Empty Nest 1.0: That Feeling When All of Your Kids Are in School – and You’re at Home

A stay-at-home dad prepares for empty nest syndrome as his daughters all head to the same school with the same schedule, for the first time.

In September, all three of my daughters will be in school for the same hours Monday through Friday. It will be the first of only two years in their lives where they will all be in the same school building and on the same schedule.

I can’t wait.

For me it means more productive work days – I’ll gain at least an hour at the end of every day not having to do two school pick-ups in two separate places.

But I’ve also been thinking about some of the other changes that are ahead.

I was a teacher for about a decade. During my teaching career all three of our children were born, and when they were little and we were home together all summer, it became harder and harder for me to switch back into school mode every September.

As they grew older and went to school themselves, there was a shared element of the back-to-school season and the September transition became less difficult. That’s what I convinced myself of, anyway.

Then I stopped teaching and began working from home. That presented me with a different type of end-of-summer blues as I watched my daughters go off to school, leaving me behind.

Except for Thursdays. For the past couple of years that I’ve been home my youngest daughter has been home with me on Thursdays. Some days she is content to play by herself and I can try to get some work done, but I know I’m not likely to get much done when she’s home.

So Thursday has been the day I’ve scheduled chores. Thursday is the day we’ve usually done our weekly trip to the grocery store. If there’s a birthday gift to buy or cards to send, Thursday is the day we’ll do it. Waiting in line at the post office isn’t so bad when you have a four-year-old to chat with. Sometimes we’ll sneak off to a playground or hang out in a coffee shop or walk through a toy store just because.

Now I’ll drop all three girls off at school every day and have the whole day to myself. Part of me will really enjoy that. But part of me will miss my once-weekly companion.

Maybe I’ll still go to the grocery store on Thursday. (That is the last day before the new weekly circular deals take effect, after all.) I could still run errands, but I don’t have to commit to any one day to do it. I’ll probably have to stop browsing the toy stores “just because.”

I guess it’s good practice for down the road when the girls move out and my wife and I become empty nesters. At least I’ll know next year that the nest will only be empty for about six hours every day before everyone comes back home. But I haven’t been thinking too much about next year yet.

For now, I’ve avoided scheduling anything on Thursdays since about mid-May. I’ve tried to take advantage of these last few Thursdays where it’s just me and my four-year-old. (I know she’ll be five soon, but I’ll hold onto four for as long as I can.)

I’ve watched her play. We’ve napped on the couch. We went to the grocery store. And one toy store.

This year we changed pre-schools to expose our daughter to a model that will more closely replicate the routines she can expect in kindergarten next year to ease her adjustment. It’s been great.

She’ll be fine.

But I’m not sure how long it will take me to adjust.

Where’s The Pause Button?

I worry that too soon my little girls won’t be little anymore. But there is so much to look forward to between now and then, so many activities to enjoy.

Softball season just started.

I can’t wait for it to be over.

Well, that’s not entirely true.

It’s just that every new season brings with it a new set of routines. And once I settle into a routine, it’s hard for me to adjust to a new one.

Our kids aren’t over-scheduled. They’re just scheduled. There’s still time on the weekends for bike riding and Lego-playing and no one’s running out of time to complete their homework.

There’s a piano lesson here, dance classes there.

In the fall there was soccer. In the summer there will be day camp.

Now, it’s softball time. All of this is their choice – we’re big believers in not forcing any of our three daughters to participate in activities they don’t want to. And as much as I know I do better when I have a set schedule, I also know that many children (mine included) thrive on routine.

But my kids get excited when the seasons change, because they have a chance to start something new with a new group of friends. (Perhaps the social anxiety about meeting that new group of friends’ parents on the sidelines is one of my aversions to routine-changing…but that’s a story for another day.)

Already there are hints that next year might be different: perhaps more softball in the fall instead of soccer. I know dance never falls on the same day and time from year to year.

So part of me wants softball to be over already so we can relax a little in summer mode before we have to start all over again with a new routine in the fall.

Which leads me, as I clear away the snowpants and boots (speaking of routine changes, didn’t love having to use those in April this year), to think about when we brought them out and put away the soccer equipment at the end of the fall.

I remember, as the game day mornings turned colder in November, how I couldn’t wait for soccer season to end and for the sports season break the winter would bring.

Then I remember how I looked forward to the start of the fall. Less unstructured time for the kids, and if we’re being honest, more structured work time for me. Defined work hours (when the kids were in school) and less distractions (baseball season would be over).

And on and on it goes.

My oldest daughter will turn ten years old in the fall.

The fall of 2006 does not seem all that long ago.

I remember how much I enjoyed snuggling with the baby, but wondered what it would be like when she could talk and walk.

Then I wondered what it would be like when she could carry on a conversation. Then I wondered what it would be like when she started school. The same goes for her little sisters.

And I looked forward to the day when they would be more independent. And they would want to participate in different activities.

Like softball.

I worry that too soon it will be the fall of 2026 and my little girls won’t be little anymore.

