Hatching Dreams from an Empty Nest

Some number of years ago, I was having lunch with a friend, a woman I’d met in the tenacious and sometimes duplicitous trenches of the school PTO board. Our youngest children are the same age, and we were both heading into the final bend of that seemingly endless, curving road we’d been traveling. We could see the end. We were both working part-time in jobs that supported our husband’s businesses. We had both pledged to quit the PTO. We saw before us something strangely unsettling. Something we’d completely forgotten could exist. We saw free time. After a thoughtful sip of her soda she looked at me and said, “I’m trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up.” I laughed in agreement. I told her I felt lucky to be able to choose, which was and still is true. But also, at the same time, I felt anxious. Luck—when you have security, health, intelligence—seems something that should not be wasted. If you are lucky enough to have a choice of what to do, to not be constrained by the need to earn a certain sum of money, perhaps you should use your abilities to do something meaningful, to give something back in thanks for this bountiful luck.

Pavement Ends warning sign at end of paved pathway

I cannot say what this friend is now doing. Our sons’ interests diverged, and we lost touch during the long separation of Covid. Perhaps she has chosen to pursue something noble. As for me, I have chosen to pursue something which, in its present form, seems the ultimate self-indulgence. It justifies long hours of glorious solitude in the whimsical company of my imagination—and the ability to spend large swaths of each day in pajamas. I have decided to become a novelist.

This did not come out of the blue. Since I started reading at the age of four, books have been my soulmates, my escape. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had some story or another running inside my head. My attention is caught by a person, a place, an object or a snippet of overheard conversation and I think to myself, what if…? I weave together character motives and plotlines in my head. I can’t seem to help myself. In college, I took several fiction writing courses and was selected for an advanced juried seminar my senior year. I minored in English. I was going to be a writer, only that writing would be done with the purpose of promoting a business. My major was Marketing-Advertising. I had to support myself. After graduating, I got a job in my field. Maybe someday I’d get around to writing a book, but for the time being, I was building a career. Writing a book drifted into a someday dream.

And then, there were children. If you don’t have them—if you are thinking about having them—imagine aliens sprouting from your living room sofa, previously nourished by spare change beneath the cushions. These beings, each one at first an adorable nugget of a thing, are ravenous, and they require constant feeding. So you feed them. And you feed them. And you feed them some more. This takes constant attention and endless expense. They are, all the while, growing due to their insatiable appetites. By the time you have been feeding them for twelve or thirteen years, they have turned sullen and belligerent because no matter how much you feed them, it is never enough. In truth, you wonder sometimes if these are the same aliens you started with—why are you feeding beings you barely recognize? Beings that seem to resent your presence in your own home and complain endlessly about the diet you are feeding them. You begin dreaming about packing a bag and moving—maybe with or without your husband—to a remote island, one with no cell service and a winery. That’s when the first alien tells you it intends to leave. It begins applying to college.

You think, well, at least I will have a spare room for when guests come to town. You do not delude yourself that the alien will stop eating your cash. This is still many years into the unknowable future.

I should take a moment here to say I am beyond fortunate to have a husband who has generously borne the crushing weight of providing for the expenses of this ravenous family so I could devote the bulk of my energies, for twenty-some years, to providing the supervision. Had I been forced to supply the necessary cash, the five of us would have ended up homeless. I’d worked for a few small businesses doing layout and writing copy. I later put those skills to work in the freelance market. For seven happy years, I worked in a middle school library. I’ve done some substitute teaching, also primarily in a middle school, which—as you probably recall from your own school days—is a bit like signing up to spend six hours in a den of hungry wolves for a prize of about $65 dollars, after taxes. Should you survive. There was a short stint writing for, and then assuming editorship, of a floundering local magazine (the floundering due to financial mismanagement, not lack of reader enthusiasm). None of these jobs—even had I done them fulltime—would have provided an adequate wage on which to raise a family.

In all those years, I found no shame in checking the box labeled ‘homemaker’ when filling out surveys or medical forms. But in truth, there were only ten years when I was not doing some type of paid work, albeit for third-world wages. Of course, the ten years I wasn’t being paid was when I was working hardest.

I will take another moment here to say I am aware that raising children and writing novels are not mutually exclusive. I know of plenty of women authors who manage to do both beautifully, some also while juggling paying careers. Of these women, I am in awe.

