The Empty (ing) Nest
I have said good-bye to babies before.
I was 19 when I had my first daughter. A sophomore in college — terrified as all hell. I wanted more than anything to keep her, but I realized at 35 weeks pregnant that I could not.
There was no path forward that was wide enough for both me and my baby.
Four weeks post-realization, I was on the phone with a court in Seattle, my belly empty and swollen, sobbing through the recitation of the words that would relinquish my rights to her, while my newborn daughter was being fawned over by her soon-to-be parents in a hotel room a few miles away. They were waiting for the call that my very brief parenthood had ended so that theirs could begin.
I was so fucking young. Just a sweet baby myself.
The brand new family came over the following day for brunch and an informal adoption ceremony intended to give me closure and bestow them with permission to fully parent. The concept was noble, but none of us knew what the fuck to do or how not to trip over the small talk while one of us was dealing with life-altering trauma and the other two were overwhelmed with elation. The dichotomy was outsized for our collective cognitive grasp.
I held my daughter in my arms the whole time, aware that voices were swirling around me — talking directly to me — but I was unapologetic, uninterested, and unresponsive. My vision was blurry as I had been crying non-stop for over a week. The scene had taken on an otherworldly haze, but I remember my daughter’s face being as crisp and clear as truth itself. And I couldn’t take my eyes off of her.
I felt love for the first time in my 19 years. Real, honest-to-God, pure, true, unfiltered love. I didn’t need to be loved because of the love she inspired in me. I would’ve done anything for her.
And I did.
As I watched their rental car drive away, I knew my baby was gone. Not just physically from me, but from this world. In her place would be a different person. Hers being an open adoption, I could stay in touch and watch her grow — but she would mature into a different version of herself than had she stayed with me. Instead, she’d have my nature and her parents’ nurture.
I was a mom for 9 short days, and then it was over.
Regardless of the drug, they say that there’s never a better high than the first. That it only takes one taste to get hooked. In retrospect, her conception and birth was a failed attempt to make myself whole. But it gave me my first dose of what I needed to stay alive.
My marriage, 18 months later, was a half-measure to the same end. My soon-to-be husband was five years older. He had a son. He was tall, handsome, and charming. And he wanted me. Six weeks after we met, he asked me to marry him, and I gleefully accepted.
I was still so young that I couldn’t legally drink at my wedding reception. And I was broken inside.
I wanted so badly for my husband to fix me. And he wanted me to fix him, too. I was oblivious to the fact that he had had his own crap mother and shitty, impoverished upbringing. He was looking for someone to displace the rejection he had suffered at the hands of other beautiful girls when he happened upon me — so love-starved and broken that I would deny him nothing. That is, until my disappointment at his ineptitude as a father figure kicked in. That’s when my marriage became transactional, and his purpose in my life morphed into a means to my end: a baby.
I found out I was pregnant the day we returned from our honeymoon, and we stopped having sex even before she was born.
The resentment between us grew faster than my belly.
Eight months after my wedding, a 6lb 13oz bundle of will-to-live arrived in my life. And it may be wrong, and it may be immoral to ask this of an infant, but she did the thing I believed was impossible. She made me whole.
She kept me breathing and my heart beating and the world turning. And I’m so fucking grateful.
It’s unfair to pin your will to live on your child. To make them the rationale for getting up in the morning. The reason you breathe and don’t stop trying.
It’s a heavy weight for anyone, let alone a little tiny soul, to carry.
I knew this somewhere deep down because I was so fucking careful not to hand her that burden. She would feel loved. She would feel safe and protected. She would feel whole.
She would not be responsible for me. Having her to be responsible for was more than enough. I had learned that in my nine days with my first.
And had I not borrowed her motivation to live, she wouldn’t be here … and neither would I.
She was born to keep me alive and, in return, I gave her my everything when I couldn’t find a reason to give myself anything.
And that tiny soul thrived.
The reality of my childhood is still something I struggle to accept. Using the word “abuse” activates shame and guilt in me. Sometimes My Love tries to talk with me about it and, while I no longer push back against his use of the “a-word,” I do struggle to co-sign his statements.
I often sit in silence and let them hang in the air.
