We cannot talk about the empty nest without first discussing the concept of nesting during pregnancy because I think that is where it all starts. According to scientists, ‘nesting’ refers to a suite of primarily maternal behaviors including nest-site selection, nest building, and nest defense, and the many ways that nonhuman animals prepare themselves” for the arrival of offspring. (scientistdirect.com, 2013).
Women often nest during pregnancy. We prepare our lives, hearts, and homes for new babies. This nesting instinct tends to emerge during the second and third trimesters. We scurry around baby-proofing our homes and buying all the things. Gosh, there are so many more must-have baby things than there were twenty-three years ago. Instinctively and from our friends, we learn that we may not find the time or energy after delivery for these tasks. They prepare us for so many stages of mothering. I am so grateful for the heads up on so many challenging occasions. There is one stage, however, that my friends did not adequately prepare me for-the emptying of the nest, aka the college drop-off.
The First College Drop-Off
Five years ago, we bought all of the recommended dorm items, loaded every spare inch of the Honda Odyssey minivan, and eventually traveled to Rice University. Friends with college-age kids advised me of the items BethAnne simply could not live without. We bought them all, truly. It was kind of like reverse nesting, helping her prepare to leave the nest. Yet in all of this well-intended advice, no one, I repeat no one, prepared me for the gut-wrenching task of dropping off a child at college.
Picture this; we are sitting in a large cafeteria with about 100 college freshmen and their parents, sweaty and stinky from moving our kids into dorms in August in Texas. We listened to college administrators explain how well they planned to care for our students. I begin to tear up, behind my dark sunglasses, as did the mom seated across the table from me. Though we did not speak the same language, we held hands trying to comfort each other silently and not embarrass our children any further. I expect that BethAnne wished the floor would open up and she could disappear into it. Suddenly, the speaker announced the students must leave and join their orientation groups. He suggested we take a few minutes and say our good-byes.
Cue the Tears
What! Say good-bye to our first-born child in front of three hundred new friends. I was definitely not prepared for that moment. My tears turned to sobs, and I felt like part of my heart was wrenched from my chest. BethAnne and Brett had no idea how to console me, so BethAnne gave me a big hug. Then she said, “I love you, and I will call you every day” and then walked away to join her group. She did call me every day, each of my college kids calls almost daily. I am so grateful. I think I cried from Houston to Lafayette and promised myself that I would not allow my friends to reach this moment so unprepared.
The next two drop-offs, Auburn (2016) and Seton Hall (2019), also included tears. Auburn, not quite so many, because I knew Peyton could make the three-hour drive home. Dropping Walker at Seton Hall, one thousand one hundred and ninety-four miles away, by myself, triggered as many tears as the Rice one. Not so many leaving him at school. However, when the plane took off from Newark airport, a wave of emotion came over me. I believe my seat companion on the flight home thought someone died until I explained the reason for my tears. With a look of understanding, she said, “Oh, my mom cried like that when she left me at college.”
The Empty Nest
From the moment we bring our babies into our newly feathered nests, we begin preparing them to leave the nest. We prepare our kids to spread their wings and fly – to leave the nest – for years, but we do not prepare ourselves for sending a piece of our heart with them or for the empty nest we find at home. So friends, whether your children are in kindergarten or high school, consider yourself warned– college drop-off sucks. Pack your dark sunglasses, tissues, leave the mascara at home, and hope for the best.