“Everyday living is a feat worth
exploring and celebrating”
THERE ARE TWO MOMENTS in domestic life that clang shut like gates. There can be no return. One is the arrival of the first child, the other the departure of the last. Before there were just the two of you, each the apple of the other’s eye. Then parenthood takes you by the hand and does not let go. It’s a giddy race in which you strive to stay one step ahead of this mishap or that disaster, accommodate the noise and mess, navigate the cross eddies of need and want. You turn your gaze from each other to focus upon the new life developing before you. It’s confusing, frustrating, exhausting and deep, deep down you fall in love with this emergent person. It is a love that lasts a lifetime.
NOTHING QUITE PREPARES YOU for parenthood; nothing except a highly evolved instinct that you had no inkling you possessed until the switch is flicked by a tiny hand that reaches blindly towards you. The months before birth are spent preparing: emotionally, mentally and physically – choose a name, read Spock, decorate a nursery – convinced that you will shape this nascent life. And into this room you pour your hopes and dreams, and your anxiety. Like demigods, parents prepare a little Eden…
But not for long…
You soon learn that, even before a toddler can speak, she or he has a highly developed sense of their own personal taste. What they will eat and not eat. What they will wear and not wear. Which toys are loved and which discarded. And, soon enough, the nursery is colonised and, before a dozen years are out, the demigods will be expelled and paradise is lost. Stuff mounts up. Walls change from baby-pale to infant-bright and on to the brooding clutter of adolescent angst. The family dynamic is boisterous and in flux, full of compromise and joy, tears and hugs: a drama in which each actor plays many roles and leopards change their spots. It is an eternal present as you run just to keep up.
But not for long…
Suddenly, it seems, the toing-and-froing of teenagers is just the froing of young adults. And they are gone… to college, to another town, to new relationships… They leave the room that was once their microcosmic domain to dive headlong into the wider world. Like a skin sloughed off, the room retains some sense of its former owner, but now it is empty … and too small. As the second gate closes, you turn back towards your partner and look out towards the future. Once again there is anticipation and there is apprehension, but now there is a new awareness: all things end.
DONA SCHWARTZ is a photographer and visual sociologist. Her photographs of expectant parents and empty-nesters mark those moments when each couple stands outside the gates of family life. Like Flemish paintings of the 17th Century, they are portraits that reflect their subject in the symbolic resonance of acquisitions: toys, posters, furnishings, books, musical instruments and sports gear, accreted and layered; the sedimentation of childhood. But the subjects of these portraits are not there. The parents-to-be and the empty-nesters attest to that absence. This is not their space. It was once. Perhaps it will be again. But for now they remain familiar strangers in a place elsewhere but the present.
‘On the Nest’
Dona Schwartz lives and works in Minneapolis. She is a recent empty-nester… as is this writer.