Bellwether Vance

Hounds to the Left of me/Jokers to the Right

Bellwether Vance

Bellwether Vance
December 31
You'd like me. People like me.


Editor’s Pick
MARCH 4, 2013 11:10PM

The Empty Next

Rate: 54 Flag

I’m reading James Patterson’s newest novel. Lately, his books have been written by a sock puppet on the paw of the world’s dumbest Irish Setter.  My reading material should give you insight as to where I am right now, how my brain feels starchy, like it’s full of mashed potatoes, and how I’ve been craving mashed potatoes. I want forgettable books and boring food. I want to be nothing more or less than comfortable, an easy goal.

 I don’t yet recognize myself in the medication commercials. I’m not a sad doll surrounded by rain clouds and dogs with worried eyebrows. No, I’m not depressed, exactly. I’m merely tater-headed, and I’ve been that before.

 At each unexpected turn in my life I’ve gone to ground for a while and unearthed myself later in a reinvented form.  This time the turn was expected and at times anticipated. I knew my children would grow up, and that (fingers crossed), I would not forever be spooning oatmeal into their gaping mouths, unpacking fetid lunchboxes and sitting through interminable school performances. (Can we all agree that recorders are the devil’s instrument?) I knew they would go, and wanted them to go – to follow their dreams, pursue adventure – but I didn’t fully grasp the leap from go to gone, or how being left would feel.

 A little over a year ago, my son went on what was supposed to be a rather short sail across the South Pacific; he landed in New Zealand nine months later after thrilling and chilling us with his experiences. Now he’s in Australia and will be there for several years as he pursues a technical engineering degree.

 In September, my daughter followed her graduate student boyfriend to Oregon. She is just about as far from me as she can be while still remaining in the lower forty-eight. The night before she left, I stayed at her apartment and helped her pack. I slept, or didn’t sleep, on her loveseat, curled uncomfortably, and wondered why she got the full-length sofa.  I remembered, Oh yeah, because I love her more than she loves me and it will always be this way. I took her to the airport early the next morning and held it together until it was time for her to enter the secure area.  Then I began sobbing, loud and ugly.  Caterwauling. Mascara and snot. The security guard was embarrassed for me. His empathetic face contorted to mirror my meltdown, so I saw it all.

 Upstairs, I moped through their bedrooms, running my hands over the damaged walls in my son’s room where posters had been pinned, smiling at the hidey hole he’d carved into the closet wall. (I can’t imagine what he hid in there; there’s nothing in there now; I checked.) I tucked myself into my daughter’s bed, but the scent of her was gone. She hadn’t slept there in ages.  I didn’t always appreciate the periodic sweetness of their childhood years, and in hindsight it all seemed sweet and unappreciated and justly taken away. Which is ridiculous, I know. My children were perfect assholes at times.


 Young'uns in the cul-de-sac. The Sweetness.


 I thought maybe what I needed was a clean slate, to create a space from which they were not missing, and I tore apart the entire upstairs, including the bathroom. For a week the toilet was on a dolly in the hall while I replaced the flooring.  I wore myself out, and when it was all finished, clean and new, I wished I had left some things alone.  


I painted over this.


 Turns out, you can’t paint over missing.

 While in the thick of child-rearing, I told myself I was a mother, not a mommy.  I hoped by making that distinction I’d raise children who were independent and fearless, or as fearless as they could be with me as their mother. I also hoped to keep enough of myself apart from them that I’d have some me to fall back on when they took off.  At least I succeeded spectacularly with the first part.

 I’m resentful of my husband’s lazy acceptance of our change in circumstance.  Sometimes he’s downright delighted with our childless home – More lasagna for me! His life hasn’t changed substantially. In our case, fatherhood never intruded into his life, his routine, the way it did into mine. Although he loves our kids and is a great father, he simply never committed to it the same way I did – probably because he didn’t have to. He doesn’t understand how motherhood changed my life irrevocably. The things I gave away. The things my children took from me as their birthright.  (Just because I don’t regret it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.) Now I don’t know if I have the stuff necessary to reinvent myself yet again, and I can’t help but think of my empty nest as the empty next.

