Much like birth itself, stepping into empty nesting is shocking. Its impact is immediate and its permanency sobering. I was surprised to be surprised by the emotional and physical pain of this transition. Sure, the internet predicts a range of reactions from the sorrow of relocating your youngest child outside your home to the joy of freedom that comes with a significantly abbreviated list of daily responsibilities. But no one talks explicitly about the actual transition, which essentially involves a switch flipped.

Two months into my life as an empty nester, I’m beginning to understand why this change was so powerful—it marks the official end of the fourth trimester. This period has traditionally been defined by the resolution of physical changes wrought by pregnancy, with a spotlight on the uterus. What it fails to acknowledge is that many other body parts remain in flux after six weeks, especially the brain.

Related: Instead of being ’empty nesters,’ this couple adopted 7 orphaned siblings

A nine-month hormone bath and the intense experience of caretaking just after birth rewires a mother’s brain to make it more responsive to every issuance from this new addition, allowing her to learn to speak the very particular language of her baby—with significant consequence. Turns out, the fourth trimester doesn’t end after six weeks or even a year; it ends when you return home to your youngest child’s hollowed out bedroom and feel the mismatch between a brain wired for a specific type of connection and the loss of it. 

In the weeks leading up to “drop off,” I drove around our neighborhood weighed down by the knowledge that my family would likely never live together in the future like in the ways we have in the past. But grieving before the fact didn’t help me to viscerally inhabit a space I’d never been. I hadn’t given any thought to the brain rewiring that was underway 18 years earlier during pregnancy, as other more obvious physical changes had my attention. Once the baby vacated her first ‘nest’, the flip was switched in me. I instinctively shifted my focus away from myself and toward the baby and didn’t question this massive reordering of priorities.

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Recent research on the maternal brain may explain this. Using fMRI technology, researchers peered into the brains of new mothers and found a strengthening of the reward system that encourages mother-infant bonding; new moms get a dopamine hit when they connect with their baby. I’m guessing that the brain space devoted to this connection likely lasts forever in some form, but I now know that the caretaking upon which this connection was built essentially ends when that person leaves your house and figures out how to care for themselves.  

My sense of loss and empty nest loneliness may be amplified by the pandemic. Although it may take many years after Covid becomes endemic to unravel its myriad impacts on all of us, my family used our confinement to knit ourselves more closely together. Being in each other’s constant orbit changed the pace of connection.

The loss of this particular connection, between me and my daughter, feels more urgent.

It seemed as though our synched up chemistry yearned for coffee at the same time, requiring daily drives to acquire it, each trip punctuated by off-key belting to balance out the caffeine high. We made up games that encouraged the dogs to run back and forth between us in the living room and sent and received numerous daily texts to bridge the space between her bedroom and my office.

And then, on a Thursday in August, I helped her stuff all her clothes into duffel bags, dragged said bags on and off the plane with her and watched as she tried to reassemble her bedroom in a thimble of a dorm room in which the use of space would bring an architect to tears. By Sunday night, I was home without her, dumbfounded by the actual separation. And now that many miles separate her college from our home, our relationship is being rewired to work at a distance. I feel the absence of our physical bond acutely. It’s a roughly hewn ball of tension that’s rattling around in my chest—a melancholy that’s almost palpable.

Related: To my mom, who is about to become an empty-nester: thank you 

Despite the fact that this very transition, the college leaving, has been imagined as a confirmation of parenting goals achieved—the creation of a being who could individuate—it doesn’t feel triumphant. In the quiet space left by my youngest child’s departure, I notice my brain’s clanking adjustment away from all the friction required just after birth to change me from a person to a parent. 

Although I’m not a neurologist, I’m guessing if you fMRI’d empty nesters, you’d find scans that resemble those done on people experiencing withdrawal symptoms, as the drop in dopamine reflects the more limited opportunity to connect. Maybe because we are all immersed in the loss that’s been rising around us over the last few years—loss of fathers and sisters and close friends to Covid, loss of a connected community, loss of even the veneer of unity as a country—the loss of this particular connection, between me and my daughter, feels more urgent.

Her departure requires rearrangements of my neural architecture that I hadn’t anticipated. But I know as our connection reorients to this distance, I will explore different ways to branch out into new territory and, maybe, I’ll find the joy of that freedom I’ve read so much about. 

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