Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 18 Winter 2019

Julie and her son Finn.

Dr. Julie Steward is Director of Creative Writing and Professor of English at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.  Her scholarly interests focus on contemplative practices in higher education and the relationship between modern American poetry and Eastern philosophy.  She received her B.A. from Austin College and her Ph.D. from Rice University.  For the last twenty years she has studied esoteric Zen Buddhism with Sifu John Fey, the 12th generation successor of the Lam Loong Pac lineage that dates back 750 years.  In addition to practicing Tai Chi and Qigong, she loves to visit her sons in New York City and Auburn University.

Falling Out of the Empty Nest

by Julie Steward

One of the biggest life transitions for many women receives little attention in our modern culture—the “empty nest syndrome,” that feeling of loss that drops like a chunk of space debris on a mother when the last child leaves home for college or to live on his/her own.  Men experience this too, of course, but empty nest affects more women than men since mothers often provide the primary care for children.  The Mayo Clinic assures us that this is not a “clinical disorder” (Whew. What a relief!), but my research reveals some dire terms that circulate around the topic; words like loneliness, loss, depression, and alcoholism fill the void that children leave in their wake.


This particular brand of grief often goes unrecognized or unacknowledged because an adult child leaving home is a good thing, right?  Our job as parents is to nurture healthy children eager to explore their destinies beyond the gaming consoles in their bedrooms.  We tell ourselves that surely only better things are coming—graduations and first jobs and grandkids.  My brain understands the happiness, but I need someone to tell this to the gaping hole in my chest.


When my first son left home, I said it felt like someone had taken a melon baller and scooped out my insides.  Soon enough, that emptiness subsided, and the blessed, messy world filled in the gaps. I watched him move to New York and embark on his career.  I went to visit him, and when we were jostling through a particularly crowded subway station, he wordlessly extended the crook of his elbow so I could hang on to it and not get lost in the shuffle.  The gesture felt like a metaphor for help in a transitional time. He had flown out of the nest, but I still had another child at home.


Now my second son has gone off to college.  My baby.  I find myself wishing I had eight more kids.  We talk about classes and professors and majors.  He wants to study architecture, and I dream along with him about the buildings he will design one day.


There’s just one problem.  The melon baller has grown in size to a snow shovel—not the kind with a tapered tip that pinpoints a scoop but rather one of those big, flat ones with an 18-inch wide blade designed to haul out as much as possible.  I know I still have legs and arms, but a snow shovel has knifed under my heart and scraped clear my entire chest cavity.  I feel actual physical pain there.  I feel like the wind could literally blow through me.


No grief comes easy, but certain kinds of sadness bring comforting ritual with them.  When someone dies, for instance, we can have funeral or build a shrine.  However, when a child leaves home, it’s different.  On the one hand, it is a time of adventure and anticipation.  Graduation parties or setting up a new apartment keep us busy and cheerful, but eventually we feel the stab as we walk by their old bedrooms and no one is inside.  A hundred people will tell you how to raise a child, but very few talk about how to let one go.  When death takes someone beloved, we bring the grieving flowers and food.


Where is my damn casserole?


See?  Emotions like anger wash over when you least expect it.  You walk through Target and spy the Going Back to School section.  All of those pencils and protractors look like boxing gloves about to punch your gut.  Remember the precious years you bought backpacks and binders?  Now you avert your gaze from that section of the store and purchase your distraction of choice—adult coloring books, new hiking gear, Pinot Grigio.  Now your daily meditation practice flies out the window in favor of any comforting diversion.  Now when you come home, the house is silent as snowfall.


As a Buddhist practitioner, I find it more difficult to want to move deeply into the Now.  The Now has become a bitter pill I have to swallow over and over again.  Nostalgia for the past haunts, and the future is difficult to imagine, but the Now is no better.  It hurts.  It is confusing. Who am I if I am not mothering on a daily basis?  I used to carry my children inside of my body.  Now they are far away, and I float through space with little sense of who or where I am.


Apparently, I am in the grip of what Buddhists call the skandha mara.  In Buddhist literature, Mara is the demon who tempted Guatama Buddha under the bodhi tree in an effort to prevent his enlightenment.  There are four maras or obstacles that embody the ways we try to avoid reality.  They are like patterns of behavior we use when we try to cling to something we think is real or permanent.  As Pema Chödrön describes one mara, “Skandha mara is how we react when the rug is pulled out from under us.  We feel that we have lost everything that’s good…. We [try to] re-create ourselves.  We return to the solid ground of our self-concept as quickly as possible.  Trungpa Rinpoche used to call this ‘nostalgia for samsara’.”


To develop her explanation of skandha mara, Chödrön uses language that is particularly applicable: “We’ve been thrown out of the nest” (68).  So I realize, ironically, that empty nest syndrome not only describes the empty space that results from children leaving, but it also points to the fact that I’ve been thrown out of the nest, too.  A core piece of my identity that felt so permanent and enduring is no more solid than the air surrounding the nest to which we cling.  As Chödrön puts it, “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in a no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh” (71).  It’s funny how I used to be able to sit in meditation and feel awake in the midst of the chaos of a house filled with children.  I was learning awareness all the while unaware that I was clinging to a seemingly unchanging sense of maternal identity. After all, for as much joyful, crazy upheaval that children bring, there is a corresponding sense of palpable reality that accompanies everything from birth pangs to Legos on the floor.  I knew one day they would leave home, but it never occurred to me that the identity of “mother” as I had grown to experience it would leave as well.  Of course, I am still their mom, but it feels nothing like it used to.


Now, in the quiet of the house, I see even more clearly how life has always been in transition and continues to be.  My job is to learn to relax within this new sense of uncertainty, to open my heart to the emptiness of this present moment and to the basic wisdom of not knowing. Meditation practice will help me watch my concepts of motherhood materialize and dissolve without judgment—well, at least I hope so.  My sons and I have left the safety of the nest only to discover that even this “free fall” is a gift, an opportunity to wake up, to embrace not the nest but the Now.


1 Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. (Boston: Shambhala, 1997) 68.


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