 In 9th grade botany, we learned that a potato is not a root. It’s a specialized underground stem. A useless fact, unless you’re tater-headed. Then, the distinction is encouraging.  Perhaps it’s possible to be -- or to become -- mother and not mommy. Maybe I’m not rooted in this gloomy place, and when I’m done with James Patterson and the bland diet, I’ll start sprouting, green and strong. Excited about what’s next.

 In the meantime, the microwave just dinged. My potato is ready.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I don't like to criticize other authors, but -- seriously -- James Patterson (and his ghostwriters) have started drinking pretty early. I admire that. Thanks to my library, I don't pay for that.
This is achingly brilliant. You are not alone.
I get preternaturally excited when I see your avatar in my 'read me' column. I'm glad to know that after I go and do that, there's a rational reason for my Pavlovian behavior. You have my vote on recorders but not James Patterson -- he of the sock-footed dog and now, day drinking. Thank doG for the Library.
So many months away, yet you haven't lost your touch.

Toss Patterson aside. Pick up Tana French.
It's been too long since you posted here Bell, though with the site difficulties many others steered clear. Charming and wistful account here. With your talents at expression and insight I'm sure that reinvention is well within your powers.
You'll get through this but please know you're not alone. You've described your chosen role, your willful emersion in motherhood, your pain and shock at their inevitable breaking away with intensity, humor and just such excellent writing I was right there with you. I'm still here with me and even after ten years, our nest will never seem as complete as it should be... the ultimate result of having given them life. Hang in there.
It's soooooo cool to see a new post from you!!!! BUT I wish it were one full of glad tidings (at the very least, I wish you were reading a book that made you happy...). This is such a lovely, eloquent, honest, and insightful look into what you've been going through. I wish I had some words of wisdom or experience to offer, but I don't. It's great that in looking to the humble potato for inspiration, it seems you've found the answer: You'll soon blossom again. ....Can potatoes blossom, or is "sprout" the only word? I've heard "potato blossom" before but I think it might have been an appetizer somewhere - but "blossom" is the word I want to use for you - all of your energy, wit, intelligence, and passion, bursting beautifully forth. I know it will happen, just as you know. Wishing you all the best and glad to read you again.
I have missed you and your writing like crazy.
You know this touches every fiber of my being. I understand every single word.
This: " At each unexpected turn in my life I’ve gone to ground for a while and unearthed myself later in a reinvented form."
And this: "I remembered, Oh yeah, because I love her more than she loves me and it will always be this way"
Yes. Me too. All of it. xox
Brilliant piece, Bellwether. Congratulations, they are launched. While, as you say, you will never be done with motherhood, the mothering is done. Whole new challenges of parenting and grandparenting awai,t but the daily grind is over. Once you and hubbie are through the sex anytime, anywhere in the house phase, you will find yourselves on the way to a deeper, closer relationship. So wash down that spud with a little champagne, toss another Patterson on the fire, and cuddle up with the old man. R
The only thing I admire about james patterson is his relentless self promotion on TV.. wish I had the nerve to do that.
Other than that there is no one her either anymore and all I get are pictured of dogs from them.
I am over the melancholy now.. I have my own hidey hole. Time to start anew for myself.. loved this..
1. "The Empty Next" could be the title of your new book.
2. You are by FAR, so definitely in another category, in my humble opinion, the finest writer on this site. I have forwarded links to your posts to students, and re-read a few (the one about the lace nightgown) multiple times.
3. I love to read you so much, I'll log into this forsaken shadow of what once was a site to enjoy, just for the delight and insight of reading you.
4. You produced two amazing brand new people, so thank you.
5. James Paterson needs to watch his bum, because you'd gain the stomple on him so fast, should you ever decide to run.
6. If not, the potato recipes are still enough!
unimportant, but i so so love how you write.

