Empty Nesting

Empty Nesting

By Karen Hilsberg

I remember. I look at the picture on the refrigerator. You’re smiling in a classroom with the days of the week posted on the corkboard behind you. Were you in the third grade then? No, fifth grade: a big kid, the last year of elementary school. I remember you wearing your hair long and curly, not wanting a haircut. In middle school you bleached your hair because you thought it was cool. I remember taking you to get your ear pierced at the mall and helping you clean it with hydrogen peroxide twice a day.


I remember how close I felt to you as an infant and what a relatively easy birth it was, even though the cord was wrapped around your neck, twice. I remember feeling satisfaction when I nursed you. You stopped nursing at seventeen months even though I wasn’t quite ready. I remember you sleeping for hours as I read novels. You loved Elmo, and we cuddled, watching Sesame Street while Emily was at preschool and Dad was at work.

I remember you said, “You can wipe your tears on me,” as you sat naked on my lap when Dad was dying. You didn’t want to sleep alone so I slept in your bed (or you slept in mine) for many, many years. My therapist assured me that you would eventually sleep alone. Eventually you did.

I remember waking you up every morning for school with my little refrain, “Wake-y wake up time! Wake-y wake up time!”

I remember attending family retreats at Deer Park for 14 years. At our first retreat, you were too young to participate in the children’s program, and this past summer, you were in the Wake Up group (ages 18-35) with your girlfriend and your three high school besties who wanted to learn more about Buddhism. You received the Two Promises when you were five years old and the Five Mindfulness Trainings when you were ten. A few years later, you were a Bar Mitzvah. I taught you that our Buddhist spiritual practices and Jewish root religion are beautiful fruits that nourish, heal and transform our lives. As Thay teaches, we do not have to commit to eating only one kind of fruit for the rest of our lives. I believe that faith, compassion, wisdom and ethical behavior permeate both of our traditions. We observe Shabbat, Passover, the High Holy Days and Hannukah. We practice mindful walking, sitting meditation, deep relaxation, beginning anew, listening to the bell and reciting the trainings.

I remember folding mindfulness practices into my parenting and making our home like the monastery. There is a whiteboard in the dining room with our daily schedule. We recite the five contemplations and enjoy meals together. We have assigned chores. I listen deeply and speak lovingly, except when I can’t. And when I can’t, I remove myself to breathe, walk, calm myself and look deeply at the causes of my anger, which are usually inside of me. I water your flowers and express my regrets, quickly apologizing when I am wrong.

I prioritize my own mindfulness practice knowing that it is the lifeboat that carries me safely to the other shore as a parent. I cut out things that aren’t essential.I say, “No,” ask for help, and take time for weekly sangha and regular days of mindfulness. I offer service to others, and I don’t think, “Poor me.” I look for what is right. I focus on today’s day. I make a gratitude list. I look deeply to see what to do and what not to do to offer safety and security. I practice the mindfulness trainings.

I remember teaching you the most important lesson I have learned from Thay: compassion. When I am hurt or offended by others, my habit energy is to take it personally. I have taught you what I learned. People who make other people suffer are suffering themselves. They need our compassion rather than our judgment. I repeated this in every teachable moment.

I remember when your friend did you wrong and I turned into mama bear, thinking only of protecting my cub. I asked you to reconsider being in a friendship where you were not treated with respect. “Mom,” you replied, “if we don’t teach my friend compassion, who will?” Hearing my teacher’s words coming out of my son’s mouth was a revelation. “You’re right,” I said. I’m grateful that you’ve learned this lesson and help me practice it, too.

The most important thing I can offer you is my true presence. I often say, “The door of my heart is always open to you.” I support your path and listen to what you want for your life, even when we have different ideas. Especially when we have different ideas, like about high school. You wanted to attend our local public school with your neighborhood friends. I wanted you to consider a high school for the performing arts or a private school, but I supported your choice. Lucky for us, it worked out beautifully.


I remember my anger after you graduated from high school. You were staying up late, sleeping in and playing computer games all day. I felt abandoned. Old feelings echoed back from when Bruce left home and didn’t come back, and from when my sister was born and I felt dropped. I told you to make your own bed, your own food, your own decisions. In our Beginning Anew practice, I said, “I am afraid you will never come home or need me again.”  You said, “I still need you to be my mom.” Leaving the nest was bringing up big feelings for us both. Sharing our truths helped us to connect and understand each other.

I remember when you got in trouble and lied to me, but I found out. I grounded you and told you, “You’ve lost my trust. I am not your friend. My job is to keep you safe.” You said you needed my friendship. You said you thought you could never lose my trust. I asked what you thought would happen when I found out. You said you didn’t think I ever would.

I remember how you carefully set about earning back my trust and, even though it took a long time, you did it. When I left home for a retreat in Santa Fe, I said, “Thank you for taking care of the house and the animals.” “Thank you for trusting me,” you replied.

I remember your move to college. You carefully put away your clothes, school supplies, toiletries, towels. I helped you make your bed with new, extra-long, twin sheets bought especially for your dorm room, but your mattress wasn’t extra-long, just a regular twin.

I felt a pang of grief as I walked back to the car with the empty suitcase after you unpacked. I ate lunch with my dad in the dining hall because you had plans to eat with your new roommates. I hugged and kissed you when we said goodbye, and I remember your text a few hours later saying, “I love you and I miss you already.”

I remember hoping that I could be a “good-enough” mother. When we celebrated your 18th birthday, I marveled at what a good person you are and how much we still enjoy being together. I am grateful. Grateful and relieved.

Now, I remember the freedom of living alone and doing what I want to do, when I want to do it. I am enjoying the privacy and the silence. I have time to practice, study, read, write, paint, garden. The house is neater with just one person in it. I am coming home to myself and remembering who I am.


About Karen Hilsberg
Karen Hilsberg is a student of the Venerables Thich Nhat Hanh and Thich Phuoc Tinh; a co-founder of Organic Garden Sangha; and a lay Dharma Teacher living in Culver City, California. Her daughter is in her third year at City College majoring in special education and her son is in his first year at University of California majoring in computer sciences.




1 thought on “Empty Nesting”

  • An honest and moving account of how sometimes kids help their parents to keep growing up too. With the courage to express her own personhood, Karen reveals to us our own childhood is never really “finished.” I know I will be back to re-read and learn from this piece many times over. Thank You for posting.

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