I still hear my only sister’s voice admonishing me for betraying the family, or for being dramatic, or attention-seeking. I see the disgust on my mom’s face — her sour, clipped scowl.
Indeed, I was not physically beaten. No one screamed profanity at me or locked me in the basement or starved me.
These were the reasons I dismissed my pain for so fucking long.
I’ve since learned that abuse is when one person harms another to make themselves feel better.
That happened to me.
Often. It was the rule, not the exception.
I’ve only recently come to an understanding of the circumstances giving rise to my birth, and the role I played in my mother’s life at that time. I keep promising myself that I will tell the story — but I’m not there yet. I still can’t bring myself to acknowledge the specifics of the situation publicly and it doesn’t feel like my secret to spill. It’s a choice between feeling like a traitor or a coward and, somehow, I still sense that I have more to lose by choosing ‘traitor’. And what is essential at this moment is to be aware of what happened.
The outcome is what is relevant anyway, or at least that’s what I tell myself when the weighted coin lands heads up on “coward”.
The result was that I was left to fend for myself. I was verbally smacked back into my place when I dared to speak up. I was neglected — used as an outlet for my mother’s shame and disgust. And I don’t expect my sister to understand. She had a different experience with different variables. She was trying to survive as well, in her own way.
When I sought attention, I was told I was dramatic and selfish. As far back as I can remember — 5 or 6 years old — I was admonished for acting out. And maybe I was acting out. But children aren’t born inherently bad. They adapt to get their needs met. My acting out was, “Please notice me…and maybe love me, too.”
Sometimes I think that overt abuse would have been easier to unlearn, as the insidious nature of the covert variety made me internalize my struggles. I didn’t understand why I was flawed. I assumed I was broken. Maybe because I kept hearing that I was.
Deficient. Less than.
For me, as a little girl, there was no safe person or place for me to seek refuge.
I walked around with an acute air of desperation and deprivation — just wanting to be loved and accepted. I was perpetually running experiments to see what might work with my peers since my family had proven themselves a dead end.
I remember being at a classmate’s birthday party in the 4th grade, and we were in her Victorian mansion playing dress-up with trunks of vintage dresses her mother had given her. I was by myself in front of the hallway mirror — away from the giggles and the “Yes, Dhalings???” when I shoved a pillow up under my empire-waisted lace dress and stood in front of the mirror, gazing at my shape, dreaming of being not just a mom, but a teen mom.
If I couldn’t find someone to love me — I’d make someone to love.
I had no idea how that worked, but I know that I was already craving it.
Pre-puberty, television gave me the idea that I could gain an approximation of love and acceptance with sex, and I was barely 15 when I first ran that experiment.
It was a resounding success. He was five years older. Tall, handsome, and charming. And he wanted me.
But neither he, nor any man in the years leading up to my marriage, would come close to being enough.
From the very beginning, the demands of parenthood were the most stabilizing force I have ever experienced. I could think clearly. I was able to act. To perform. To decide. To raise expectations. I did these things for my first daughter who was born to me and my husband, and for the three daughters who followed over the next 15 years — even though I had yet to learn how to do almost anything for myself.
I’d created someone(s) who needed me so badly that they would never leave. And I didn’t want to give them any reason to.
But, of course, my children will leave me. Teaching them to do so is my job.
They will leave me. They must leave me.
One has left me.
Two years ago, I started working on Me … and I still am. I’m trying to understand how my mind works and figure out why I believe that my babies are worth fighting for, but somehow I am not.
I am starting to grasp why I can accomplish heroic feats for the people I love and yet have so little motivation to make even the smallest effort for myself.
Time is running out for me to learn. The rest of my babies are leaving soon. I am 17/25 years through my parenting journey. 70% complete.
What will be my reason when they aren’t there? The reason has to be me, and I have to believe that I am enough. That I am worth my everything, too.
Women who “live for their kids” are either lauded or lambasted — praised or pilloried.
Emma Johnson, who purports to run the “largest single mom community in the world,” thinks I’m “pathetic and borderline abusive.” Me, along with any other mother who is or has “lived for their kids.”
She might be right in some cases, although her parameters are squishy and I disagree with “pathetic.” I’ve been through too many traumatic adaptations of my own to criticize how other people arrive at theirs.
