Flight Patterns: Dispatches From The Emptying Nest

by Christine Kouwenhoven
Originally Published: 

When my oldest left for college a few years ago, it was a pretty seamless departure. Attending a school on a trimester system, he didn’t leave until a few weeks after his friends, and all of us, by the time he began, were ready. I blinked back my tears as we drove away from his campus, but it was hard to be sad, frankly, knowing as we did that he would be fine—and that we would be too.

After winter break that first year, however, the loss hit my husband and me a bit harder. Over the vacation, it was as if we had returned to our normal lives, as if the whole grand experiment had been a success, and now it was over. But off he went again. We looked at each other sadly across the dinner table. “Every time he leaves, I realize things will never be the way they were,” I said. “Every time he leaves, I think maybe I will never see him again,” said my husband.

This is the thing. They leave. They come home. They leave again.

Each time it is sweet, and also, sometimes, not. The stuff! The bad habits! The tender moments!

And then there are the summers. Yet another twist on the same pattern. Hello, goodbye.

My son is spending this summer on the island of Manhattan. This seems like the most natural place he should go, indeed a place he must explore.

New York has always loomed as a sun at the center of my universe. Growing up in Connecticut, it was impossible not to feel the city’s power, hot and promising, so close and yet so different from our small town. How exciting it was as a child to drive there, to see Reggie Jackson play at Yankee Stadium, to attend an opera at the chandeliered, red-carpeted Metropolitan.

My first real flirtation with the city was an overnight stay at a college to which I had been admitted. Did I want to do this? I wondered, as I looked out a casement window at a brick-building view. I elected not to at that time, choosing to stay in the Nutmeg State, safely proximate.

I had a longer affair when my college boyfriend—now husband—moved to New York. For years, I drove my beat-up Ford Escort into the city to spend weekends. I prayed the car wouldn’t break down on the outskirts, in those days a Bonfire of the Vanities no man’s land. We walked the streets, visited the museums, ate at diners (no Chipotle then). I lay awake at night listening to the sirens, the horns, the delivery trucks.

My husband had his own pull to New York. He was a Baltimorean, but his father had always worked in Manhattan, and the family, of Dutch heritage, had literally sailed in on the Halve Maen and settled the area. How could he not give it a go?

Our son feels a draw as well. At school in New York state, he lives, like we did, in a garden tilted toward the warmth of the concrete jungle. He grew up on reruns of Friends—before Netflix—because we owned all the seasons. At some point, he will have to rule it in, or out. Why not now? Up until the moment he drove away with his car full of stuff, this seemed utterly reasonable to me.

But the night after he left, I stayed up all night, my worries flashing like the lights I imagined outside his window. Sending him to college with a meal plan had felt safe. He would eat. At school, there were some rules, and campus safety, and janitors. In Hell’s Kitchen, not so much. It’s a kitchen, yes. But in hell!

What was the apartment like? I hadn’t even vetted it. Bed bugs, roaches, rats? Could he stock a fridge? Did he know three meals out a day would bankrupt us and/or ruin his good health? The job, did it even exist? We didn’t have even the smallest hand in helping him to find it.

I woke my husband up; he reassured me. We did this too. Summertime. Remember?

There are so many crossroads in parenthood. Each time we’ve safely navigated one of them—he can walk, she can talk, they can read!—it has felt like a victory. We should know by now, three kids, innumerable transitions, that there’s always another one pending.

This summer, we’ll take Manhattan. Or at least my son will.

I went to visit him recently, smiling when the bus driver played “New York, New York” as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel. The energy of it is still sun-like—the heat, the intensity.

My son was eager to see me, showing up for dinner and then, the next day, lunch. He was young in his desire to be cared for and fed.

Yet, he was already city savvy and older. We rode the subway, walked the streets. He showed me around the town that he’s making his. It could have been the ’80s again but for the Starbucks cups in our hands, but for the fact that the grown man by my side was my son, not my husband.

This experience will be worthwhile. If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere. Everyone knows that line. When you’re young, the desire to make it defines a lot of decisions. When you’re older, you get to define what making it really means. In between, there’s New York. Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York.

This article was originally published on