I, obviously, was not dedicated… brave… self-immolating?… enough to do it while tending a nest of voracious chicks.

I did not stop making up stories. Because I also have the coveted but useless ability to draw pleasantly recognizable pictures, I cobbled together a few simple books with construction paper and twine. The summer my daughter took swim lessons, I placated her older brother—who was forced to watch from a shaded patio in 105-degree heat—by spinning an oral saga involving dogs (my son at that point was dragging an orange traffic cone around the house on a leash, such was his longing for a dog) in outer space. “You should really write that down,” said another mother, who had begun to anticipate each daily episode. I had a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and was pregnant with my third baby. I could write it down, or I could sleep. Sleep seemed the saner option.

I also read them books. Every night before bed. It was, hands down, my favorite part of motherhood in those early days. (The reading of books, though the tucking into bed was a close second.) Like me, my daughter read early and often. She had an astonishing attention span. She was all of five when we started Harry Potter. I read my two older children all seven books, even though by the time the last few were coming out, they were perfectly capable of reading on their own.

I would share with my daughter, from time to time, some of my what if ideas. “You should write a book,” she would say. By this time, the three little chicks were feathered out nicely. Their wings were growing strong. “I will, someday,” I would tell her. And I believed it. At the bottom of the nest I could see it. Amongst the twigs and feathers was the small blue egg of my dream.

On a winter day in 2016, driving to my mother’s house, I passed a school bus that had probably carried its first cargo of children around the time I was taking my first steps. At some point in its faithful career, it had been requisitioned to haul a gymnastics team. It was no longer painted like a school bus. It was navy blue, yellow and white. It had ultimate gymnastics.com and a phone number hand-lettered on the side. A different phone number was spray painted into the windows, along with the words, For Sale.

repurposed school bus, circa 1968

And no, in case you are wondering, I did not purchase this bus, although at this time in my life a bus would have not been an inappropriate vehicle to own, given the quantity of children I was hauling around. I did take several photos of this bus. What if…? In the three residential blocks between this bus and my mother’s house, I imagined a basic plotline.

It went something like this: an eleven-year-old girl with an absentee mother is living with her older sister and her husband and baby boy, as well as her high-school-aged brother who plays lead guitar in a band. This is where the bus comes in. The brother’s best friend buys the bus so the band can go out on summer tour. Feeling bored and put-upon by unrelenting requests for free babysitting, the girl sneaks onto the bus and through her own cunning, ends up accompanying the band on tour. There are crushes, deceptions, broken hearts. This was to be a YA novel. This was my seventh and final year in the middle school library. My children were young adults and my reading list was largely filled out with YA titles.

That spring, I was blessed with a weekend alone. If you have a family, you know a weekend alone is as hard to come by—and as valuable—as front-row tickets to the Final Four. It was spring break, and my husband had taken the children up north to ski, an activity I do not partake in due to my hatred of being cold, my fear of heights, and a self-preserving hesitancy to pitch myself down a steep mountain with my feet locked onto impossibly long planks. With the dizzying promise of three empty days, I opened up a Google Drive file and started to write. It was fun! When they returned, I told my daughter what I was intending to do. “That’s such a great plot!” she said. Reexamining it now, I don’t disagree. But this story, that lived so vividly in my head, fought back every time I tried to get the vision translated into words. Not to mention, with my family back, my real life resumed. I was managing the remodeling of our kitchen. I was preparing for my oldest to graduate high school. Later that summer, I boxed up the abandoned contents of his spacious bedroom so his younger brother could transfer in. Our oldest chick had flown the nest.

And for about a month, I was bereft. Our family was forever changed, and change is not something I’m good with. I found, while cleaning out his room, a card my son’s childhood best friend had given him. A sympathy card for some upset that I did not recall, written in seven-year-old scrawl. I took a photo of it and texted it to his mother—her son had also flown the nest—and we both had a good cry. Six-and-a-half years later she is still crying, perhaps because she has only the one child. I had two more to go. Two more to support through the college years. I got over the crying and took on more freelance clients. I did not go back to the book. My dreams were again on hold, but the hatchling was tapping at the eggshell. My daughter moved to college (and I did not cry— something she will always see as a slight injustice). My younger son got his license. We downsized to a smaller house. Somewhere in the midst of this, I revisited a vague plotline that had been inspired by our old neighbor, an endearing kook of a woman, a hoarder, who I will always believe was in touch with some realm that is inaccessible to most mortals. I had told June at one time that I wanted to write a novel. She had replied with great sincerity that my spirit was destined to chase that dream. So maybe she knew… Or maybe I simply want to believe that. I started writing this novel. The hatchling broke through the shell and took up an incessant peeping. Feeding it consumed me, but oh, what joy! What privilege! And though it was scrawny and naked of feathers, to me, it was a thing of indescribable beauty.