There is so much to look forward to between now and then, so many routines still to be upset, so many activities to sit and enjoy.

Because that’s the thing about soccer season or softball season or piano or dance recitals.

Once the running from here to there has stopped and I’m watching my girls participate in whatever activity they’ve chosen, I love it.

I like seeing the joy on their faces.

I like seeing them with their friends. (And I’m getting better at making friends of my own on the sidelines.)

I hope they’re making memories they’ll treasure down the road.

I know I’ll treasure the memories of seeing them so happy.

Because I know it’ll go by fast.

I hope softball season never ends.

April Fool’s Day: A Parent’s Lament

I used to love April Fool’s Day. But after I became a teacher and a parent, I found myself removed from the role of prankster. I had become the prankstee.

I used to love April Fool’s Day.

When I was growing up I couldn’t stand the wait for April 1st.

On April 1st my family couldn’t stand me.

I pulled so many pranks on my siblings and my parents that they expected it, so it became an added challenge to not just think of a creative idea, but to then carry it out.

I quite literally had to get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on my old man. Either that or race home from school so I could set something up before my brother or sister got home.

After I became a teacher, I found myself further removed from the position of prankster. I had become the prankstee, so to speak.

A highlight was when I taped my sister’s phone to the ceiling. (Bragging about this to my daughters recently they assumed that when I said “phone” I meant something like an iPhone. I had to explain the phone was attached to the wall by a wire and it was heavy, so it didn’t stay up there too long. In retrospect, that prank might play better nowadays with the smaller phones.)

But as I got older my desire to pull a prank went away. And after I became a teacher, I found myself further removed from the position of prankster. I had become the prankstee, so to speak.

You never want to call a child in your class a liar, but April Fool’s Day turned into a day where I went against every teaching instinct I had. I turned a deaf ear to the protestations of the identical twins who claimed they weren’t pretending to be the other sibling. To this day I’m still not sure I was right. I was unsympathetic to the child who came limping in after recess complaining of an injury. Maybe she was hurt, but the five limpers before her who started running after passing me and shouting “April Fool’s!” made me less likely to believe the sixth.

Prank Eyes

Then, of course, there were the props that were either brought in or threatened to be brought in on April Fool’s Day. (“No, I do not think it would be funny if you left fake vomit on the lunchroom floor.”)

And now my daughters have reached that age where they have started to make “TOP SECRET!” lists where they’ve brainstormed possible pranks.

Home used to be my sanctuary on April Fool’s Day – a safe space where I knew I won after a long day of prank-dodging at school. At least until next year.

The best years were when I could spend a prank-free day at home if April Fool’s fell on a Saturday.

When I left my teaching career a few of the highlights included not having to prepare to write report cards, schedule parent conferences, or worry about what day of the week April 1st fell on the calendar.

Now it didn’t matter if it was on a weekend, because the prank could come from inside the house!

I’m not sure what the kids have planned this year. (The paper is “TOP SECRET!” after all, and they only let me see a fake prank list that led me to believe they were going to drink grape juice and pretend it was wine.) But they’ve been whispering about Polyjuice Potion, so maybe they’ll try to convince my wife and me they’re really one girl pretending to be the other, as though they prepared and drank the Harry Potter concoction.

Which could be fun – it’s pretty clever.

Which makes me kind of proud…because they certainly didn’t get the prank gene from their mother.

And I have to admit – I did enjoy the collaborative aspects of the school pranks. Like the time the fifth and sixth grades switched classrooms on the morning of April 1st a few years ago.

They walked into the “wrong” classrooms that day pretending like it was normal.

And I think I enjoyed it even more when, after we caught wind that it might happen, the teachers pretended like nothing was unusual and started the teaching day with the “wrong” class.

I guess I still have a soft spot in my heart for a harmless April Fool’s prank.

And my wife’s cell phone isn’t going to tape itself to the ceiling…

An Open Letter To My Daughters About Why I’m Writing About Them

If I’m writing honestly about myself, I’m writing honestly about you. That’s just the way it is, because it’s how much you mean to me.

To My Daughters About Whom I’m Writing Again,

At some point you’re going to be exploring the internet on your own and you’re going to come across some stuff I wrote. You will, first and foremost I’m sure, be impressed and proud. Dad can write!

Then you will think to yourself, “Oh, he really was working all those days he spent at home when we were in school.” And then you’re going to think to yourself, “Wait a second. These essays are all about us. I didn’t sign off on that.”

Allow me to explain myself.

You are my world. This sounds a little cliché, but the three of you are my world. My best writing comes from writing about what I know. And what I know best is you. A decade ago all I wrote about was baseball and football. That was pretty much all I knew then. I don’t know as much about those things anymore. I’m not complaining (well, maybe just a little), but you’ve been a happy distraction from my old passions.

Also, if I’m writing honestly about myself, I’m writing honestly about you. That’s just the way it is, because it’s how much you mean to me.

I’m a parent because of you. A lot of my writing deals with my experiences as a parent, and I can’t write about my experiences as a parent without writing about my children.