i dont envy you empty nest, as much as, sometimes i DO crave that day coming for me. i have a vague notion of how unsettling it will be.

but i have no doubt you will wallow for a spell, and then thrive, bell. love and hugs to you.
Gluing my finger to the rating button here. Bell, it's good to you back and in fine form. James Patterson and his dipsomaniac ghostwriters should count themselves lucky to be part of this sweet and funny essay.
Oh my goodness. You've so lucidly captured my own feelings about motherhood and my fears about what comes after: "Now I don’t know if I have the stuff necessary to reinvent myself yet again, and I can’t help but think of my empty nest as the empty next."

I still have younger ones, but not so young anymore (12 & 14) and I don't know how I'm going to be when they don't need - or want - me.

You speak for me and so many other women who may be wondering the unthinkable. Did I maybe invest too much of my identity in this because I still get a shiver of excitement when I hear the words "play date."

Tater-headed. Perfect.

I've never read James Patterson but something tells me you're a lot more interesting.
Oh boy.

At some point I hope you begin to enjoy the freedom more than you feel the loss. And easy on the potatoes...
I needed to read your eloquent post this morning and I thank you for writing it.
Thank you for this, even though you made me weep. I'm not quite there yet, but I see this in my not-too-distant future. The only thing I can think is "and then what?" I'm glad that I have smart, sensitive women like you to pave the path for me. Maybe then it won't hurt as much.
We raise them to go but when they do we look back and wonder what we did wrong that they left...I get this so very clearly. Now I know I am a tator head :)
Happy happy day! So glad you have decided once more to grace this place. Loved this. Especially the hot pic of the young uns. Sweetness is right! I have a solution: Be my adoptive mom. Freaky, I know, cause I'm as old as you but.... I need two mothers, mija. As you know, you are nearby now, give it a consideration. So glad you see you and read your funny and fabulous prose.
You're back! You're back! I've missed you!

I'm kind of glad I won't have to go through this. (And even if I did, I don't think I'd be able to write about this beautifully.)
Hi Bell :D seeing you at the top of my right feed made my day, and we all know it is all about me.
So yes, I clicked immediately, and now my face is contorting like the security guard, in empathy, but no mascara and snot thankfully. I refuse to believe your children were ever assholes, but if they truly were, at least they were perfect. I caterwauled too when my son left, about two minutes after he turned eighteen. Nothing like a mother's pain though, a mother's love (never returned in equal parts.. sigh). Fathers, like me and your husband, get over it much easier I think. I had double lasagna last night.
I am so with you on this. It doesn't seem to matter what I do to those rooms--they still need a kid in them. And, yet, I don't want to go back to being mom all of the time. I just wish to return to revel in my chosen memories and drink it up in ways I couldn't when I was in it. And, yes, I think JP is on the drink pretty early in the day now--and good for him for figuring a way to do it!
Fabulously framed and I felt it deeply in my heart. I have been lucky enough to have a son who is in university right here in town so he lives here and I still receive spine cracking hugs, and "Mom are you awake?" three o'clock in the morning requests for chit-chat or reading aloud from the Collected Works of Shakespeare. My daughter, however, is going away to university next year. She can be a completely nasty judgmental little harpy adept at pushing just the right nuclear button that will launch me into the stratosphere; after which we kill a carton of fudge ripple together and watch comedies on TV...I think I am going to go to pieces when they both go out into the world...
Oh, yes the potato will sprout... When my youngest daughter left home I was shocked at how much I could cry. That was three years ago and it is better but still when she comes home and then leaves I still cry but not so long. Then I shake myself out of it and find something to do. I totally get the potato head thing. I was a marshmallow fluff head myself for at least a year. I would still have become a mother if I had it to do all over again but could I have done things to make it easier? I don't think so. Great post.
Read and very much appreciated.
As always, your writing is beautifully evocative, and triggers such a fondness.
When I had my first child, I started preparing myself for the time when he had a life of his own. Sometime around the age of 12, I recognized that my bachelor uncle, who never left home, and lived with his mother until she died, had such a sad and abbreviated life experience. I knew then that if I ever had children, it would be far sadder to keep them with me, than see them leave. Now they are in three different states, none of them where I live, and I'm ok and pretty well prepared until I realize what I'm missing in their children's lives.
Never did understand the fondness for Patterson, though I read one that was tolerable.
zoeker -- I figured I wasn't alone. Thanks for your encouraging word.

