When our daughter, Darrah, left for college four years ago, I knew only that I’d miss her. I imagined a certain hollowness and stillness invading our house, a pall that I’d ward off with my usual defenses: writing more articles, digging more perennial beds, engaging in all manner of compensatory bustling. I’ve bustled plenty, but I understand now that it’s only a cover for a more surprising development. In my daughter’s absence, I’ve begun to feel both younger and older than I had before, a tipsy state of being that I find humbling, exhilarating, and occasionally just plain weird.
Looking back, I think my shift into empty-nest status was like a cage door swinging open for a zoo animal—I didn’t immediately realize I was free. Let me be clear: I love being Darrah’s mother. She’s an exuberant presence, full of warmth, goofy humor, and sudden, stunning insights. She’s also our only child. Nonetheless, within a few weeks of her departure, I found myself taking bigger, longer strides and standing a little taller, like a plant reaching for the sun. This sense of sprouting felt familiar, but it took me a little while to place it. It was the bodily experience of youth.
When I say “youth,” I’m not talking about the hormone-buzzed, bouncing-off-walls state of adolescence. I’m referring to the way I felt as a youngish adult, before becoming a mother. Who knew that parenthood would be such a weighty business? By the time I’d hugged Darrah good-bye in the parking lot of her freshman dorm, my brain had logged 18.5 years of worries, plans, and second-guesses about the growth and development of another human being.
My running internal monologue ranged from concerns about Darrah’s health to the development of personal responsibility. “How upset should I be about the headaches she’s suffering, even though her pediatrician says they’re probably nothing?” “Should I insist that she clean her room or should I let it go because it’s really more about me, a certifiable neat freak?” On and on.
Within weeks of her departure, the internal hand-wringing simply evaporated. My daughter was 200 miles away, far beyond the reach of parental tracking systems. I think that’s what the lightness was about. I’d begun to recover a space in my being that was essentially free.
With this new sense of buoyancy came another, even more pleasurable, bodily shift. I began to feel sexy again. In the months following Darrah’s birth, I’d begun wearing a bleak assortment of baggy T-shirts and sweatpants, convinced that my life as an attractive, sensual woman was over. I was Mother, and a squishy-bodied, exhausted one at that. I got my hair permed that first year in a desperate attempt to reclaim some shred of allure. It was transformative indeed. Now I looked like a frump who’d been struck by lightning.
As Darrah bloomed into childhood, I discovered jazz dance, and the intimations of matronliness began to recede. But by the time she hit high school, they returned in force. In the presence of my daughter and her friends, dressed in their micro-tees and lit up with the incandescent energy of adolescence, I felt older and more faded than ever. The sense of “good-bye to all that” was attended by a kind of shrouded grief. I spoke with no one about it, because against all common sense, I couldn’t imagine that any other midlife mom felt as I did. Instead, I tried to beat back my shame with stiff-upper-lip lectures. “You’re middle aged!” I’d rail inwardly. “Get over it!”
Then, at some point during Darrah’s freshman year in college, I looked in the mirror and began to see the outlines of the woman who was actually reflected there. Okay, she was no longer young, but she was still quite slim—maybe even shapely. One evening, at a younger friend’s persistent urging, I borrowed her slinky black skirt, topped it with a clingy tank, and walked into a party full of old friends. Heads turned. I heard a couple of whistles. I was amazed, then extremely happy.
Tentatively, at first, I began to weed out my flowing shirts and pleated pants and replace them with clothing that at least suggested that I had a body underneath. Next, I reclaimed sexy underwear. I began to flirt with my husband, Dan. Let’s just say he liked it.
Dan is a major player in this tale of recovered youthfulness. He and I have been together practically forever (35 years), so we remember what it was like to be footloose and childfree. The nature of the careers we ultimately chose—freelance writing and college teaching—allowed us to continue a semi-spontaneous lifestyle for an absurdly long period of time, so long it began to seem normal.
Once Darrah was born, of course, everything changed. But then she grew up, started leafing through college catalogs, and was gone. After a brief period of stasis, during which Dan and I acted out our familiar routines like a pair of battered windup toys, a day came when we more or less stared at each other and said, “Damn, we can do whatever we want!”
When Darrah lived at home, we normally ate dinner at 6 o’clock sharp. In her absence, we began to eat whenever we felt like it, and to serve up meals that barely acknowledged the sanctioned food groups. We’ve been known to have milkshakes for dinner, or Doritos topped with melted cheese and jalapeno peppers—no side salad, no redemptive plate of carrot sticks. We don’t usually eat so foolishly, but I find it gratifying to know that we can.
We were somewhat slower to realize that while Darrah was at college, we could travel again, but one recent spring, we took off for Amsterdam. For seven days we wandered the streets, canals, cafes, and museums of that magical city with nothing to do but drink in the moment. Each morning, we awoke with just one thing on our minds: how shall we please ourselves today?
Of course, the whole point of a vacation is to “vacate” oneself from the rigors of ordinary life. Soon enough, we were back in a house that needed work, bills that needed paying, and prescriptions that needed refilling. Ah, prescriptions. They represent the other side of my nest-emptying experience—the side that feels distinctly older than ever before. We have a bunch of meds. In fact, Dan and I have enough health issues that we’ve gone the route of weekly pill organizers. Dan’s is red, mine is blue. They’re positioned squarely on our kitchen counter, side by side. When Darrah comes home on breaks, we squirrel away the boxes in a corner, sparing her what we call “the nursing home look.” But when she’s away at school, they resume their front-and-center positions. I can still dress up in a fabulous, shimmery outfit and go off to a dance party brimming with cool. But I come home to his-and-her pill organizers.
I also come home to my attachment to routine. Even as Dan and I have abandoned some of our ho-hum habits, others have deepened into curiously codgerlike rituals. One of our favorites takes place after dinner, when we boil water for tea, amble into the living room with our steaming cups, put on some music, and pick up our respective books. We then commence what we call “parallel reading.” We talk some, but mostly we just sit together and read. It’s become an unexpectedly satisfying, comforting way to spend an evening.
From time to time, one of us will notice the rutlike quality of the activity and say something like, “What have we come to?” Then we’ll remember, “It’s just us! We can do what we want!” Then we’ll chuckle, sip some tea, and turn the page.
Marian Sandmaier is the author of two nonfiction books, Original Kin: The Search for Connection Among Adult Sisters and Brothers (Dutton-Penguin) and The Invisible Alcoholics: Women and Alcohol Abuse in America (McGraw-Hill). She is Features Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and has written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, and other publications. Sandmaier has discussed her work on the Oprah Winfrey Show, the Today Show, and NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Fresh Air.” On several occasions, she has received recognition from the American Society of Journalists and Authors for magazine articles on psychology and behavior. Most recently, she won the 2021 ASJA first-person essay award for her article “Hanging Out with Dick Van Dyke” on her inconvenient attack of shyness while interviewing. You can learn more about her work at www.mariansandmaier.net.