Morgan Baker, EMPTYING THE NEST: Getting Better at Goodbyes

Morgan Baker, EMPTYING THE NEST: Getting Better at Goodbyes

Zibby interviews award-winning writer Morgan Baker about EMPTYING THE NEST, a tender and beautifully written memoir about the tough goodbyes (like her daughter leaving for college) that shifted her identity. Morgan speaks candidly about her emotional journey, the intertwining of family life with writing, and how she copes with change and loss. She and Zibby exchanged personal coping strategies, and then Morgan offers advice to writers, emphasizing not giving up and the value of feedback. The episode concludes with Morgan’s passion for quilting, which adds a layer of warmth and personality to her narrative, just like her memoir does for her readers.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Morgan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I was so excited to discuss your memoir and your experience with your beautiful dogs and saying goodbye and all the rest of it. Thank you for coming on.

Morgan Baker: Thank you for having me. This is very exciting.

Zibby: I showed my kids the pictures of all the little puppies lined up. That was the hit of the day. Can you tell listeners about your book and also how taking care of dogs and taking care of kids and all of it is just so linked and how it is to say goodbye to anybody who brings us so much joy and connection, animal, person, all of it, and how you wrapped all that up in your memoir?

Morgan: Okay, that’s a lot.

Zibby: Or just take it apart. Say whatever you want about your book.

Morgan: The book is about shifting identity and mental health and also accepting change. I think your comment about goodbye is about change. When we feel really rooted and happy with how things are going, it’s hard when all of a sudden, things begin to change. The book takes place mostly during the year that we did have a litter of puppies and also, my older daughter went off to college. It was more goodbye than I had anticipated, or a deeper goodbye than I had anticipated. I always sort of knew I don’t do well with goodbyes, but I was really surprised by how sad I was saying goodbye to the puppies even though I knew they were going off to really good places. I was surprised at the depth of my sadness/depression when my daughter went off to college. Both of those sort of hit me in the face. I don’t regret having the puppies at all. They brought such joy to our family. They were so much fun to have around. The same thing with my daughters. I can’t imagine my life without them, even though it’s painful to say goodbye to them. I read someplace, and I agree with that, that the more you love, the more you grieve. I would rather love deeply and grieve deeply than avoid the grief. I think it’s true for whether it’s an animal or a person. I see a lot more death around dogs. It’s just amazing how deep that relationship can be with a dog and how alone you can feel afterwards. We just keep adding dogs to our family. We’re on dogs number four and five now. I never really was a dog person, but I can’t imagine my life without a dog now. I don’t know if that answers your question.

Zibby: Sure. It’s more a chance just to talk to you about it. There’s no right answer. You write a lot about your daughters and even their mental health challenges, OCD and all the rest. You write a lot about both of them, Maggie and Ellie. How do they feel about that? Did you run all this by them? How do they feel now that it’s out? Tell me about that piece of it.

Morgan: I think it’s a really good thing to think about. Abigail Thomas, who I’ve done some work with, doesn’t write about her children at all. My kids were so woven into the fabric of my depression that it would’ve been hard to not include them. I’ve written about them in essays. They know that they’re my muse and fodder. To that extent, I never publish anything unless they’ve read it and they have said — both of them read this, the parts that they’re in. They said, “Yes, this is okay. You can say A, but you can’t say B.” A lot of it is just respect for them and being very careful not to say more than what they want me to say. In my acknowledgments and here, I do want to shout out to them because I really do appreciate how they and my husband let me weave their stories into my story. I’m incredibly grateful for that. I think writing about children is tricky, really tricky, but they’re old enough now that they really can say, no, you cannot do that. I have to respect that.

Zibby: You also wrote really beautifully about your husband and even meeting your husband and your whole relationship, really, so that by the time the reader gets to the passage where he has the anaphylactic episode, I was — I won’t refer to myself as the reader anymore. I personally was like, oh, my gosh, is he going to be okay? What happens? That was terrifying. You didn’t want to put your daughter in the position of waiting for the ambulance because of her own anxiety. What position you were in in that moment — I know sometimes when things really go terribly, you have to just operate in the chaos, in the moment. Sometimes it’s after where you let all the feelings seep in. Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe that just happened. Tell me a little more about that and the fear from that moment and how you recovered from him just collapsing in the hallway and the aftermath of the internal — oh, my gosh, I was like, no, you poor thing.