You’re the only reason I know anything about parenting, and why I need to know all the things about parenting that I don’t yet know. (Are you teenagers yet? How’s that going? What’s that? No, I meant for me. How’s that going for me?)

I write and share so much about our lives because I hope that the readers have similar experiences and can relate or learn from us. Think of the service you’ve provided over the years through my words!

You provide good material. Listen: sometimes you do things that drive me nuts. Writing can be therapeutic for me, and the fact that other people want to read it, well that’s just gravy. But on the other hand, sometimes you do things that make me so darn proud that I just want to shout about it to the world. Or you do things that are just too cute to keep to myself. And, like I said before, your material is my material. If you did something on vacation, well, that’s our vacation story. Our experiences are pretty much one and the same at this point in our lives.

I was touched the day you said you looked forward to baseball season. The fact that something that means so much to me means something to you – I had to write about it.

I learned so much about myself as a parent helping you to learn how to ride a bike without training wheels that I had to share what we went through, hoping that our experiences, both as teacher and as student, would help other parents going through the same thing.

And I’m sorry I told the world about our shared fear of Santa Claus, but I think I came out of that one looking a little bit sillier than any of you.

I hope someday you’ll read all of these stories and realize they come from a place of love. Well, that, and the fact that someone has to pay for the groceries. But mostly love. Thanks for understanding. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to write a similar letter to your mother.

Love, Dad

Letting My Daughter Fail

Here I was faced with that decision, no longer with a foot in both the parenting and the education world. I was one hundred percent parent. I could help prevent my child from having a bad day. But I resisted.

One recent Monday morning I was talking to the other parents at drop-off near my first grader’s line outside of school.

One of them asked, “Did they have to bring in a picture of a polar bear or something today?”

The bell rang, the kids made their way inside, and I felt sick. A week earlier my daughter had come home saying she needed to bring in a picture of an animal from the Arctic for an art class project. Our printer wasn’t working, so I told my daughter to remind me later in the week and we’d figure out an alternate way to get her a picture.

And then I forgot all about it.

So had she.

Mondays are already a tough day for drop-off. There’s a productive element to it, where I know as soon as the kids are on their way into the school, I have six hours of productivity ahead of me. (In theory.)

But there’s a sadness mixed in as well. I don’t like losing my weekend pals and digging into the work week. I sometimes feel as sad as I did when I was a kid on Monday morning heading into school after a weekend at home with my family. That feeling gets worse on mornings where we have a bad drop-off – either there’s an argument about what clothes to wear, or whether my daughter needs to put on a jacket, or no you may not bring that candy bar as a snack.

Or, I now knew, when someone forgets an assignment. Except in this case, I was the only one having a bad drop-off. My daughter wouldn’t figure it out until she got to art class, I supposed.

I knew there was one possible solution that could save my day. It’s just that it was something I had promised myself I would never do.

I could drop off a picture of a polar bear.

I was a fifth grade teacher for ten years. We assigned homework, and you might be surprised how seriously most of my fifth graders took their homework assignments. (You might also be surprised how often some fifth graders blew off their homework assignment, but that’s a story for another day.)

Every year a responsible child would forget to bring in his or her completed homework, and the only rule in this case was that the students had to take responsibility and tell the teacher what happened. Our response would be for the student to bring the homework in the next day. (Unless this became a pattern, in which case different consequences would be put in place.)

It was never a big deal. In fact, I didn’t mind when a student forgot to bring something in to school once or twice. It may have affected my grading an assignment by a day, and I didn’t like that break in my routine, but I always knew the offending student would learn more from the experience of forgetting than anything else.

A similar situation would present itself more often every year. A student would tell me they forgot their homework, and then it would magically appear in their cubby sometime after lunch. Or a student who forgot to bring in their athletics clothes for gym class would take the necessary steps to find a loaner outfit, only to be greeted by their parent’s face popping into the doorway window during language arts class, holding a pair of sneakers up for all to see.

I would look at these parents and think that, while I knew they were acting out of love for their child, they weren’t helping the child at all. Sometimes we talked about it at parent conferences, and they took a step back and let their child fail occasionally.

Sometimes they didn’t.

I tried not to judge, but I vowed I would never be that parent, which is easy to say. It’s another thing to carry out that promise.

Here I was faced with that decision, no longer with a foot in both the parenting and the education world. I was one hundred percent parent. I could help prevent my child from having a bad day.

But I resisted.

I want my kids to learn how to fail. I want them to bounce back and do better the next time. I dealt with the pit in my stomach and felt it get smaller and smaller throughout the day. It would be a learning experience, and we’d be better for it.

What I didn’t expect was that I’d be learning about responsibility from my daughter.
There were no tears when my first grader emerged from school at pick up time. When we got home, I worked up the courage to ask her how art class went.

“It was great!” she said.

I apologized for not remembering about the picture of the animal.

“That’s OK!” she told me, triumphantly holding up Eric Carle’s Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You See?

“I remembered this morning before we left for school. I think you were in the bathroom, so I just brought this book to school because it has a picture of a polar bear in it!”