“Martin Party, table for four.”
There is something about this statement that sounds odd to me. I want to qualify, correct, and explain the full story to our restaurant host.
We should be a table of six. It is just that two of our members could not make it tonight, or truth be told most nights. I want to tell our host that our two oldest children, Jack and Leigh, are away at college. We should be a table of six, we used to be a table of six and it is only in my mind that we will forever be a table of six.
Why is this very common family right of passage coming as a surprise to me? If I do the math, it all makes sense. I am fifty-something years of age, married for 27 years and a Mom for over 21 years. It just cannot come as a shock that it is now time for some of the older children to take their beginning steps out of the family nest. I wouldn’t want it otherwise. I just feel rather unprepared for these transitional years.
With two children still at home—Ford, a sophomore and Nick, a 6th grader—my husband and I still have parenting responsibilities that loom large. We remain in the thick of negotiating teen curfews, teaching student drivers, editing papers and quizzing spelling words. In fact, Nick just lost another tooth last night; so clearly, we have a long road to go before a true empty nest emerges in our home.
It just seems that this transitional phase of the emptying nest has me stumped. In truth, I do not encounter my new down-sized parenting reality on a daily basis. The days seem just as full, our family rhythm hums along to the beat of the academic calendar as it has done so for many years. I wake up for the before-school shift at the same time and retreat to sleep right on schedule after the homework/bed-time/reading shift is complete. I continue to feel stymied on what to make for dinner.
Yet, there are subtle changes in the family fort. There are a clearly reduced number of family shoes lining the mud room wall. Our grocery bills and pounds of laundry are moderating. I no longer find cereal boxes in the cabinet that were put back with only dust traces of Honey Bunches of Oats—why exactly would Leigh decide to save the box, except perhaps to save the steps to the recycling bin. I can now keep the fruit supply steady as Jack, the mega-Vitamin C craver is no longer here to polish off a pound of grapes or 4 granny-smith apples a day. These changes are so subtle, barely a blip on my daily radar screen.
However, there are other moments, when I am jolted into my new reality of the reduction in number in the family nest. It is around the family table that I have intense, sometimes unsettling feelings and am acutely aware that the whole flock is not present. It happens to me at specific times and always seems to involve a table. I feel it during our Sunday family dinners, during family birthday dinners and when we on occasion venture out to dinner. I sit with my four remaining flock members, loving them dearly, enjoying our meal together yet missing the two that got away.
And we had just been getting so good at the family meal. It took a long learning curve, but over the decade plus that we were together as a fully formed family of six, we were just starting to get the hang of what looked like a civilized family meal. We no longer needed high chairs and booster seats. The kids no longer accidentally fell off their chairs. Milk was rarely spilled. Sibling sparring seemed to recede or maybe, we just finally got the dinner seating chart correct—Jack should not sit next to Nick. We talked, we laughed, and we gently teased. We finally achieved a functional family dining experience and then our oldest children started to age out, the number of places at the table dramatically reduced.
I have found strategies to try to soften the impact of our reduced numbers. I set the table differently. I cram our foursome into the end of the long family dining table. I move the centerpiece and candles to block out the long expanse of table that we can no longer fill and if used only makes our foursome feel too small. I more often set our family dinner at the kitchen island. Somehow a foursome gathered around the horse-shoe kitchen counter seems to be the new dining location of choice. We feel cozier; the nest feels fuller, even though it is not truly filled.
I would imagine that for me it is not all that surprising that I find this reduced daily family membership somewhat unsettling. In my own life experience, I was the second oldest of seven siblings. I was one of the flock members that did the early college exit, I did the leaving. I was not the one left to feel the effects of the contraction. But my younger brothers and sisters have spoken of their uncomfortable feelings of being left behind, the smaller family meals, and the reduction of family personalities to fill the home. My mom has also reflected on this period of her life, trying to navigate and buffer the impact of the older children that were doing the leaving on the younger ones that were left behind. I am sure this is the family script for most families—large or small in number. I would venture that a family of eight feels the changes of this transition as intensely as a family of three or four. It is not the numbers—any one individual leaving is felt as a loss.
I surprise myself with the intensity of my own emotions. I am excited to be launching some young adults from our family. We are still in very close contact. They still seem to need large doses of parenting and guidance—roommate advice, course selection guidance and brain-storming on summer internship possibilities. My college children call when they are sick, call when they lose their cell phones and when their laptops are not working. I know that their need for support and my need as a mom to be available to them will fill my lifetime.
But, what will change, what has changed, is the reduced number of members that gather for family dinner. I can continue to do all sorts of table setting strategies to minimize impact, but I am fooling no one. We are a permanently changed operating unit and we will change again when Ford and Nick depart. I look forward to seeing the paths and shape that each of their lives will take. Yet, it is in my heart and particularly around the table that I will intensely miss what I once took for granted. Our family has been and always will be a table for six.