How to Feel a Full Heart When Your Nest is Empty

(9 minute read)

Ask any mother when she is most happy and she will tell you it is when all her little chicks are under the same roof. This is especially true for the empty nester. I know that full-hearted feeling well. The last time I had that it was Thanksgiving. It is the end of March. Four months have gone by since everyone of our children were at home together. COVID creeped in and cancelled our family Christmas plans. This may have been the longest stretch that I can remember that all of us were apart. Consider the fact that our nest was full with four kids at home for a little over ten years. 

I will never forget when our oldest left for college, seeing his empty chair at our round kitchen table. It was sad. Once the door opened to the outside world it was not long before it was time for the next one to leave. Two empty chairs, then three, leaving a pretty quiet table that once had lively conversations bouncing back and forth. Our youngest was last to leave for college, and had something his older siblings did not get: our undivided attention. Unless you count when our firstborn was showered with all of our inexperienced parenthood in his first 18 months of life until his younger sister was born. Alas, it was inevitable that the nest would one day be empty. Our job was to prepare them for it. What sneaks up on you is what you were not preparing yourself for: the quiet empty nest. Friends of ours at this stage in life sometimes do more traveling, pursuit new hobbies like pickle-ball or pickling, or like us, they get a puppy (or cats, chickens and goats).  No herd can take the place of having your adult children in the house which makes their homecoming visits that much more special. I have learned that they do return, and sometimes, if we are lucky, all at the same time.

My heart is full as I sit here today to write. It is not because the kids are home. It is not because we all got together, because we did not. The reason I feel happy is because in the span of one week I have connected in significant ways with each child. Sometimes that is all a parent has to work with if their children are spread apart. I think about my mom and dad. They have one daughter miles away in Virginia, one across the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii, one down in San Diego, and another living an hour away in Northern California. Trying to get these little chickies all under the same roof is definitely no easy task. So what is a mom to do? Complain? Be sad for what is what it is, that children grow up and sometimes fly far from the nest? Just as my mother and father have modeled other great things for me about parenthood, they have shown me how to handle this empty nest. They have always shown love and support, and never loaded any of us girls with guilt for spreading our wings far and wide. How? How did they do that?

When this winter chill blew through I sat under my blanket with a little pity party going on. I felt bitter again about what the COVID virus had been robbing us of for the last few years. Holidays, big birthdays, family reunions, and even weddings all cancelled, postponed and modified to virtual celebrations. My parents turned 80 during the pandemic. Instead of the big family reunion planned for that July, we had to get creative virtually. A big family zoom party and letters written from each member of the family was the best we could do. My parents were touched by all of the thoughtful words written from the grandkids and us. Again, their grateful acceptance and appreciation for what was possible instead of what was “not” possible impressed me. I am quite sure they felt sad about cancelled plans to gather with their extended family, but they were able to see things from the larger picture. Many people were dealing with sick relatives and isolation, and worst case, losing loved ones. Very scary and sad.

Long before the pandemic, my parents learned to deal with long months of separation from their daughters and their families. My mom has always been a letter writer and now even sends text messages in efforts to stay connected. We talk on the phone, often with my dad on speaker. Then we plan for visits, and when possible, big family reunions. The last time we were all together was at my daughter’s wedding in May. The next time we will all gather is likely to be at my sons wedding in October. So how does my mom do it? How does my mother-in-law handle living in Arkansas with her daughter in California and her son in Virginia? And how will I accept the distance between my children as they continue to build lives independent of us?

I will just have to take a page out of our parents books: do the best with what you have got, and make the most of the times you connect with each one of your children (and grandchildren). So rather than me noticing the empty chairs at the round table when only a couple children are home, I really need to be present and savor the time spent with who we have in the room. Then, as my mother does so well, make efforts to connect through text messages, phone calls and written letters. What is really most important to me anyway is that each of our children are happy and thriving independently, whether it is nearby or in another town or state. If I am able to hear their voice, lay eyes on them, or better yet hold them in a brief hug, then it is ok that we are not under the same roof all at the same time (at least for awhile). With this new way of framing things, my heart is fuller as I reflect on this past week.

Our oldest turned 30 last Friday and we celebrated him at an Comedy Improv Theater. With a dozen of his friends we surprised him and spent a few hours playing improv games. It was an experience he will never forget and was special for us as his parents to take part in (reminded me of his childhood birthday parties with magicians and mad scientists). Our daughter and her husband popped over the other night with their Oonie and we made pizzas. What is most special about that sentence is that they “popped over” which can only be possible because they moved into a house three doors down from us a few months ago (how lucky are we and what was I complaining about earlier). Our third child met up with us in Virginia Beach over the weekend so that he and his dad could run a half marathon together. Their cross state cross training has been special and fun for me to cheer them both on. Perhaps the last thing that has filled my heart with motherhood joy is that our youngest son, who graduates from college in May, decided to spend his final spring break here at home with us. We had quality time together, visiting the farm, watching movies, and taking walks. He was here for the Improv party and the pizza cooking night. 

So while I may not have corralled all four of them into the same spot at once, I did get to laugh with and hug each one of them at some point in the span of one week. How lucky I feel! After a deep breath of contentment, I am now able to return my attention to our empty nest, which is expecting the arrival of four baby goats in less than two weeks. We have more to prepare: the stall, the fences, and the shopping for all the goat supplies. So until we can get our four kids home for one of our family group hugs, we will have to simply enjoy what life is for us right now: Koda, Summer, Sansa, Ruger, Kip, Chickens #1-15, and four Nigerian Dwarf goats that have yet to be named…

This is one of my favorite Mother’s Day cards drawn by my oldest son, the first to leave the nest.

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