Morgan: That was a bad night, bad couple of days. I do really well in crises. I can manage it. I just know, we need to do this, this, this. I was like, Ellie can’t be here because if she sees him, that will throw her for a loop, so I’m going to send her out, which also annoyed her. Sometimes you have to make choices. Which is the better of the two evils? I do really well. Unfortunately, this idea of anaphylaxis has happened a number of times in our family. That being said, exactly as you said, I fall apart the day after. I completely disintegrate. All the what-ifs start falling into place. I don’t do well the day after. I’m awesome. If you have a crisis, call me. I’ll get you through it. The day after, I’m a puddle on the floor.

Zibby: Don’t send you the hospital survey. You are not going to fill it out. I can very much relate to that. I feel like I’m good in a crisis too because you have to. You have to just do it, and all the adrenaline and everything. In your book, I found it really interesting, the differentiation between sadness and, even as you said here, I was sad when my kids went off, versus, I was depressed. I think so many, I won’t say just moms, but so many parents — I hear a lot more from moms about what it’s like when kids go away. This is your life’s work, in a way, no matter what you’re doing. I think about it all the time. Wait, this period of time can end for real? What? How do you make sure you’re taking care of yourself in the right way when that time comes around? How do you distinguish? Not to put you in a position of being a counselor or anything, but how to know it’s gone too far, how to know how to take care of yourself, and really, what we all can do to prepare ourselves for the kids leaving. Honestly, it’s like looking at my dog every day. I’m like, I’m going to miss her so much one day. What do you do when something is here and you know it won’t be here forever and yet you love it so much and all of that?

Morgan: I think it’s really hard. I think I wrote about this in the book too. The minute Maggie was born, I sort of realized, oh, my god, she’s going to — they start leaving the minute they come out of you or they come home with you. Having gone through this now, I think it’s really important — I didn’t do this, so this is learning from my own mess-up. I didn’t do a lot besides being a mom. I didn’t really think of any of those things being as significant as being a mom. My whole identity was wrapped up with, I’m going to try to be the best mom I can be. Then when they left, I was like, oh, my god, now I have nothing. I realized that I did. I still teach. I still write. I’m with my dogs. I’m with my husband. I have a really full life. It’s a good life. It’s fun. If you had told me, I don’t think I would’ve believed it before they left. I would like, if it’s possible, that other people don’t — I think everybody is sad when their kids leave. It would be sort of weird if you weren’t. The depression part, people don’t need to fall into a depression. Obviously, some people are biologically wired that way.

I take care of myself now much better than I did when they were young. I exercise all the time. I sew my quilts. If I can’t sew every day, I try to sew every other day. I read. I’m an excellent napper. I built in walking my dogs, little things. I also am a firm believer of using a timer. I’ll set my time for half an hour, and I’ll be like, okay, I’m going to go sew for half an hour. When the timer dings, I’m going to go back to my work. I take forty-minute naps. I set my timer. Now I’m sort of wired to wake up at the forty-minute mark. It gives me something to look forward to on a break from correcting papers or whatever I have to do. Exercise, I never appreciated. I used to play tennis a lot, so my exercise was built into my life. Now I really make a space for it. It makes a huge difference.

Zibby: I know. I know that. I know that to be true, and yet I can’t.

Morgan: It’s really hard. It’s really hard. I’m very lucky. Take it whichever way you want, but when the pandemic hit, the health club that I belonged to and my cousin belonged to — we all work out together — shut. Then they sold it. Now there’s a huge biochem whatever building there. We all went on Zoom. Some of us have just stayed on Zoom. I’m here. Then I just go two rooms over, change my clothes, and I start working out. I don’t have to make an effort. Some people are like, I can’t stand that idea. I need to be physically in the place. I was like, I get that. I like — I don’t know what the word is. It’s easy. I like easy.

Zibby: Me too. I’ve actually, in the past, done an exercise class right here. I just moved the chair and put the video on the computer versus going to the gym. I will say I did finally go to an exercise class this summer. Well, I went to four before I injured myself.

Morgan: Oh.

