To make peace with becoming an empty-nester, I had to be at peace with myself

Karlotta Freier / For The Times

This column is the latest in a series on parenting children in the final years of high school, “Emptying the Nest.” Read the last installment, about why youth sports drive parents crazy, here.

Over Presidents’ Day weekend, my eldest daughter took her 17-year-old sister to tour a few colleges in Northern and Central California. A part of me desperately wanted to go with them — my youngest’s first real college tour! But it was clear that they viewed this as a sisters getaway, and since I am known to proselytize about the primacy of sibling relationships — ”God willing, they will be the longest of your lives,” I say regularly, to a chorus of rolling eyes — I bit back my regret and made the hotel reservations.

Then I learned that my in-laws were having a gathering near Death Valley that same weekend. My husband wanted to attend, but I could not because of work. Suddenly it dawned on me that I would be spending three days all alone in my house.

Three days! All alone! In my house!

I have been apart from my entire immediate family for work trips and, occasionally, for travel with friends. But I have not been alone in my place of residence for three whole days since I got married almost 27 years ago. My husband too has traveled in those intervening years, but there was always a kid, or two, or three rattling around the house in his absence, needing food and cuddles and to be driven to some birthday party, youth sporting event or other.


Now I would be completely and unbelievably alone. What on earth would I do with myself?

Well, the first thing I would do was get a phone call from my daughters informing me that their car had broken down on Interstate 5 north of Bakersfield. After that car was towed to a nearby garage and pronounced unfixable, I would then drive 2½ hours north to give them my car and ride back home with the busted one and a very nice AAA tow truck driver from Buttonwillow. (Shout out to G-dog of Castro Towing!)

Even so, most of the long weekend lay before me, silent, empty and absolutely extraordinary, especially after the project I had expected to be working on was delayed. The only items on my to-do list were “walk the dog” and “bring in the trash bins”; everything else was completely up to me.

If you are not a parent, especially of multiple children, it may be difficult to understand how surreal this felt. For more than a quarter of a century, my days have been structured around the needs of others. Not exclusively, of course — I have professional deadlines and dental appointments, social engagements and personal errands, including those conjured to deliver much-needed time on my own.

But many people have unfettered access to my calendar. The result is a near permanent state of churn, in which any given time slot has a Plan A (“have to”), a Plan B (“should do”) and a Plan C (”if you can find the time”).

After three kids’ and 20 years’ worth of youth sports, columnist Mary McNamara reflects on the real reason parents yell at the refs and other lessons she’s learned along the way.

Jan. 30, 2024

Yes, the years of needing to get up at 5:30 a.m. if I wanted an hour to myself in a silent house before the cacophony of rousting kids out of bed and hustling them into clothes, making lunches, brushing hair, signing permission slips and scrounging up a $10 bill (“because the teacher said she can’t make change”) for a just-now-mentioned field trip all before 8 a.m. are long gone. My oldest children, who came home during lockdown, have been out of the house for at least a year, and at 17, my youngest is remarkably self-sufficient, and almost completely silent, as she prepares for her school day (the permission slips do still randomly appear).

Likewise, the evening battles over homework — making sure it’s being done, responding to emergency demands for help — are (mostly) distant memories. I’m more likely to tell my youngest that she needs to stop studying and go to bed than anything else.


But if the minute-by-minute nature of clear-and-present motherhood has eased, there are still dinners to be made; laundry and dishes to be done; appointments to be scheduled and kept; crises to be handled; practices, rehearsals, parties and part-time jobs to drive to; basketball games and performances to attend.

All accompanied by the underlying beat of urgent requests for random information: When did my side of the family come over from Ireland? How do postage stamps work? Why don’t we have any good snacks? What is the Hulu password again? Where is my [insert personal belonging here]?

With no one to ask me if her basketball uniform is in the wash or what time of day she was born “for a school project,” would I even exist?

Yes, yes I would. And with great abandon.

Like every good Type A mother with a bit of time on her hands, I had planned to use my three family-free days to get some projects done: Rearrange the linen closet, clean out the pantry, deal with the disarray recent storms had inflicted on the backyard, organize old photos, sort through the bins my son left behind when he moved to Kansas City more than a year ago, get rid of the myriad sweaters I never wear yet insist on keeping.

I might visit a friend; I would definitely go to the gym, possibly more than once. Maybe I could make a big lasagna and freeze it.

Reader, I did none of those things. Indeed, my family-free holiday was defined almost entirely by what I did not do, which was pretty much anything at all.


Historically, it requires a very high fever or a major stomach flu to keep me from tackling some project or other in any time not immediately claimed by work or family. Even when we travel, I tend to go off on my own adventures while the rest of the family takes a few hours of down time — I didn’t shell out for airfare in order to nap! And certainly not in Edinburgh/New York/Kansas City. We might never be here again!

The pressure cooker of junior year hurts students and parents alike, columnist Mary McNamara writes in the first installment in a new series, ‘Emptying the Nest.’

Dec. 13, 2023

Indeed, it has been said by some who claim to know me that I simply don’t know how to relax.

Well, for almost three full days I did nothing but relax.

I planted a few pansies and tidied up the bathrooms; when it began raining, I dealt with some leaks. I did look at some old photos, and then just put them back in the box. I gazed at both the linen closet and pantry and decided they were fine, just as I decided it was too cold to get rid of any sweaters and that my son could deal with his stuff when he was next in town.

When left completely on my own, with no demands and no one looking, it turns out I like to read novels and watch movies. I made some egg salad and soup but otherwise refused to cook. (A quarter-century of making meals each and every day for people who eat them in less than five minutes can curb one’s love of cooking.) After my six-hour salvage run up the 5, I was not in the mood to drive anywhere, not even the gym, so I stayed in, worked out a bit on my own, finished knitting a scarf I had begun a year ago and read some more.

But I also did something I have not done for many years: I sat with myself, alone, and did nothing. No mentally thumbing through potential column ideas; no planning the summer or even scheduling the next week. No doomscrolling with its attendant internal rants over world events, no prophylactic worry about this child or that potential situation, no chastising myself for not doing all the chores I had planned to do or worrying if I was going to close the activity and exercise rings on my Apple watch.

I just moved around my house and yard in silence, talking only to my dogs, and instead of obsessing about the 90 million things I had to do, should be doing, I felt only peace.


When it started raining, I didn’t even have to walk the dog.

A part of me had definitely been braced for a feeling of, if not loss, then dislocation. With my youngest looking at colleges, I thought these days would give me a preview of the time when my nest would be empty. But a three-day weekend comes with a clock — neither my husband nor my daughters were gone long enough for me to pine. It was a bubble, separate and exclusive, preparing me for nothing but reminding me of much.

That the day doesn’t much care what you accomplish in each of its hours; that a healthy body, and mind, needs to be at rest once in a while; that the actual longest relationship you will ever have is with yourself so it’s important to enjoy being alone.

Though when it stops raining, that dog does need to be walked.