The emptying nest

Parents have no idea how much kids will change their lives. That is as true when they enter our lives as when they leave our houses.

Illustration by Gracia Lam

LOOKING OVER MY SUNDAY PAPER in the backyard, I see the spot where our swing set used to be. My husband took it down yesterday. It was a hot day, and his face was so red when he was done that I ran out with a cold cloth for the back of his neck. We were both looking forward to getting rid of that eyesore after so many years. It wasn’t one of those high-end sets that bought you street cred with other suburban moms. This one was a Toys “R” Us special, installed by a father with thick black hair and runner’s legs.

It has served us long, if not well, with one side lifting off the ground with every squeaky return. The yellow plastic slide was caked with sap that no amount of nail polish remover or Goo Gone could remove. Kids new to the yard took one halting ride down the slide and then their parents threw away their pants when they got home. I was thrilled to see that swing set coming down, the rusty bolts sawed off, and wood stacked for the garbage truck. We toasted the occasion with a couple of frosty Coronas.

But today, the view over the paper grabs me. The rickety tower of wood and plastic has given way to that long-forgotten green cove nestled under the pine trees. At this moment, it seems more like a hole than a cove, the years slipping through. That swing set had tasted hundreds of drippy Popsicles, saved Indiana Jones from snakes and bad guys, endured hours of middle school gossip. Its swings were tied to tree branches for better climbing. Our 6-year-old daughter broke her arm jumping off the swing at its highest point to win a contest with her imaginary friend. Looking in shock at her U-shaped forearm, I asked my husband, “Do you think it’s broken?”


The spot is pretty now, and quiet. Our youngest daughter is heading into her junior year in high school. Another daughter is in college, a third just graduated. Little by little, our lives are regaining the order we’ve craved. We are tripping over fewer shoes in the kitchen. The countertops are visible again. The hair nests will soon disappear from the corners of the bathroom floor. My throat closes at the thought.

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We recently had a new sprinkler system and lawn installed. For the first time in 24 years, we have a carpet of green. No one is playing on it, and the sprinklers haven’t soaked a single ball or cartwheel. Expectant parents hear that they have no idea how much kids will change their lives. This is as true when they enter our lives as when they leave our houses.

On this uninterrupted morning, I notice butterflies in the flower garden and hear birds chirping overhead. Across the table is my husband of 28 years, sipping his coffee and sharing the paper, starting with the sports section so I can have the front page. I remember how happy we were together before we had kids, when we could run off the Ring Dings we had for Sunday breakfast or plan a weekend in Vermont without asking for a single favor.

I think about how happy we have been raising our kids, despite the worries, last-minute science projects, and the ocean of female teen angst. I hope we will be healthy and happy for many years after they are gone, exploring the world beyond our backyard, finding new interests, and, in the outer years, settling in with the Sunday paper, a ripe cantaloupe, and a soulful contentment — the way his parents did.

There is this hole in the yard. Maybe we’ll plant a garden there. We have the time.

Mary Regan is a writer in Woburn. Send comments to