About 29 years ago, I married Bill, the tall guy with the bike and environmental posters who moved in across the hall from my roommate and me in our first apartment after college. Bill and I dated for only 18 months before getting engaged; we were engaged just six months before getting married; and were married for about six months before I became pregnant with Jacob, our first child.
Our family grew quickly. Liam was born three years after Jacob, and we fostered, then adopted, Teenasia and Jamilet when the boys were still little.
We’ve been a team of six for most of our marriage. Road trips have been defined by a surgical approach to packing the minivan, with all children expected to share their space with random bags. We could never fit six pairs of skis in the carrier on top of the van, so our trips to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula always included a couple pairs of the shortest skis propped diagonally through the passenger area.
Our large monthly dry erase calendar has been color coded with each person’s activities proclaimed in their own color. The rainbow of names, activities, times and addresses writ large on the kitchen wall would often cause our guests to stand in our kitchen and stare with a mixture of horror and appreciation of the logistics necessary to get four kids to all practices, games and other events.
Adding to the complexity were factors brought in with foster care and adoption. Early on, the court system, bureaucracy and policies that didn’t serve the best interests of the children often interfered with our ability to meet the needs of our two youngest. Even when both adoptions were final and court appearances were over, the trauma of the instability of that time remained.
And now, for the first time since February 1995, when Jacob was born, it will be Bill and I living alone in the house — empty nesters. Jamilet graduated from high school in May, and will be attending Xavier University in Cincinnati. Teenasia will be moving into MATC student housing the same week. We still call Jacob and Liam “the boys,” even though they’re now young men in their mid-20s — college graduates, with grown-up jobs. They recently bought a condo together in Milwaukee. They always shared a room growing up, but now they have their own bedrooms, with Jacob getting the bigger one because Liam wanted the covered garage space.
In less than a month, it will be Bill and I alone in our four-bedroom house with six cubbies in the mudroom and the large dry erase board still hanging in the kitchen. If we want to have a private discussion, we will not need to slink upstairs to whisper it in the bathroom, so no one can hear and give their input. I’m not sure how we’ll spend all the time we will save from not needing to remind adolescents to put their shoes away, take out the garbage or mow the lawn. I know the net time I will spend emptying the dishwasher will be less than the aggregate of time I spent reminding all four kids to get that four-minute job done.
Shepherding four kids into young adulthood has taught me to be grateful for the stable moments, and to recognize that stability is often indeed measured in moments — a crisis could be a beat away. And at this particular moment, with four young adults moving in the right direction, I feel my own movement from the center of their lives to a solid spot in their inner circles. As they navigate their studies, careers and relationships, my job will be to find a healthy place to stand and cheer — close enough to give support, but far enough to yield independence. Part of empty nesting will be discovering where this place is — for each of them.
Bill and I gave everything we had to parenthood — and the older our children become, the more we understand that parenting will never end. But even as we recognize that our runs together may still be dominated by miles of analysis of the kids, we have a little more space in our lives for something new. Our time as a couple before kids was short, but we remember it well and we’re looking forward to having some of that freedom back. And what we may lack in the energy and idealism of the young Bill and Annemarie we used to be, we hope we make up for with a bit more wisdom and discretionary income.
When we got married, we chose for our wedding bands to be braided gold. They were a symbol of God, husband and wife, braided together, stronger because of each other. As a young bride, I could not have imagined all that would be required of our braid through the decades. I could not have imagined either the profound joy or the deep pain that has been part of our parenting journey. But here we are, just the two of us and God, ready for the next phase.
Braid intact, rings on, leaning into those vows.