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Commentary: 3 Days, 1000 Miles, College During COVID, and an Empty Nest

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

Michael and I are among the millions of parents in the US who have young humans who have or will be moving onto college campuses this fall.  Last year, Willow & Maren spent their first semester remote learning from their childhood bedrooms because their mother was certain that their university, like many others around the nation, would end up delivering classes totally online.  I was wrong and am happy to admit that I underestimated what a university can do when they have outstanding leadership and total commitment from students, faculty, and staff to follow the public health guidelines prescribed by the experts.  

In January of 2021 we were all ready for the girls to be on campus and so we made the trek across three states and deposited them for their first semester of in person learning.  I don’t remember feeling particularly anxious or sad, perhaps because I knew that we would be together again in a few short months.  They attended in person classes with masks, were unable to leave campus for anything other than doctors appointments, had limited opportunities to experience social life as college students, and received their first and second doses of the COVID vaccine on campus.  Despite all these challenges they found their people and excelled in their coursework. 

We had all hoped that by the beginning of the fall 2021 semester, the virus would be less prominent and life would look more like 2018 than 2020.  But it doesn’t.  The COVID-19 virus and all its variants continue to influence how we live and function as a culture.  This year there was no discussion about returning to campus, and last weekend as we moved the girls back to “The Hill” I found myself more anxious and sad than I had imagined.  My apprehension isn’t necessarily related to the pandemic.  I think what I am really feeling is the uncertainty of this next phase of my life as Michael and I become empty nesters.  All our lives we worked towards distinct goals, but now the path forward seems less clear.  In particular, I have been thinking about these three things.

One - Our lives as a couple.  Michael and I had five full years together before we had children.  We were spontaneous and had tons of fun- just the two of us.  When the girls arrived they became the center of our universe and we often neglected taking care of each other.  Now that the girls are mostly flown, we have the time and space to figure out who we are again and what makes us happy.    

Two - Reinventing ourselves.  Michael definitely got the short end of the stick on this one.  He is an incredibly talented artist and glass blower who moved to Forgottonia because I got a job with health insurance.  As I worked my way to becoming a tenured faculty member, he put his dreams on hold to stay at home with the girls when they were little.  For the record, he was a much better stay at home parent than I ever would have been - goofy and creative and patient with little people, which is something that I am not.  I am hopeful that just as we reinvent who we are as a couple, we will also dedicate time to doing things that we loved to do as individuals.  I am pretty sure I know where Michael will be spending his time.  As for me, well, I am going to have to think a bit more about that.  

And three - Taking time to grieve.  Our children aren’t dead, but they are mostly flown and that too is sad.  We had a wonderful summer as a family.  For some people this new stage of life may be liberating, but I don’t only love my children, I honestly like them.  I think that they are pretty amazing humans and I will miss their laughter, cooking, clutter, spontaneous dance parties, and physical presence.  I haven’t really begun to process the fact that we won’t be a family like we were in the past.  

So if you see me randomly tearing up in the frozen food aisle, know it’s because we have tried our best to give our girls strong wings to fly, roots to come back to, and reasons to stay a central part of our lives. 

To all of you parents out there who just launched your children into the world, you aren't alone and we are all doing our best to figure out what comes next.  

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.