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The 6 Words That Can Break a Parent’s Heart

I hunger for more glimpses of my children's lives.

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“Mommy, mommy, mommy!” My head whipped around, and I spotted a cute little girl with a kiss-me cherub face, about 3 or 4 years old, clinging to her mother’s leg as she begged to visit the children’s section of the bookstore.

Suddenly, my eyes stung with tears, as I pretended to peruse the shelves of biographies. She looked so much like my own daughter, who’s now 18 and off on a gap year before starting college in August. Every time I think I’ve finally gotten used to the idea that my days as a mother of younger children are all in the rearview mirror, I find myself mourning a phase that has gone by, never to return — like taking my kids to the children’s section of a bookstore.

And that’s what happened recently when six simple words, spoken by my middle child, who’s 19 and a college sophomore, jarred me to my core: “I’m not coming home this summer.”

Instead, he’s planning to travel with friends, using the money he’s diligently saved all year by working in a restaurant. He asked if I minded and, of course, I said no. After all, this is what he’s supposed to be doing, what all three of my grown kids are supposed to be doing — striking out on their own. But there’s no denying the hunger I feel for more glimpses of their lives.

My oldest won’t be home either after landing a full-time job in a city a plane ride away upon graduation from college last year. My daughter, the one on the gap year, also won’t be home. She’ll be volunteering — overseas. So not one of them will be around, for the first time in 18 years. Another phase — summers together as a family — seems pretty much over. It will only be my husband and myself, trying to forge a new life amid an eerie calm that, for now, is far from a relief. As each kid moves on, our family loses its equilibrium and has to regain its footing. I, too, have to figure out my own path now that my feelings of worth are no longer balanced in large part on the fulcrum of motherhood. Whereas I used to enjoy a starring role in shaping my three kids’ pursuits, today I’m merely a bit player. Magnifying my emotions is our move to a smaller home in a new city last fall — meaning not one of us has a beachhead in our former life.

Cue the violins. I know how I sound. These days I’m often irritated by my own sentimentality.

Friends with younger kids ask me what it’s like, this new empty nest. I tell them that it’s the quiet that’s hardest to get used to. No longer do I hear howls of laughter from behind the closed door of my daughter’s bedroom or the tinny, but bright, sounds of my son’s piano playing. I even miss the land mine of shoes by the front door that signaled a house full of teenagers. And just as playing singles in tennis is more physically — and mentally — taxing than playing doubles, so, too, is it more tiring to keep a conversation flowing when there are only two of you. “What do you want to watch on TV tonight?” my husband asks. “You pick,” I reply.

Yes, I admit to my friends, the silence upon returning home to an empty nest can be deafening.

And yet I adore the older versions of my kids. They are interesting people that constantly inspire me. But it doesn’t mean I don’t miss the younger versions, as well as the vacations we took as a family every summer. If I could, would I rewind the years so that the movie of our lives goes back to the beginning? Sometimes, I think I would. After all, I’ve forgotten a lot of the plot twists. But other times, I know I just need to be satisfied with the ending and look forward to the sequel.

And I will love the many times we undoubtedly will share as a family in the future. But I don’t care what anyone says. The experience of letting go can be painful. Maybe not for everybody, but for some of us. My kids not coming home this summer is just one small part of that.

I promise myself to stop grumbling. After all, I love my job and I love my husband. I have lots of good friends and plenty to look forward to. I also have time. And space. And privacy. And Christmases (for now). It’s just going to take me a while to appreciate it. That and a lot of tissues.

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