Zibby: Yeah, I know. It’s fine. It’s so different being around actual people, I have to say. I got so much more energy in a different way from being in a room of people all working out. Then I couldn’t quit. I felt guilted into doing the whole thing. There’s that.

Morgan: You have to do what fits for you.

Zibby: I also do the alarm-setting thing. I feel like I should be more conscious of the fact that I do that and do it more because it is so helpful. I’ll be like, okay, it’s 9:45. Until ten o’clock, I’m going to just do emails. I’m not going to look at anything else. Okay, from ten to ten thirty… I used to write it when I was studying. I’m going to study English from this time to this time. It is a way of chunking up the time and getting things done that’s really helpful.

Morgan: I don’t know why it works. If I just sit down without the timer and say, I’m going to work for half an hour, I don’t do it. Sometimes I do, but the timer really keeps me on. I tell my students that. They’re like, what? Then they do it, and they’re like, oh, my god.

Zibby: I have to do that more often and more consciously. I did it for my kids the other night. I’m like, “We have twelve minutes to do all the dishes and clean all of this up. Go!” Everyone was having the best time. I’m like, no one has ever had more fun cleaning up the kitchen than we are having right now. I don’t know what’s going on.

Morgan: That’s awesome. That’s great.

Zibby: Mental note, more timers. Tell me what it was like reliving a lot of this stuff and making it into a book and figuring out what to include, what not to include, and really having to go there. What was that like?

Morgan: It’s been a long process. It changed a lot. The hardest part was writing about my depression. I had written about it. Then I gave ten pages to an editor who I respect a lot. She sent it back with some notes. Her biggest note was, “You need to go deeper. You need to really talk about it and what happened and how you felt and what you thought about doing.” Part of me was like, I do not like you at all, but she was totally right. It was hard. To be fair, it’s hard for my husband to read it. He’s like, “I lived it. I don’t need to read it.” I’m aware of that. It was hard. Picking out what to include and what not to include was trial and error. For instance, there were a lot more scenes of me saying goodbye to the puppies. All of a sudden, through one revision, I was like, okay, people don’t need to see me give away seven dogs. If I give away two, the other five are going to be sort of similar. I think any writer will tell you that cutting is one of the hardest things. You get really attached. I was like, but these puppies meant so much to me. It’s like, yeah, but the reader is not going to care. You have to switch your hat from writer to, how is someone else going to read this? It’s challenging, for sure.

Zibby: I feel like going through a couple losses with you was really hard. I don’t know that I could’ve gone through more than you put in there. My eyes were welling up with each one. It was so vivid. The way you write about all the details of every scene, even when the one — who was it? Spray? — started going into labor early and worrying that the puppy was — these scenes are so vivid that it just felt like I was going through your losses with you. I don’t know how much more I could’ve taken.

Morgan: Thank you. I’m sorry that you went through them all, but I appreciate your comments. At one point in the writing, I was like — this was a title for all of five seconds, Love and Loss. I was like, that is so vague and tells you nothing. I think my takeaway from loss is that, it doesn’t negate the loss, but something comes out of it, a deeper appreciation for what you do have, compassion for other people who go through losses. Loss, unfortunately — I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently. Loss is just a huge part of our lives. I tried really hard to just wipe it off and keep myself super busy. I’m very good at being busy. You have to process it somehow. That’s what writing the book really was for me. It was how I made sense of all of this. The anaphylaxis stuff that I live with with my kids and my husband, it’s really challenging. I can’t think about it every day or every minute because I would never go outside. It’s learning how to weather and bear the pain of the loss. I think some are harder than others. Everyone has something. There’s loss in everybody’s life. I lost the family that I grew up with. I was thinking about this the other day. I was like, if my parents had never gotten divorced — then I was like, but then I wouldn’t have my stepfather. Sometimes life is hard, but sometimes it’s really wonderful too, and you get something really great out of it.

Zibby: That’s very wise and all very true. You’re right. All that looking back, you never know. What if this? What if that? Well, it’s just not what happened, so let’s figure out how to make sense of it. Easier said than done.

Morgan: Right, very easier said than done. When you reflect on it, it really does help. I really do love my stepfather. I grew up partly in New York. I’m like, if they hadn’t gotten divorced, I would’ve grown up my whole life in New York. Would I have gone to the same school? Would I have met my husband? I’m happy with the way things turned out.

