The Last Summer Before the Arrival of My Empty Nest
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Relationships

The Last Summer With All My Kids Around

With my baby off at college, where does that leave me as a mom?

illustration of woman hanging her children's shirts on clothesline outside
Jon Krause

Last month, my youngest son, Luko, left for college, and my years of active day-to-day parenting were over. This was the summer I wished would wait. When my three children were toddlers, it seemed that family days in the humid Northeast would stretch on endlessly. Way back then, I became aware that 2021 would become The Last Summer.        

My identity is wrapped up in being a mother. I was the mom at the supermarket with two carts: one that I pushed with my 1-year-old son in the seat, and one that my 5-year-old son pushed holding his 2-year-old sister. I loved the hours spent at their T-ball and soccer games.

Friends and family had told me that my kids’ childhoods would fly by. I nodded, I listened, but I didn’t appreciate the veracity of their words. And now I’m nostalgic for the nighttime readings of The Gruffalo, turning over rocks to look for bugs and salamanders, for the pudgy dimpled hands in mine.        

This was not The Last Summer I anticipated. My children’s dad — my former husband — passed away suddenly last year, leaving us crushed and learning to move forward without the safety, love and fun that he provided.

I am no longer a co-parent. I am the parent. As the whisper of a pandemic became a roar, Luko stopped attending in-person high school. Grace, one year his senior, didn’t have her prom or graduation ceremony. Cameron, attending college in England, came home and finished his degree remotely. He now has started his career, working not in the Manhattan building he expected, but rather from our den, which hastily became his office.        

Four years ago, before Cameron left for college, I felt a natural easing away as he learned to drive and was less dependent on me. For Grace and Luko, the pandemic, and our grief, kept them closer. 

Luko’s departure for college was the monumental one. His dad and I never stopped calling Luko “the baby.” As he grew older, it became a joke, but it was one that didn’t feel wrong.

With the baby away at college, making his own way, where does that leave me as a mum?        

Last winter, Cameron and I were walking in our village. As we crossed the street, we passed a young boy with his mother, clutching her hand and chatting away.        

“I miss that so much,” I said. I didn’t need to elaborate. Cameron took a moment to think about his response, then said: “You have so much life ahead of you, Mom. And you have us with you instead of you looking after us.”        

He is right, of course. When their father died, Cameron was 21, Grace had turned 18 the day before, and Luko was 16. On learning the devastating news, Cameron seemed to grow up five years overnight, and I made a point to tell them they didn’t have to worry about me, that I would still take care of them and of myself.

And while that is true, the fact is they are growing into independent, capable young adults and for that I’m thankful. As these days of active parenting ease away, in their place I have relationships with three people who can offer me advice and care, just as I have done for them.        

This year of unexpected time with grown children has been the silver lining during this period of global and personal difficulty.

Although Grace and Luko have left for college, Cameron is still here with me, working long hours. I hear him on the phone to clients, talking as the competent grownup he became when I wasn’t looking. And when he asks me to make him lunch during those long work days — a PB&J or a ham-and-cheese toasted sandwich — I am happy to have the chance to feel like a needed mom for a little while longer.        

I have long kept a file of “Things I Hope to Achieve” in my life — to learn a new language, a travel wish list, classes I want to take, writing ideas. The space left in my daily life by an emptying nest will afford me the opportunity to start working on it, which is beneficial not just for me but also for them.

I want them to come back from college for their breaks and see that I have taken on new challenges and that I’m fulfilled. I hope to ease into this next stage of my life: rediscovering personal projects, such as organizing family photographs and children keepsakes I have accrued, perhaps finally begin training for a marathon, traveling to visit my brother in Singapore.        

Stepping back into a supporting role in my kids’ lives means the end of an era. But it also marks the beginning of a new one of growth for me. And I intend to check off every item on my “Things I Hope to Achieve” list.

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