With freshly applied make-up, I enter El Zun-Zun where I’m meeting three friends for lunch. Breezing past the brightly colored paper star lanterns hung at various heights from the ceiling, I make my way to the outdoor patio to join my friends. Already this morning I’ve taken four children to school, worked out, showered, and picked up the remnants from the children’s breakfast. I arrive for our 11:00 lunch feeling accomplished and put together. I am a woman with a routine. Just last week, in the final throes of summer break, I was crawling towards the starting line of the fall semester.
With my hands in the pockets of my dress I gesture widely, ballooning my skirt out, as I greet my friends excitedly. “So this is who we are now? Ladies Who Lunch? Women of Leisure?” We laugh at my preposterous monikers before ordering queso and chips. Scheduled weeks ago, today’s lunch is a celebration of our kiddos returning to school. As we send our youngest children off to kindergarten, we stay-at-home moms celebrate a milestone—an epoch in life I’ve described as “The First Empty Nest.”
At the risk of my title deceiving you, allow me to elaborate on this “First” of several empty nests a woman may experience in her life:
- First: The youngest child leaves home and goes off to elementary school.
- Second: The final young adult goes off to college, work, military service, or marriage.
- Third: A spouse leaves through death or divorce.
- Fourth: Finally, the mother dies, leaving her home empty for the next generation.
Today we’ll focus on the first, and potentially the happiest, of these: the First Empty Nest.
What We Will Miss
While continuing to greedily plunge our chips into the pool of yellow melted cheese, we discuss how it felt to send our youngest children out into the big world of elementary school. All of the kids were excited to go; none of them even looked back at their mothers. But how about us mommas, watching them walk away? How were we feeling?
As our main courses arrived (loaded nachos to share, because really there can never be too many chips, and tacos lined up neatly on a plate) I begin to sketch out all I will miss about a typical stay-at-home mom preschool day. “I will miss the mid-week zoo trips. How we would arrive at opening and walk slowly through the uncrowded exhibits. Seeing only a sprinkling of people. A mother pushing a stroller. Toddlers up against the aquarium glass trying to spot a large turtle, slimy with algae. I will miss the lack of rush—the slowing down and bending down to see the world as my child perceives it. Now their teachers will share this growing worldview with them, leaving me to wonder. . . .”
My friend Nicole listens thoughtfully (as she always does), before adjusting her dark glasses and responding. “I’ll miss afternoon carpool with Addie. Just the two of us in the car on the way to pick up her brother. We always had the best conversations in the carpool line.”
Amy, my friend who works from home now thanks to the pandemic, chimes in with some encouragement. Amy is known for her pep talks and straight talk. She agrees with us, adding that now her solo carpool has become one of her favorite times of day. Despite having once scoffed at mothers who did so, Amy gets in the carpool line super early. This extra time gives her the solitude and space to do as she pleases, which is a welcome escape from her days dictated by to-do lists. She listens to audiobooks, does crosswords, jams out to music, or makes phone calls only to be interrupted by the smiling face of her boy, who is happy to return home at the end of a long school day.
Liz will miss going to the neighborhood park after Mother’s Day Out with other moms and their kids. There is a special camaraderie among preschool mothers, mothering together as their children race across park mulch, with everyone cheering when one, breathless, makes it across the monkey bars for the first time. The toddler and preschool stages allow mothers to socialize in more natural environments as we watch our little ones. This is a rare season when mothers feel “seen”. Toddler meltdowns and negotiations with preschoolers must often occur in public places, so mothers can encourage one another with a well-timed, “I’ve been there too!” As children age, we experience these difficult moments in parenting in more private spaces, often in the car or at home. Lost is the chance to encourage a fellow mother as she adroitly battles her teenager over curfew, as we could do when she managed the terrific toddler’s meltdown a decade earlier.
What’s to Come
The waiter is collecting our now empty plates, but we are not ready to leave quite yet. Liz leans back and shares, “I feel a bit nervous about all this extra time. I mean, a third of my day is now free to map out as I see fit.”
I totally relate to her trepidation. I’ve been a stay-at-home-mom for the last fourteen years. Sure, in that time I filled in for a few maternity leaves as a speech therapist, started a small lotion business, trained for a 5K, cooked my way through several cookbooks, and wrote over 85,000 words of a memoir I have yet to complete, but mostly I wiped runny noses and cleaned bottoms. I potty trained and pushed the strollers. I put together puzzles and organized rooms. I read hundreds of books aloud with all the character voices. I rocked, sang, nursed, and played go fish.
As if reading my mind Liz muses aloud, “It’s been a long time, probably since the moment we decided to become mothers, that we’ve been able to make decisions with just our needs in mind.” She continues, “We will have to cultivate what brings us joy apart from our children.” Nicole, with her quick wit, quips, “Perhaps I’ll take up a hobby for the first time in my life!”
We all laugh but I cannot shake the nagging pressure I feel. Why is it that we feel the need to justify our time, account for our hours, or plead the case for our productivity? It’s only the first day of school and I already feel guilty for taking time to have lunch with my friends rather than work on my writing. Everyone at the table expresses their own versions of this pressure.
“Are we really going to get it all done now that we have extra time in our day?” I wonder aloud. “I don’t know,” Liz answers. “We will probably just keep on with the invisible work we’ve always done as wives and mothers. The work, that if left undone, wouldn’t get done.” She’s a profound one, that Liz.
Time will always be stubbornly filled with the mundane, like the following tasks:
- The warm clothes bundled in our arms to be folded, then placed in neat stacks to be put away by each child.
- The grocery lists made.
- The computer tabs opened to yet another registration page.
- Pets fed, walked, and taken to appointments.
- Gifts bought for friends and family.
- Endless trips to the grocery store.
I could write an endless list of everyday tasks that go unnoticed but make up the rhythm and pursuits of my day. Yet, these expansive extra hours with all the children now in school feel like a gift. Even as I continue to curate my home with everyday chores, I will embrace this new season I’ve called “The First Empty Nest.” It’s time to finish writing the book. It’s time to take up new things. My dear friends across the table from me will now fill their hours with part-time or full-time jobs, extensive volunteering, and all those unseen tasks left for mothers to do.
In between this “First Empty Nest” and the subsequent “Empty Nests,” when each in my brood eventually takes flight, I will continue to cultivate friendships with other mothers. This will always, hopefully, be done with words of encouragement amid endless bowls of queso.