99 Problems

Published on February 2nd, 2017 | by Rachel Pepper


Rachel Pepper on the QUEER EMPTY NEST

It was early on the morning of Pride Day 2016 when I first realized my daughter was about to leave home. The house was quiet as I sipped my coffee, an opportune time for self-reflection. The past week had been busy with film festival screenings, various marches, and social events with friends. It was a time of celebration, contemplation, and connection, and to mark passage through another year surviving and thriving as an openly LGBT person.

Two weeks prior, my daughter had graduated high school. Two months down the road, my daughter would leave home for college. Thus, my identity as a queer parent was about to change, in ways I could not quite yet imagine.

“Empty Nest” by V’ron / Creative Commons License

It is an unbelievable, yet undeniable fact, that when my daughter was born, I never imagined the day she’d leave home. So much of my previous life had been focused on getting pregnant, and then when I did, the demands and joys of early parenting took center stage. My path to parenthood even became inspiration for a book I wrote in a state of severe sleep deprivation, with a squirming newborn in my arms. That book is now almost eighteen years old, my first-born book, just slightly younger than my first-born child.

Like many children of LGBT parents, my daughter has had an enriched, “culturally queer” childhood. She’s marched in Pride parades, attended queer cultural events, and traveled extensively to LGBT friendly locales. She has also participated in a bounty of mainstream activities such as swim lessons, music recitals, and soccer games. Through all our years together, I always encouraged her to embrace new challenges, watched her grow more confident, and saw her individual interests begin to differentiate from mine. Yet, I was largely unaware that in this process, I was actually preparing her to leave home. And therefore, shockingly, also leave me.

This autumn, I accompanied my child to her move-in day at college. I watched her turn the key to the dorm room where she would live apart from me for the first time. Helped her fill dresser drawers and make the bed, then find her hall’s laundry room and showers. After years of daily caretaking, I left my baby in a dorm room with strangers. My mind shut down, and I sniffled most of the plane ride home. Who would I be without my daughter?

When you are parenting a newborn or young child, imagining the day they leave home is as unfathomable as walking on the moon, and yet, here we are. I have no moon shoes. I am still attempting to integrate the fact that my daughter is no longer at home, her needs anchoring my every day, providing a constant frame for daily life, and providing hope for each tomorrow. Who will I become now? Who do I want to be? And how do I get there?

It’s been years since I wrote my pregnancy book, heralded as so radical at the time, and the first of its kind. Queer parenting has since become normalized. There has been an explosion of resources, including online, that any queer person can utilize to become pregnant, to adopt, to foster, or explore multiple co-parenting configurations, and find like-minded community. This is wonderful. Yet, there is still a critical paucity of thought around how we personally change, and how our community will shift, when our longed for children leave home.

by Charamelody / Creative Commons License

There is no “Ultimate Guide to Parenting Adults for Lesbians”, no “Empty Nest Essentials for Queers.” Where is the tribe of survivors of this unexpected affliction, emerging unscathed at the other end of the Gayby Boom? No longer easily identified as a parent, since there’s no child on my hip or striding ahead of me, I am merely, and oh so blandly, simply back to being me. Where is the support group to guide us through this cataclysmic change?

The long-term future is hard to envision. I certainly have more time to spend with my partner, focus on my job, and tend my garden. I can do just about anything I want, whenever it suits me. Weird. While some women I know with college freshmen kids are rejoicing at this change, others of us are struggling. Most days I feel a bit bored, underutilized, and a tad blue, too. It’s the flip side of post-partum depression, a moody bookend to those endless nights of childhood teething. If I toss and turn now, I have only menopause to blame.

The truth is, I can’t imagine a life without parenting, any more than living without any other integral part of my identity. They are intertwined, and without one part, the others fall short. Sure, I know I’ll be a parent to my own child forever, but without the daily hands-on work, it’s simply not the same.

A guidebook may not yet exist to guide me through this time, but I’m doing my best to find meaning in my currently childless state as an LGBT identified person. I hope our community can continue to develop a dialogue about this issue, as we have on so many other aspects of child rearing.

For now, with room to spare in my home and in my heart, I’ve started the process of becoming a foster parent. As I’ve moved through the feelings of grief around my daughter’s departure, I’ve come to understand that while my own child may be gone, I am still here. And what has brought me the most joy, each day of my existence, is parenting. So maybe, just maybe, this queer nest won’t stay empty for too long.

Nested Rainbow by timlewisnm / Creative Commons License

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About the Author

Rachel Pepper is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in the therapeutic treatment of foster youth, lesbian and gay youth, and providing affirming care for transgender and gender non-conforming youth and adults. She is the author of four books, including the IPPY award winning Transitions of the Heart: Stories of Love, Struggle and Acceptance by Mothers of Transgender and Gender Variant Children (Cleis Press, 2012) and The Transgender Child. You can contact her directly or read her blog.

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