Field notes from the Empty Nest, vol. 1

Nearly all of my birds took off at the same time this summer, which is I guess how it generally goes for the actual mother birds, though they are underrepresented on the mommy blogs, having so rarely written about it.

This is a damn shame.

It would have helped to have read on Facebook that another anxious mama bird sometimes squawked unfairly at her mate, who was, after all, only trying to keep all the worms coming, and to make sure the baby birds were ready to fly. It would have been nice to find an online community of mama birds who confessed that they sometimes wished they were the colorful ones. Who flitted around their nests, frantically repairing the bits of branch which had fallen to the ground as the little ones took flight, just to avoid having to think too much about the leaving. Who focused on the nest’s integrity so they didn’t have to consider its obsolescence.

Mother birds, it turns out, do not fly next to the babies when they go; they just sit in the nest and watch. I have learned this mostly the hard way. We do not go along on their flights, and their stories are not ours to tell. So as we sent them off, my mate and I, we just sort of watched them go. We turned our beaks towards each other without a word, and then looked back to the sky where they had gone. I wondered what I would ever again write about. I think we both wondered what in the hell we were supposed to do next.

The last time, I thought as I lay in bed the next morning, that I awoke without a minor child in my care, I was 24. 

Wait. I sat up. That can’t possibly be right. Twenty four?? I couldn’t even remember me at 24. I started spending a lot of time trying to remember her. It was harder than I expected.

I know that she was thinner than I am now, and she definitely had prettier hair. She didn’t know a lot of things. She was more spontaneous. I think she might have been a lot more fun. She was idealistic and hopeful and a little naive. She worked very, very hard. She thought that the world was her oyster. She had no reason not to think she’d always have plenty of time.

It broke my heart a little to realize how poorly I remembered her, and of what I did, how much about her had changed. I flitted around the nest so I wouldn’t have to think about it too much, but it didn’t work: I couldn’t stop thinking about her, and me, and our nest, about our integrity, and our obsolescence. I started to wonder if, since I seemed to have returned to the place where I last saw her, I should maybe look for her again. I felt sure I lost track of her somewhere in the mothering.

This wasn’t so much because I was good at the job but because I wasn’t. Because nothing mattered more than being worthy of the baby birds, my little people, and because even young me knew that being up to the task was going to take everything I had. I remembered how much I wanted to be a mother, but I also remembered the worry that it would not come easy to me. I had not routinely and deftly handled infants; I would not have been described as someone who naturally liked and was liked by children. I knew those people; I’d been raised by one and had married one, too. But just wanting to be a mother did not make you one of them.

Still, I’d become a nurse without actually being a science person; I remember I hoped that maybe it was the same kind of thing, that maybe you could work hard and overcome your lack of natural ability. The only problem with this logic was that there had been real failures in school, too: the humiliating kind, the kind that leave Fs on your transcript. But I’d survived that, had taken my lumps and  had hid my shame, closeted the cost, held my head high while taking the class over, the next year, with the freshmen. Had  pressed on and succeeded in the end.

I hoped I could do it again, that with enough hard work, even I might succeed at being a mom.

There is a picture of me at 24, holding my first baby. He is exactly one month old. There are flowers on the mantel because it is Valentine’s Day and his dad and I are going out to dinner. My long hair has been curled under with my round brush and my bangs elevated with my Paul Mitchell hair spray. My smile is bright. Because I have lost the baby weight, I am wearing my tailored hounds-tooth slacks, and of this I am very proud.

But what is also true is that the baby has still not regained his birth weight, and his dark eyes are made enormous by what should have been an alarmingly skinny body. The camera saw then what 24 year old me did not: a baby’s failure to thrive, a young mother’s failure to prioritize. Just two years later, at the ripe old age of 26, when the next baby arrived, the size of a tank and eager to expand to an armada, I realized with some horror how nursing should go, what a healthy one-month-old baby should look like. How much a mom needs to rest, how many gallons of water she should drink. How the baby should, by then, have some fat settling on the thighs and in the cheeks. How fully one needs to commit to motherhood, to a baby. How fully I had failed. F. You get an F. You know what to do. Hide your shame, closet the cost. Do it over. Do it better.