Zibby: What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Morgan: I thought about this. My biggest piece of advice is don’t give up. I did put this book away for three years and thought to myself, I’m done. This is just never going to turn into something that I’m proud of. Then for a variety of reasons, I took it out again. I was like, oh, my god, I know how to fix it. I say this a lot to my students. Even with an essay, if you cut a paragraph from an essay, don’t throw it away. Put it in a document. Save it for another day. I would say, whether it’s an essay, short story, or a book of any kind, to not give up. I also think having some sort of feedback helps. There are so many ways that you can get feedback, if you have a friend who also — I have one friend here who’s a really good writer. She’s an incredible editor. She read the book one time. I took a lot of her advice. Then I met all these people through the pandemic. I haven’t met half of them in real time, but I have all these great writer friends now. Finding a writing group or a class. I think it’s hard because you’re doing it all alone all the time. You need to check in with other people.

The other piece of advice that I was thinking is try not to be defensive because you’re only shooting yourself. You need to listen. My husband, he’s really my first reader. I trust him a lot. When he started reading my stuff, I would get really pissy. I was like, how dare you? That’s not what I meant. Then I was like, oh, if it’s not what I meant, then why did I say it? We’ve been married forever. Now he tells me whatever. I know, just listen. Don’t react. Then I go into this little office. I either say to myself, I don’t agree, or I look at it and I’m like, oh, he has a point. It’s hard, but it’s so rewarding when you do it. You’ve written a book. You have another one coming out. It’s an incredibly rewarding feeling. Even if you don’t get published, it’s still a rewarding feeling because you learned something about yourself.

Zibby: It’s true. There’s some physical evidence that you have been here and thought about something. You can plop it on the table. There. Thoughts. Go ahead.

Morgan: Right. That’s one of the reasons why, actually, I really like quilting. I used to do pottery, but I wasn’t very good. It’s very hard to do pottery and quilting at the same time and have a life. Those things are really finite. I make a quilt, and I can hold it in my hands and say, see, look at what I made. Writing is very different than that. I like having both because I’m like, this is concrete, and this just keeps going and going and going.

Zibby: I should have mentioned all the parts of the book that involved the quilts because they came at all these important points, obviously, when you do them for your daughters being born and at the end when you were saying, who am I going to make quilts for now? Your husband said something like, oh, my gosh, you’re going to have so many more occasions for quilts. I loved that. There’s so much more to come. It’s so inspiring to hear. Sometimes you just need to hear that.

Morgan: I think that’s a really good point. I’m making a queen quilt right now for a niece. Then I have two baby quilts lined up. Friends of mine are becoming grandparents, one in October and one in November. I love all my quilts, but I love baby quilts. They’re really fun to make. They’re also tiny.

Zibby: You should just go on Etsy and start selling them. Then you’ll never run out of quilts.

Morgan: I know. What is really fun for me is thinking about who I’m going to give it to, what their color palette is. I’ve talked to the parents. It was just a coincidence that we were talking. I turned to my friend Bob, and I said, “What color should I make the baby quilt? Blue? Green? Aqua?” He said, “Green.” I was like, “Great.” It’s really fun because it’s not necessarily the palette I would work with for me. It’s really fun to think about the pattern and the colors. Let’s see. What would Zibby like? I can see in the back that you like multiple colors. Your bookshelf is all lined with — I would figure out something like that. It’s fun.

Zibby: Actually, this is throwing you off. I really love blue.

Morgan: That’s good. That’s my palette.

Zibby: I love all blues, white and blue, all of that. This is just the background. I should redo it and make it all blue. Maybe I will. I’ve had enough of the rainbows. Thank you so much, Morgan. This was so fun. Your book is just one of these great examples of, you go into someone else’s life for a little bit, and you learn so much. You take a little bit away. Then it informs your own life and how you do things. It’s so important. I think that’s why we read and why we write. Thanks.

Morgan: Thank you. This has been a lot of fun. I appreciate being here. I will think about blue for you.

Zibby: You don’t have to make me a quilt, but if you did, those would be the colors.

Morgan: Got it.

Zibby: Thanks, Morgan. Take care.

Morgan: Thank you. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.

EMPTYING THE NEST: Getting Better at Goodbyes by Morgan Baker

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