Emma writes, “Parents who make their children the center of their universes mess up their kids, mess up themselves…” She doesn’t seem to understand that “living for your kids” isn’t a choice that is made after the kids are born. She’s got the causation backward, and perhaps that’s why her analysis feels so callous.
Living for your kids doesn’t mess parents up. Being messed up is why people live for their kids.
It’s often how we arrive at being mothers.
And I don’t see how the world is improved by broadcasting moral superiority. I do, however, believe that codependence and enmeshment are dangerous, and I admit that I recognize trace elements of them in my parenting.
Now I find myself less concerned with the circumstances under which people arrive in this world than with how they are treated once they get here.
Despite my children being my reason for living for so long, they feel no burden. Because I have been able to approximate — for their benefit — the mom I wish I’d had. She’s strong. She’s protective. She’s wise. She’s brave. She’s a lover and a fighter. She’s independent. She’s a dragon who will be there to lift her wing as a refuge for any of her babies, no matter how far away from her they wander.
What I have been conscious not to do is to make them responsible for my emotions. They are free to emote and share and wander and play with no guilt or regard for my feelings, other than the natural inclination we are all prone to heaping on ourselves when ones we love are hurting.
I know that asking them to shoulder the responsibility for my feelings would damage them. Even in my darkest moments, I have been unwilling to ask them to bear that burden. Although maybe they felt it anyway, I’ve always believed that their mere existence — giving me a reason to become the woman I needed to — is all I ever needed from them.
So right now I’m wiggling my toes freely over the existential cliff on which I stand perched. With the flight of #2 in three years, the balls of my feet will be released. With #3, the arches. In 8 years, with #4, I will free fall.
Will I have learned and grown enough in the previous 25 years to survive the drop? Will I spread my wings?
Will I remember how to fly when I don’t have them to teach? When they’re not even around to watch?
For the first time ever, I can imagine that I will. And that, friends, is a win because as recent as three years ago I could not.
And I know this much is true: I’m working on it.
Letting go is a process. It’s grief for — even death of — the child you knew. But there’s also a celebration of the birth of a new adult as a reward for a job well done. There’s the joy of watching them grow their scales and sputter their first puffs of fire.
And if I did it right, they will come back for guidance, comfort, and shelter under my wing when they forget how to fly. They will be securely attached and grateful for the space I will always, always hold for them.
I’ve taken the first step. My nest is a little more empty.
2300 miles is a long way away.
The flight was smooth, but the landing was bumpy.
My eldest of my four girls slept on my shoulder for almost the whole five hours. And as I competently navigated the infrastructure of the city I had never been to with her walking alongside me — always watching and learning — I realized just how much of the woman I am I owe to her eyes being trained on me — and my unwillingness to let her down.
I owe it to the love I birthed into my life. The life she breathed into me when she emerged from my body.
And when I looked into her newborn blue eyes, I wanted more than anything to become a woman she was proud to call Mom. And I am to her.
I know because she tells me.
From my point of view, I’m almost there.
She is better than me, and that feels like a win.
As I type this, she sits in class at her prestigious east coast university, the one that I wouldn’t have even known how to apply to. The one that I didn’t know existed. The one that I wouldn’t have survived at 17, anyway, because I was too busy clamoring for the basic building blocks of life — love & safety — to worry about changing my stars.
And no one was there to take a pic of that final moment last week, at 4:58 pm, as we said good-bye in the dorm parking lot, standing next to my rental car. She was expected at dinner with her orientation group at 5 pm. It was just her and I — she and me. Trying to find the courage to verb love each other …and let go.
We held hands. Leaned into each other, forehead to forehead, our tears falling into the same cracks in the asphalt between our feet.
She said, “Thank you for being my mama, Mama. I’m so happy, and I couldn’t have done it without you. I’m going to miss you so fucking much”, to which I replied, “Promise me you will do the things. Do the things that scare you. Do the things that seem hard. Do the things that make your stomach turn over. Do the first one right now and walk away from me. Go start your new life.”
And she did. And she didn’t look back. I know because I watched her walk the whole 50 years away and disappear behind the giant Gothic wooden doors with all of the other First Years.
And I was so fucking glad.
So I borrowed her courage one last time.
And when I finally found the strength to turn away, I didn’t look back either.
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