Gabby -- I'm off to read your latest in a minute...

Stim -- I've read all of Tana French's offerings. She's too smart a writer for me right now!

Abrawang -- Fingers crossed, I'll be up for another.

Sally -- I'm hanging. :)

Alysa -- Good to see you around these parts too.

Joan -- You're going through what I am, I know.

Gerald -- My husband will love your advice.

Linda -- It's good to know that the melancholy passes.

Greenheron -- Your sweet words are a balm to my doubting soul. I needed that pep talk so very badly.

daisy -- I craved it too, which makes my feelings very odd! I thought I'd get to skip all this.

Lucy -- Thanks Lucy! It's good to see your "face" in the feed.

Margaret -- Enjoy these years. I had those same worries and thought I had it all figured out. Yeah right!

Myrid -- No potatoes on the menu tonight.

Miguela -- Thank you. (I feel like I'm at a reunion, seeing everyone!)

Lisa -- "...and then what?" When I know the answer I'll get back to you.

Lunchlady -- Yeah, are they flying or fleeing?

Fernsy -- I think you hit the jackpot with your mom. I'd be a disappointment.

Jeanette -- Childlessness has many perks, and this is certainly one! Plus you never had to sit through an elementary school talent show.

Trig -- I've read all of your pieces about your son and his adventures and I know you'd give up all the lasagna to have him back at your house right now.

Drema -- That's a good way to put it -- those rooms need a kid in them. That's what they are THERE for.

Linda -- Lucky duck! I felt lucky that my son graduated and came back to the area and my daughter was at school only an hour or so away. Since I live so close to my parents and my husband lives close to his, I guess I thought they'd stay close to home. I'm glad they didn't feel the need to stay and that they are truly spreading their wings. But, I'm in pieces.

Gayla -- I now know what I need for dessert after my potato -- marshmallow fluff. I don't think you can prevent these feelings or do anything in advance to make sure they don't happen. I just want to get through to the other side.

Sophieh -- Sophieh! Thanks for the read and rate and for appearing here.

Sue -- I thought of you when I was writing this. You're an inspiration and proof that this does pass.
How does it feel to publish a non EP piece Bell? Jake must have had a flat tire on his scooter this morning.
...and lovely to see you back on the cover. xox
Trig -- I was about to say, "Way to kick a girl when she's down." But -- look! You were my good luck charm. (Maybe you'll get an E Pee for your pissing post.)

Thanks Joan. It's been great catching up with everyone and feeling the love. I needed it.
I am available for adoption.



As freaking IF!!!
i'm laughing that ^ trig commented right before jake woke up and EP'ed your piece. he (jake) probably waited for trig's comment to do it, just to be mean. plus ça change, ya know.

excellent piece, bell. and i'll join the chorus of people who miss your writing. i'm with your husband on the kids-gone thing though not for the same reason (since i was the only parent). the quiet is lovely. and having a child in a lovely place far away means you have frequent travel fun to look forward to. you will cry and mix mascara and snot every time you head home or they head back, though, so you have that to look forward to as a constant. nice to see you.
Thanks to Joan H. putting this on fb, I caught it. Wowza. You hit the ball out of the park again. I know a little of what you are feeling too, having three in launch process. I love your writing.
A friend would tell you that soon you will not feel this way. But a true friend like me will have to tell you the truth: though my son is in his 40s, every time he comes here and leaves again, I go through the emptiness. The good news is I get over it much faster than I used to. This is a stellar piece that deserves to bear your name.

