Empty Nesting

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Our parenting years fly from nesting to empty nesting. Here is help embracing this most certain flight.


My wife Patti and I planned to travel after finishing school, volunteer abroad, see parts of the world that we could only dream about. We had a map on the wall of our bedroom and many a night we gazed upon it before falling off to sleep. What would it be like to see the Alps?  Would we ever see the rain forests of South America?  Would we ever see the Serengeti plains of Africa?

As John Lennon wrote in “Beautiful Boy” about his own journey toward parenting, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” Our daughter Emi was born in March of 1981, two days before my twenty-second birthday, just as we were both earning our undergraduate degrees. I loved being a dad. Each unfolding of a finger, each coo, each babble left me awestruck, smitten. 


Parenting offered us opportunities to grow and mature. We fell into a natural rhythm that came from our own childhoods, with parents who cooked the same meals every week and lived simple, hard-working lives. Their example gave us the freedom to trust our gut instincts. I worked in risk management for a Fortune 500 company in San Francisco, but in those days before personal computers, work stayed at work. I was able to go home and just BE with our daughter at night while Patti continued her studies and worked toward her Master’s degree in Special Education. 

Finances were tight and yet this did not prevent us from welcoming our son Zach three years later. For us, having two children only doubled the fun. We moved to the rural community of Placerville, CA between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. We spent our free time in the woods, taking our children hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail, playing in the John Muir Wilderness Area. How we did play! Our collective imaginations flourished.

Our decade of being “thirtysomethings” was magical. Patti and I began our teaching careers and side by side at the same school our children attended. We enjoyed being connected to our school community, growing in our understanding of childhood development. Our days ended with sharing stories of the day, whether about something that happened at school or biography lessons we had heard or tales from a distant land. For example, I had never read mythology before and was mesmerized by the Greek myths of Jason and the Argonauts and Iduna and the theft of her golden apples. We all grew from these stories and our relationships deepened as our children became young adults.  


High school beckoned for both of our children and their interests in life began to vary. Adjusting to new friendships, high school and driving brought us all closer as our interactions shifted as they need to at this time of life. From an early age, we held family meetings weekly to check in on school schedules and events in their lives. The investment that we made when they were young, to communicate with them, had established open lines of communication and trust.  

Emi and Zach began to formulate their wishes for their futures. While they envisioned, Patti and I stoked the flames of our hopes from those earlier days.  We challenged each other to avoid settling into our lifestyle. We both loved our work as teachers, yet knew that our teaching could be enriched by exposing ourselves to alternative ideas and cultures.  


Emi was the first out of the “nest” and she traveled 3,000 miles to attend university on the East Coast. It was a shock at first. We missed her greatly. She began to travel internationally, and we watched her with awe as she did so. She eventually graduated from medical school and completed her pediatric residency including rotations in Kenya and Tanzania, earning  a master’s from Berkeley in Public Health along the way. Now she is a medical director for an NGO in Malawi, in East Africa.

When Emi left for college, Zach enjoyed his first time having us all to himself. These years helped us form new pathways in our relationship with our second child, and yet as his high school activities grew for him, our time with Zach lessened. We began to really envision our future while he shaped his adult life – working in the world of finance after undergrad, then volunteering with the Peace Corps for two-and-a-half years in Cameroon, in Central Africa. He later brought all of these experiences together with a Master’s in Urban Housing from the New School in New York City.


Both of our young adults were out of the house before we turned forty-five. They had given us much to live for and now it was time for us to see what we could imagine without them. 

Late night conversations ensued about all of our old unrequited dreams. What about that first dream to volunteer abroad? Which other communities might we discover?  While we explored these ideas, an opportunity arose to leave California and move to the Roaring Fork Valley. It was a smaller step than we imagined, yet we accepted it and like we accepted parenting, stepping out into the unknown void. There were fears involved, new friendships, new colleagues and for the first time in our lives, four seasons.  We chose to embrace it all.

During these years, we traveled internationally for the first time and planned two weeks in Europe. This passion to see the world was deeper and stronger than we ever imagined. We walked in the footsteps of Michelangelo. Tears came to my eyes as I stood on the exact spot where Charlemagne was crowned king. Stonehenge was no longer just a photograph. We now understood why Ireland was described as the “emerald isle.” Community songs in the pubs of Scotland and England were no longer the stuff of myths.


With our hearts renewed for travel and volunteering, we stepped into the unknown abyss. Our first stop was teaching in Bulgaria where our passions crossed with reality, and a “system” failure arose.  We grew like children from that experience and licked our wounds. Our next plunge forth was to teach in Northern Nigeria for a year. The experiences of that time were ones that we could not have made up. After a few years back in the states, we found ourselves teaching in Zanzibar, an island off the coast of Tanzania. Now, we have returned to our community in the Roaring Fork Valley, where we continue to work in Waldorf education. We utilize our passports whenever we can to enrich our minds and discover other cultures of the world.  


When Emi became a mother six years ago, our grandchildren raised our love for children to a new level.  Our twin grandsons are growing up in Malawi, so we grandparent from afar. We visit them at least once a year, so we’ve made friendships in their community and we can deeply relate to their world. They also visit us here. We’re dedicated to our Sunday morning What’s App dates, where we not only hear their voices, we also get to look into their eyes.  

No matter how old one is, there are new pathways to travel, new ideas to understand and more people in the world to love. Yes, we look back with fondness on our years when our children were growing up – but we don’t look back with regret. We lived each moment and each stage to its fullest, and as our children grew strong wings, so did we. Now, we all have wings, and this only means that our world is that much bigger. 

Tim Connolly

Tim is one of those quietly thoughtful souls who will bring you into a story with a whisper that compels you to lean in and await his next word.  His life path weaves together a B.S. in Business Economics from the University of San Francisco, and Waldorf education, parenting, grandparenting, traveling and dreaming – all with his beloved wife Patti by his side. The prospect of empty nests now feels much less imposing to us at MP, now that Tim has shared his birds-eye view in his feature article, “Reflections on the most Certain Flight.” The word from his students is that we actually should have asked him to share his cookie recipe, which is among the many sweet ways he connects with the students at the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork, where he is the faculty administrator.

About Tim Connolly

Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork faculty administrator