Empty Nester, Time Traveler

An empty nester writes about how her life and her marriage changed when her child moved out.

By Marian Sandmaier

A Child Moves Out, Youth Reawakens
When our daughter, Darrah, left for college three-and-a-half years ago, I knew only that I would miss her. I imagined a certain hollowness and stillness coming over our house, a low-grade pall that I would fight with more activity: working more, seeing more friends, enlarging our perennial garden, traveling. I’ve done those things and a few others, but I’ve come to understand that they are only the cover story for a much stranger change. After Darrah left, a particular engine of self began to rumble and move — the one that travels through time. I feel both much younger and distinctly older in ways I could never have predicted.
At first, not much seemed to happen at all. Our only child was gone and my husband, Dan, and I found ourselves alone together in our comfy old house and overgrown yard. I missed my daughter keenly, but other than that I went about business as usual.
Looking back, I think this abrupt entry into a new life stage was like a cage door swinging open for a zoo animal: I didn’t immediately realize I was free. Let me explain. I love being Darrah’s mother. She is an exuberant presence, full of warmth and goofy humor and sudden, stunning insights. Nonetheless, a few weeks after she left, I began to feel an odd sensation of lightness. I was taking bigger, looser strides and standing a little taller, like a plant reaching toward the sun. This sense of sprouting felt familiar, but it took me a while to place it. It was the bodily experience of youth.
When I say youth, I’m not talking about the hormone-buzzed, bouncing-off-walls state of adolescence. I’m referring to my 20s and early 30s, before I became a mother. Back then, I was far from blissful, but I had the relative luxury of obsessing about just one person. By the time I’d hugged Darrah good-bye in the parking lot of her freshman dorm, my brain had spent 18.5 years reeling with worries, plans, second-guesses, and unanswerable questions about the growth and development of another human being.
During those child-raising years, my running internal monologue ranged from health concerns (How upset should I be about the headaches she has been complaining about and that her pediatrician says are "probably nothing"?) to matters of character (What does it mean that she refuses to clean her room, and should I make her do it so she’ll grow up to be responsible or should I let this go because it’s really all about my being a neat freak?). Then there were the run-of-the-mill terrors: How will she learn to drive without smashing herself to bits? How much booze might she drink at that party tonight, and should I talk to her about it (again)?
Within weeks of her departure, all this mental hand-wringing simply fell away. Because I no longer knew what my daughter was doing at any given moment, I had no focus for my fretting. So I gave it up.

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