I love companionable silence. Sometimes it’s what I do best. When I worked in the hospital I welcomed the drive home. If I drove in complete silence by the time I was home I could usually civilly interact with other humans. My taciturn streak bothered my ex-husband and he always assumed I was angry about something if I wasn’t nattering on or engaging in conversation. Chances are I wasn’t angry until he pestered me about my silence. My older son requires a little more engagement but my younger son and I can spend an evening “together” locked in our own thoughts and concerns, watching two different movies or reading two different books, without speaking to one another and yet we claim to have spent the evening together. It’s like we never left the “parallel play” stage. I prefer people who are not extroverted and demand a lot of attention.
A few of my friends weren’t ready for the empty nest like I was. Admittedly my nest was always half empty due to shared custody. For the first seven years after the divorce it was just my sons and I so I had days to myself. But it wasn’t the same because my sons’ had a presence in my house even if they weren’t at home. Now my sons have absolutely no presence in my home and they are like visitors when they stay with me.
I tried to explain feeling isolated to my oldest friend and she suggested I was lonely. But it’s not loneliness. Loneliness is a lack of meaningful human connection. I’m fortunate that isn’t the case because although I don’t have a huge circle of immediate friends, I have just enough. All I would have to do is text Mr. and Mrs. B and ask “Can I stop by?” with the answer being “of course” nine times out of ten.
Winter punctuates the isolation because I’ve always hated leaving my nest of a house and venturing into the bitter cold. The dark settles in early, too. My lights must be on by five during January or I am sitting in the dark. This hunkering down in winter has never felt isolating like it has this winter. I believe it’s because for the first time in almost 30 years I live alone.
This isolation feels dangerous for me because of my history with depression. That gray monster is always just on the other side of my back gate and during winter she waves and beckons at me to join her. It would be so easy to succumb to her and the best way I can avoid another dance is acknowledging her as a once powerful force in my life and not isolating myself against winter’s dark and chilly temperatures.
I know I’m not alone in this isolation versus loneliness. I believe many empty nesters misidentify isolation for loneliness. We spend over eighteen years herding children and are mostly consumed by their needs and existence. We become His Mother rather than our given name. Once those children are young people and gone a huge part of our identity might be packed up and away at college or in a new place with our offspring. All that noise and chatter filled our heads and hearts and we didn’t have time to be lonely. But I did and I found that period of my life–home with small children–the loneliest period. Perhaps that loneliness was more artifact of marriage to the wrong person. But no matter the root cause I was very lonely as a young mother. The cycle of domestic work being done and undone was not enough for me. I found little satisfaction in it. Despite a life that was hardly isolated, I was lonely. The memory of that is devastatingly sad and I don’t like to dwell in that place. When I am weighed down by that thirty-something woman I imagine hugging and holding her, whispering: “Wait, wait, this isn’t all there is. I promise.” Some of us recover and nurture our inner child, me it’s my inner thirty five year old.
Now the trick is balancing isolation against engagement. I think I’m learning this balance because if I find myself getting weird and peevish after a long stint of being alone, I make myself phone a friend or make plans with someone. Just having plans with another human is rescue enough. On the flipside, if I need to be alone I can easily back away from my beautiful humans and rest in my thoughts and have “bachelor moments”.