“We are almost done,” my husband Don said to me in the summer of 2012. It was a sit-up-out-of-your-sleep realization that scared me a little.
“Done with what?” I asked.
“The kids! Chloe is the first to go, the others will follow her like they did at every other stage. …” I didn’t let him finish.
“We are almost done,” I whispered, imagining the possibilities.
We had four kids at the time, and the oldest would be 16 that year. Our other two girls were 13 and 12. Our youngest, a son, was 9. That left nine years before all of the kids left the nest. Like every other stage, from toilet training to learning to read and navigating puberty, once one kid started the process, the rest soon followed and the time flew by.
Don and I agreed that we should start preparing for our inevitable empty nest. We had 16 years of abuse and neglect to our bodies and finances — all for the sake of child-rearing — to undo before the last kid left the house.
We had the first kid when we were teenagers, and our fourth child seven years later. For years, we had been busy with the business of providing for and raising a family. While our friends went to bonfires with cheap booze and danced the nights away, we were wading through piles of diapers, sour bottles, breast-feeding failures, teething, postpartum depression and potty training. We were walking zombies, dragging our bodies to minimum-wage jobs and college classes, and barely making it.
But we were in it together. He held me up when I could no longer stand. I pushed him forward when he was ready to drop everything and fail. We weathered the terrible twos, the threenagers, preschool and every other phase through the teen years, which was where we were when Don had his realization.
That year, we celebrated our oldest child’s sweet 16, but not for the reasons she thought. We were just a few years away from the first glimpse of freedom. We started preparing. We both began a weight-loss program that included pedometers, food trackers and lots of exercise. The kids enjoyed the bike riding and other excursions. I was volunteering with a local festival organization, so there were plenty of opportunities to build up my step count totals. Don got a health consultant from work to help him set weight goals.
We also started funneling small amounts of cash to an account we could use later for traveling and other empty nest activities.
All this preparation, though, had some side effects I didn’t anticipate. Our excitement about the impending empty nest led to some romantic, but immature moments. We passed notes in the form of texts. Those escalated into dates where Don sat close, and I was enchanted by the wine, his cologne and the ambiance. He came home early, or we went for a drive when the kids were in school. The plans became sexy, intoxicating.
By the next summer, we were a little leaner, more energized and less stressed. We had a little cash stashed away. We were spending weekend nights at the beach, under the stars, listening to music and watching the lights of the games at the festivals where I volunteered. Our after-hours interactions resembled a couple of hormonal teens rather than two 30-somethings with four kids and exhausting lives. We both were smiling and having fun.
Just days before our oldest child turned 17, I started feeling ill. I thought it was the flu, but there was something vaguely familiar about this illness. A week later, my sister urged me to take a pregnancy test. I laughed at her. It had been 10 years since my last baby.
She was out of her ever-loving mind, I thought.
Turns out she was right. I was pregnant.
I was devastated. Not about the pregnancy, but about the loss of the grand plans we had been building for more than a year. I had lost 30 pounds and had decided to go to graduate school to improve my writing. Don had lost about the same amount of weight. Our goals for the empty nest had created something between us that I was sure would die when I told him about the pregnancy.
I couldn’t find the words to tell him, so I sent a text. A picture of the positive test. Don didn’t say anything, and he stayed away, for work, for a week. The first thing he said to me after that week away was, “Well, I guess the plans are off.” We laughed.
Don spent that time mourning our newfound relationship “status,” just as I had. Instead of spending a week crying and eating ice cream (like I did) though, he made budgets and a new set of plans.
The savings allowed us some conveniences that we never had with the older kids. It also afforded us the opportunity to keep our date nights. We could still keep stashing little bits of our budget away for the trips, he said, and we could still take them when the older kids leave the house.
“They will be babysitters for the new baby. We can still go places!”
We had one more baby — a girl — in addition to the baby boy I had after that 10-year hiatus, before Don’s vasectomy closed the baby factory.
Our empty nest is not so empty, but we are not the same parents. Don and I learned from that year of anticipation that we needed to inject some passion into our relationship. Just getting the kids to the finish line of age 18 and high school graduation is not enough to keep our relationship or our bodies where they should be. It’s a wonder we didn’t break down long before the first kid turned 16. Marriages need fuel. The touches, the dates, the nights under stars — those are the fuel. Regular fill-ups should be a priority.
We also have gone out of our way to find ways to prevent the extreme exhaustion that we experienced the first time around. I send the babies — now toddlers — to a sitter when I need to get some work done, instead of trying to struggle through amid the chaos. Those days with the sitter also allow me something I rarely got when the older kids were babies: an occasional nap.
In many ways, refilling our nest may have been the best thing to have happened to our family.
Jonita Davis is a freelance writer based in Indiana. Find her on Twitter @bylinesbyjo.
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