The Nest* (An Aside)

We all behave as if the choice about how to talk about motherhood is easy, lies either in sentimentality or its inverse, some wry jocularity. I have to believe that the truth is more complicated than that, that it resides elsewhere, spreads and deepens, shifts and shimmers; watery enough to both sustain and drown.

I wrote this over thirteen years ago, when I started this blog. Mother to a six-year-old and a two-and-a-half year old, I was traveling a landscape where there were no smart phones, no Tiger Moms, no Helicopter Parents, no TikTok, no COVID-19. There wasn’t even any Motherlode, that (sometimes irritating) parenting column in the New York Times that’s now called Well Parent. (Sign of the times.) At that point in my parenting trajectory, one of my darkest fears was that there existed somewhere a secret mothering rule book that decreed that being a good parent meant I was supposed to amputate my writer-self from the mother I’d become.

At first, this writing probably fit into the category of what was then being called a “mommy blog.” Then, it was just a place where I posted news about publications. Now, it has morphed into a COVID Journal.

Thirteen years on, I can safely say that my life has folded inward, outward, become a sort of origami of that earliest iteration of itself. My eldest has started college; my younger spreads her wings with four months away from home.

Now, the thing the world hints I should excise from myself is that mother-part.

I was about to write we are awfully hard on women, but the truth might really be that we are awfully hard on people.

*According to the internet, the term Empty Nest first appeared in 1914, in a book called Mothers and Children by Dorothy Canfield Fisher:

The more things change, the more things stay the same. You need only look at any Parents of College Class of 2024 Facebook page to see evidence of parents well on the way to “fretting themselves into nervous prostration.” There are, of course, mitigating circumstances for that—for Exhibit A, see COVI). Nonetheless, the phrase flabby listless inaction strikes fear into my heart.

About 60 years before Canfield Fisher’s take on things, the industrial revolution had torn work and home asunder. No more coming home from the fields for dinner, no more teens working behind the shop counter on the ground floor of a family’s narrow living space after school. Work became somewhere you went, not just something you did, and, once we decided that was the way the world worked we had to also come up the idea of the Angel in the House: a sainted motherly presence who would keep the home fires burning. As Virginia Woolf described her

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it–in short she was so constituted that she never had a mind or a wish of her own, but preferred to sympathize always with the minds and wishes of others. Above all–I need not say it—she was pure.

A hundred and seventy-five years on, we we still haven’t shed these constructs. Because both the Empty Nest and that unrealistic angel are constructs. I wondered if the empty nest translated to Spanish; so far I’ve only found actual translations of American articles. I guess if your children don’t leave the family apartment until they’re in their thirties, this isn’t a concept that worries you much.

So here we sit, at this strange Covid-caused crossroads. The kids are at school …. except in many places they’re not. And we’re working, but from our beds, in our pajamas. Except when we’re not. As this global mess drags on, I find myself wondering more and more whether we’re going to figure out solutions this time around or if, when this is all over, we’re just going to go back to the old ways.