Love & Wisdom

You’re Not Doing it Wrong

Navigating the soiled nest of family life

By Sarah Stackhouse November 22, 2023


This morning, I found myself running late as I tried to get my daughter to the bus, but I wasn’t alone in my rush. There was a parade of cars driven by grumpy, frazzled parents eager to position themselves in front of the bus before the next stop. No one wants to miss the bus. In these moments, the differences between elementary school kids and parents seem to fade as we collectively agree that going to school is a preferable option to staying home. My daughter will happily ride the dank, noisy, breath-filled bus for over 40 minutes, rather than spend an extra second with me. 

And honestly, I like that about her. It keeps us on track for meeting one of our major goals: the day she moves out. While it’s an emotional concept for me, this goal has been in the making since the day she was born. This year it feels more prominent than ever, like a sudden growth spurt, forcing us to confront the reality that her departure is approaching faster than we can grasp. 

This understanding that we’re working together to prepare for her eventual departure is ingrained in our relationship. As my therapist likes to reassure me in times of deep frustration, “The nest is meant to get soiled. They aren’t supposed to stay.” What she means is this: Homelife is challenging sometimes, but this difficulty serves a purpose. It encourages our children to spread their wings and venture into the dank, noisy, breath-filled world. The impending separation is hardwired into the family dynamic. Some days it feels as if the nest is held together with wads of chewing gum, dried-out glue sticks, and coffee grounds. 

In my husband’s candid assessment following a household blowout, he humorously put it as, “I think we just spend a little too much time smelling each other’s farts.”   

The best way for us to enjoy being together as a family is by allowing each individual member to have their own independence in the world. School and work not only provide education and income, but an opportunity for the nest to air out. We come back together, sharing stories over dinner, piano lessons, and homework. If these separate experiences don’t take place gradually over time, we won’t be prepared for the final jump, and neither will our two daughters. 

I’m reminded of the poignant pot smoking scene in Harold and Maude. With a hookah placed between them, Maude listens as Harold admits to having not fully embraced life, “I’ve died a few times but I haven’t lived,” he says. Maude identifies. “I know, Harold. A lot of people enjoy being dead. But they’re not. They’re just backing away from life. Reach out! Take a chance! Get hurt maybe. But play as well as you can,” she tells him. “Otherwise, you’ve got nothing to talk about in the locker room.” 

The point is, our unique experiences provide us with stories to connect with one another. A lot of living has to happen out in the wild, before we share a meal together as a family. It’s the same when my daughters return from school, sharing their stories of the day. I love hearing about the silly conversations they had at lunch. 

At the bus stop, there’s a girl a year older than my daughter. On the first day of school, I clumsily tried to introduce the two of them. This was a new school for my kid, and she was riding the bus for the first time. The other girl looked at me, blinked, then walked away after I told her my daughter’s name and asked for hers. I felt like a complete doofus. I didn’t know how to respond to being so deliberately shunned. I was no doubt taking on the sensitivity my daughter was carrying on such a big day. I blinked the tears back into my eyeballs and looked at the sky and then the trees until the feeling passed. My daughter didn’t seem to notice. She had enough on her mind. 

This same girl was at the bus stop today. I watched from my car, positioned about 20 feet from the stop, as my daughter attempted to strike up a conversation with her. I mean, can you imagine? She’s in third grade, so whatever she said had to have been thoughtful, sweet, or silly. The other girl, however, turned away and engaged in conversation with another kid, her back squarely facing my daughter. It struck me that, like other animals, humans also use body language to convey their intentions.

My daughter picked up on the unspoken message. She looked up at the sky and then across the road at the trees. I thought she might cry. From the waist up, she twisted, a quick back and forth shake. Her little backpack moved with her. Not a minute later the bus arrived, and my daughter’s eyes caught mine. I waved frantically and made our hand gesture for, I love you. She did a double take to see what my flailing was about. She smiled, I think mostly at how embarrassing I’d managed to become in just a few short seconds, but also because I was cheering her on from the sideline. 

No matter what kind of experiences she encounters, I can sometimes watch her, perched on the edge of our less-than-perfect nest, as she begins to spread her wings. I understand that this process is partly motivated by the challenges we face as a family, pushing her to seek fresh air. And one day, the nest will dislodge and blow away, as it’s meant to. 

Naturally, I won’t be here to witness her entire beautiful, amazing, challenging, and at times heartbreaking life, but that’s not the point. Currently, we are two animals preparing for and experiencing separateness. And when the day comes for both my daughters to leave, we’ll be as ready as we’ve learned to be.

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