” as if I was a little girl whose parents had planned a surprise trip to Disneyland. I’d silently roll my eyes but humor him by saying I had no idea and couldn’t wait.

More than once, I curled up next to our dog on my son’s bed, the scent of him still fresh in the air, and cried. “I miss them, too,” I told her.

On Sunday, I watched with dread as he loaded the car with a blanket and some beach chairs. I got in the passenger seat beside him, my best fake smile in place. We drove for more than an hour, seemingly to the middle of nowhere. The road twisted through a wooded landscape until we came upon a rustic restaurant in a muddy field filled with cars. We parked and I reluctantly followed my husband to the back of the building. A man checked our vaccine cards and a paper my husband had stashed in his back pocket. He directed us to an open gate.

There, beyond the dark wood fence, was a whole new world. Under strings of café lights, people sat eating and drinking around picnic tables. On each one was a mason jar filled with wildflowers. The great lawn swooped down gracefully until it flattened at a simple wooden stage. The grass was littered with groups casually chatting as they sat on picnic blankets and camp chairs.

My husband led me down the hill and set up our spot, instructing me to sit down and relax. A few minutes later, he returned with two glasses of wine. I sipped it slowly as a band began to take their places on the stage below.

When they started to play, the songs were familiar, bringing me back to a time long ago, before children and motherhood. When my husband and I were just kids ourselves. Nineteen years old and in love. My mind filled with memories of countless summer concerts and the magic of being at them together. Piling in cars with friends and blasting music as we traveled to the shows. Tailgating in parking lots and mindlessly dancing the night away inside. I looked over at him and smiled. He took my hand, and for a few hours, we forgot who we are now and remembered who we were then.

As time moves forward, we’ve started discovering each other again and recalling the days when the kids weren’t the biggest thing we had in common. What I have come to know is this: Everyone talked about how hard it was to be empty nesters, but no one told me that, all at once, it would bring us back to a place we hadn’t been in years.


Darcey Gohring is a freelance writer based outside New York City. She specializes in human interest and lifestyle content. She is a contributing author to the anthology book, Corona City: Voices From an Epicenter, and recently completed her first novel entitled The Road Home.

Connect with Darcey on Instagram or Twitter to learn more about her work.