These days, I want to wrap my arms around that young mother. She just didn’t know. She was, after all, only 24.

Every mother knows that by the time you really figure it out, by the time you really know what you are doing, it is mostly over. When you understand how little any of it matters—how many weeks you spend in bed feeding your baby, when your toddler is potty trained, if the sneakers light up while you are in church or your teenager acts like an asshole while you are at home—you are already on to the next thing. All mothering expertise is immediately obsolete. Mostly, you only take your lumps. This time, you do not get to do it over with the younger girls.

Twenty four year old me knew little about babies, about life, about herself. Her long hair and pre-pregnancy slacks have been replaced with a 54-year old tousled mess of unwashed hair and a can’t-be-bothered attitude, with stretch marks and cancer scars on an increasingly pudgy landscape. The recent model has wisdom and perspective but she has gotten a little lazy. She does not presume the luxury of time. She knows how to fully commit. She knows how much care babies need to thrive, whether they are one month old or they are 24.

It is easiest for me to remember her failures, her naivete, all she didn’t know. Still, since I have the time now, on account of the emptiness of the nest. Since I am back in the place where I last saw her, I’m wondering if I should take a look around. Maybe it is worth looking up that girl, who surely was more than her lack of natural ability, her failures, all she hadn’t yet learned. Who was spontaneous and hopeful and fun. Who graded herself so harshly and thought she had plenty of time. Who might actually have something to teach her older self, if I can remember just enough to wrap my arms around her. 

Maybe the best parts of her are right here, just waiting to be found.

17 thoughts on “Field notes from the Empty Nest, vol. 1

  1. Beth, you write so beautifully on a topic near and dear to my heart. I really needed to read this today because all the years I’ve been a mom, I doubt that I’m doing well as a mom. My daughter is 11 years old, and I adopted her from China when she was 13 months old. The adoption piece of the puzzle just adds to my insecurity as a mom.

    It’s good to know that other moms aren’t so sure that everything they’ve done is the right thing. I guess all each of us can do is do the best we can to take care of our children.


    • “Oh, Beth,” I said out loud when I read your message, and I guess I am talking to us both. I spent so much of mothering thinking I must be doing it wrong, but the truth is that we are all just making it up as we go along and doing our best. Maybe some moms feel sure they made the right decisions and have done a terrific job raising their kids – but these are not our people. Hang in there, my friend!


  2. Hi Beth.

    Ah yes, motherhood and the empty nest that eventually comes. Don’t think we ever do get it figured out, not completely anyway. The part of your story that really resonated with me was the part about your experience with breast feeding your first baby. I really struggled with that. Everyone made it sound so easy and for me, it was not.

    I love how you looked back at your younger self. I should try that. I know who to picture in my mind, (and yes, she was thinner and had way better hair too), but thinking about how I was feeling and thinking back then requires a whole lot more and a whole lot deeper form of reflecting. I’ll have to try it.

    Thanks for the great read.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. Beth, what a beautiful reflection. Since I am also an empty nester as of last month, this just hit home. Thank you for sharing your talent…and for helping me to realize I want to get reacquainted with my 26 year old self and listen to what she has to teach me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As I face the daunting task of letting go next year, your writing gives me hope! It is so true that when we figure out the “better” way it’s almost over😟. I’m looking forward to reading where you go from here.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beth,
    I sooo enjoy your poignant writing abilities. What a gift you have! So enlightening and on point.
    As a side note, I always remember you being so kind to me when Galvin and your son went to school at St. Joseph’s and scouts together. I always enjoyed talking to you as you were so sincere and personable. Hope you and your family are all healthy and enjoying life. Fondly. Anita

    Liked by 1 person

  7. So delightful to read.

    It has taken Dave and I at least two full years to figure out what we should do now?
    We went on a cruise for the first time in 30 years, same type of cruise before we had children. Came home from the cruise and all we can talk about is inviting our children next time we go??
    So now I am redoing their bedrooms slowly, no sudden moves.

    I want to procrastinate this forever? How do we leave the house with the best memories of my life?



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