I will apologize here to the friends who I foisted this first novel upon, when in hindsight it was many drafts away from being a coherent story (and it remains to this day in need of significant revision). I honestly was so obtuse I did not see the magnitude of what I was asking. (Please devote endless hours to reading this slog of a book and then either lie through your teeth or find a polite way to suggest that your friend has embarrassed herself.)

But in the mess of pages lives some good work. It was a learning experience. I am certain that should I manage to publish a dozen books, each one will still be a learning experience. There will always be more to learn, ways to improve. I will always think I could have done a better job. Such is the nature of art. Such is the nature of any pursuit. But I do believe my second novel, Rootbound, is worthy of traveling farther than a ream of copy paper and my laser printer can take it. I hear it begging for an audience—though if I’m honest I know it’s my hatchling dream doing the screaming.

But I’m not crying. As the day approached to move my youngest into his college dorm, I would pass by the spare room, look at the stacks of boxes, and wonder if I was going to cry. In truth, I didn’t know how I was feeling. I had come to the end of the road, only it hadn’t ended. There was a gentle embankment, a soft bump, and then the road continued, albeit with smoother pavement and the bewildering freedom from the responsibility of keeping the cookie drawer stocked and including meat in every dinner.

It’s a small paradise. The chicks may have flown but my nest is not empty. I’ve got this new hungry hatchling to feed—my writing. Though in truth I know I’ve steered myself onto another perilously curvy road.

Publishing a book is a long slog through muddy trenches teeming with pestilence and thorns. I have just started querying. It could take months for an agent to take me on, if one should deem me worthy. Should I get lucky enough to land an agent, it could take months for the book to sell, if the book itself is deemed worthy. Should I get lucky enough to get a publisher, there will be more than a year before this chimerical book materializes, and the ever-present possibility that it will vanish—poof—along the way. There are times I wonder if I’m crazy. There are times I wonder if I’ve wasted the past thirty years. If I hadn’t given up on this writing thing, couldn’t I be living the life of a respected, published author? My books on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. My someday dream come true.

But in my heart, I know what is crazy is this notion of wasted time. Those years not devoted to fiction writing were not wasted. I have actively contributed, for the past twenty-five years, to the development of three human beings who themselves are actively contributing to the world. Our oldest is talented, witty, and creative. He works in music production and is in love with a beautiful, kindhearted girl whom we very much hope will become a daughter. Our daughter, both brilliant and empathetic beyond her years, is applying to graduate programs in genetic counseling. Our youngest, whose math genius belies the fact that I contributed half of his genes, is studying computer engineering. We just assisted him in securing a lease for his first apartment. I’m making plans to redo his room. “After this summer,” I reasoned, “you probably won’t be coming home for any length of time.” A shadow of betrayal crossed his face. This apartment is a twelve-minute drive away. He has a car and a charming attachment to the dog. He will be back, often, and at times he will stay the night. That’s okay. I don’t need him here all the time and he certainly doesn’t need me.

My children are smart and independent, astonishing each in their own way, and though there has certainly been plenty of luck along the way, I’d like to think I deserve the lion’s share of the credit.

So for now, I am rewarding myself by indulging my dreams.

I’m lucky, and endlessly grateful for this luck. I’m grateful that my dreams, having inadvertently sat on pause for twenty-five years, were still queued up when I was ready to hit play. I’m grateful that my current responsibilities, beyond the demands of a tenacious Yorkie, are few: prepare a few healthful meals each week, stock the hall closet with toilet paper and hand soap, keep the house tolerably clean. I am grateful that my children have left the nest. This mother hen will forever be giddily enthusiastic when these grownup chicks come back to visit, and unabashedly enchanted when they leave, returning to the nests that they, themselves are feathering.

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