Bellwether Vance,

It seems like you have already started sprouting right here with this post.
So nice to read you. I am worried because I don't feel this way and never have.
"Turns out, you can’t paint over missing." Best line I've read in quite a while.

I've got a newly empty nest - one month and counting - but the emptiness seems more manageable because both daughters are within an hour of home.

Patterson lives in my town. If I meet him, I'll tell him what you think of him. Then I'll tell him to read your beautifully written essay and hope it inspires him to up his game.
Quite poignant and lovely.
My thoughts mirror yours, I am going through the very same thing. It feels like everyone has run away from home and they forgot to take me. I guess it is time for my husband and I to consider running away.
It's true that you can't paint over missing, but you can find that your canvas just rolled open and it turns out that there's so much more to do and so much more to be.

Now, I will make you feel just an eentsy little bit better and disclose that I am writing this while HIDING in the sun room of my house because MY children are sitting amongst their dirty dishes and skewed pillows in our living room. They are fighting every fifty two and a half seconds and the seven year old has run through here twice exclaiming that her older sister "is going to kill her unless she disappears."

Australia huh? I'm fairly sure that at least one of mine will return like a boomerang!
Totally get this.. "hoped by making that distinction I’d raise children who were independent and fearless, or as fearless as they could be with me as their mother. I also hoped to keep enough of myself apart from them that I’d have some me to fall back on when they took off".

The thing is, I saved nothing of myself aside. I don't for a minute wish that I had. But now, I have to start figuring out how I can be independent, like they are. Fortunately, I'm fearless. Just a little lonely right now.
It's good to see you back, Ms. Bellwether Vance! The sweetness, oh my goodness, yes...that photo sure captures it. (That little arm, that determined posture!) You did a great job, Mama. Before you know it, one day they'll be back in your kitchen, eating all your food, telling you all their stories.
I caught this on Facebook too and I'm so happy I did. I have three twentysomethings living with me now, but I know they will be outta here in blink like their older sister. I think I'll have to move really far away. A new toilet will not do it for me. /R
I just love those pictures of babies.
That is why we do it. They are so darned cute!

I could sit and read any page with baby pictures :+
Larry -- You'll have to get behind a long line of unadoptable dogs. The good news is that I'm apparently drawn toward the unadoptable. I might one day get to you.

Trig -- It would be funny if that piece got an "E Pee." It could be a whole new category of OS.

Femme -- It's good to hear stories from the other side. I am hopeful.

Sheila -- I hope you'll write about the launching.

Seer -- I've really enjoyed reading the posts of those writers who've gone through this and apparently thrived. I'm glad this post urged them to write about their own positive experiences.

Lezlie -- I always count on you to give it to me straight. I figure I won't ever be one to be all cavalier about their comings and goings. I just want to be less fraught. Sounds like I'll get there.

Thingish -- I hoped it would help. It has.

Zanelle -- I read your excellent piece regarding the same subject. There probably isn't a right or wrong way to feel. I think I might feel a bit better if my kids were within driving distance. Having them SO far away feels somehow permanent in a way that driving distance doesn't.

Cuss -- I actually really liked his earlier works (the books he wrote by himself). It's just the latest ones. Oy! I couldn't even get through the one about the olympics it was so so so silly. I read silly books on my treadmill because I can't be hopping up and down while reading serious stuff, but that one was too much.

Mary -- Thank you.

Vanessa -- Everyone kept telling me to prepare for a boomerang. That's why I didn't feel upset when they left. I thought they'd be back. I was wrong.

Emily -- Being an anxious sort, I so admire fearless people. The possibilities blossom far faster for your kind. I'm probably years behind you.

