That kind of quiet

May 02,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath( )

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

It was a strange, quiet weekend, with only half of us at home Friday afternoon through Sunday afternoon. Scott and T. and the rest of their Y-Princess tribe left on Friday for a weekend trip to a camp three hours away. For the first time in her life, T. would spend a whole two nights away from me, and I wasn't sure I could stand it. I was happy to have the weekend alone with L., but not too sure I wanted--or particularly needed--the solitude that would go along with it. A little bit of quiet is a good thing, but it's amazing to me how overwhelming quiet can be--almost as burdensome as too much noise. Almost eleven years of motherhood have made me more tolerant of noise and chaos and upheaval and, strangely, uncertain (afraid?) of how I feel about the lack of it.

Being alone with L. is a very different change of pace. He likes to just be, and for him that doesn't involve a lot of talking, or a lot of interactions with other people when we're in the house, unlike T., who chatters non-stop and is always right on my heels, thinking up activity after activity for us to do together. So I while L. did his own things, I filled the space with busywork. I scrubbed the screened-in porch from top to bottom, hung some wind chimes, cleaned the bathrooms, polished the floors, and used our leaf blower to scatter the pollen from the back deck. I wrote a little, and read a little, and baked a little. 

Maybe I even felt a little selfish, for begrudging Scott this weekend away. 

I felt selfish too for feeling sad for myself about T.'s absence, because I know she desperately needs the time away. She needs the time and space to feel big and accomplished and whole, in ways she can't when she's at home. She needs her friends, and the chance to shine among them; the chance to enjoy herself without having her good time cut short to meet her brother's needs--as happens way too often to even count. It's been so hard for her to be L.'s sister lately, and she needs the time to be just T., to spread her wings.

And the fact that she needed the weekend away in the first place made me feel sad about the State of Things at our house until I told myself to pull it together. I gave myself up to the strange quiet of the house, and I stopped trying to fill it up with busy tasks. I took L. to a birthday party later in the day on Saturday, then treated him to Chinese at his favorite restaurant. We talked about the Back to the Future trilogy, and whether or not it really would be possible to build a time train. We came home and walked the dog, and later that evening, L. took the personal space he needed readily, drinking up the peace and quiet as thirstily as someone would water, after a long, hot day. I lit the tiki lights on the porch and watched the evening settle around the house, gently, and gradually, and the trees were filled with the bedtime songs of many different birds. 

But still the quiet of it all bothered me, in ways I couldn't quite explain.

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The not-so-good part about the weekend was having to wake up at 6:00 am on Sunday in order to drop L. off at at a friend's house, so I could get to my college's graduation ceremony by 8:00 am. I sat in cap and gown and watched the graduates receive their degrees one by one and I felt, as I always do on graduation day, both proud and also kind of old. It's always jarring to see students you taught their very first semester of college walk across the stage four, or five years later.

On my way back to my office after the ceremony I ran into an old student of mine and her mother. My student's face was radiant with pride and happiness. She introduced me to her mom, whose face was still twisted up with emotion--pride, joy, and there, mixed in, a little tinge of sadness, too.

"You must be so proud!" I told the mom.

"Oh I am," she said. "But my baby is moving on now, and my house will be so empty when she's gone."

As I walked away from my student and her mom it struck me: the quiet in my house this weekend? It was that kind of quiet--the kind we parents half-welcome, half-fear, half-dread--the quiet that will come when our children have truly grown, and flown the nest; spread their wings wide and soared off into the world.