Clay -- SO wonderful to see your little ball avatar! I love that picture so much because it's not a portrait. It just captures the pudgy, forming character of all the kids on our block at the time.

nilesite -- I would have preferred to be out of here. I'm anchored by family. It complicates things. But would I really go? I'm not sure.

Judith -- Me too. I work with young children and I get to listen on as young mothers talk. At this point, it's like listening to a foreign language, but I still find it comforting.
Wow! An intriguing read and a wonderful post; beautifully done, BV. What a comeback. R
This is stunningly real and pulled at my heart every which way but Sunday. Cuz Sunday is the Lord's day, so all the rest. Capital Loved this post! So deserved an EP.
They've said it all...just count me in. Wonderful and ful of love was this most thoughtful and introspective piece. You teach us all. :D (Maybe it's time to try something new?)
Starting to worry about you, Bell. Almost fell out of my chair this morning seeing your doll face on the cover. Finally, all is right with the world. As to empty nests, two of our adult children refuse to hop out, but at least they help with the mortgage payments.

As to fun reading, you might consider switching to Ed Gorman. Puts Patterson to shame. Of course, you put them both to shame.
Thoth -- It's great visiting with so many old friend. I have missed this place and the support of fellow authors.

Cathy -- I appreciate your kind words. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

Tg -- I'm tired of new. I want the old back. But that's not going to happen, right? So, yeah...time for something new.

Matt -- Matt!! I'll look for Gorman. You mention your return-to-nesters or never-lefters. I always assumed mine would be like that and maybe that's why I'm thrown? But you've given me the idea that adoption might help with the mortgage payment.

Lyle -- A new face! Thanks for popping in to read.
Patterson writes for people who read at the fifth grade level... like some of the movie adaptation but never cared for his books. Empty nest, yep we've got that thing going on here to. The wife goes into San Francisco four days a week to her job, while I take off to Texas or SoCal for a month or a week at a time, but we get by. I do the cooking while she fills up the dishwasher and we each go on with our lives pretty much the same as we've done over the last 21 years of our legal separation when she lived up here and I lived in Downtown LA.

What you have to look forward to is grandchildren... they're a blast, in-laws not so much but it's the price we pay to play with the cute little buggers.

Glad you didn't have to pay for the book. R&R ;-)
Patterson is the most highly paid writer alive today (with maybe the exception of fifty shades and twilight ladies).

Funny that for you Oregon is a world away, while for me it's a close neighbor.

I think it's possible to not be a mother (or mommy) and yet to identify with that feeling of having given away parts of yourself, and while you aren't sorry to have done it, to know that that giving has changed you irrevocably.
Beautiful, insightful writing. And about the potato thing, could be you're Irish.
Lovely. I get it.
Oh, Bell. Wow.

I have been away from Salon for some time now. Not mad, just busy. Today I log back in, and BAM, there you are, perfectly describing my newly off-kilter world with your usual unique combination of eloquence and humor.

My daughter has been away at college for 4 years now and it just hit me the other day that this is It. Real life. As in, from now on. When she was younger I always knew that if something happened to her, I would have to find a new reason to live. I'm not talking about suicide. Just ... she was my reason, and I would have to find another one.

Well, something did happen to her, and I still can't believe I didn't see it coming. She grew up. She's smart and funny and successful and I am so, so proud of her. She is everything I wanted her to become. But I guess somehow in my irrational, subconscious mommy-mind, I thought she would be all those things and still be my kid. Or at least, I never thought about the fact that she would someday not be my kid.

Well, someday is now, and my grown-up beautiful daughter is an adult. I will get over it and find a new reason to live. My broken heart will heal again, as it has so many times before. But I'm not quite ready for that yet. I need to waller in Tater-headedness just a little while longer.

Your perfect description of this sad state of affairs brought tears to my eyes. I'm not happy for either one of us having to go through this, but at the same time, I am perversely grateful to know I'm not the only one. Thanks.