For The Single Mom Of An Only Child, The "Empty Nest" Is Even Emptier

For a single mom with one child, the words “empty nest” are different.

photo of author and son jana howard

To my son, Joe:

Last week we celebrated your 18th birthday and today is your high school graduation. You made it. I made it.

We made it — together.

You’re heading off to New York City to pursue a BFA in Musical Theater at Pace University and I’m about to face the next chapter of my life without the everyday responsibility of being your mother. Hindsight is 20/20 and from here, everything seems perfect.


Every piece of the past is a necessary part of our path. And because we’re on the other side of success, I am tempted to call it easy, but I know this victory was hard-won and maybe that’s what makes it so much sweeter.

You already know I got pregnant at 26 after knowing your dad for only a couple of months. Everyone thought it was a mistake. You once asked me if you were unplanned. I replied, “You weren’t unplanned but you weren’t exactly well-planned either.”

I reassured people that despite their doubts, I could do it — I could raise you into adulthood. As the daughter of immigrants, I earned a master’s degree summa cum laude at 22 and was full of promise. I could sacrifice my youth and my career for my unborn child — for you.


But I couldn’t imagine how hard things would get.

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When I was nine months pregnant, I had a stroke. I lost speech and right-side control. I recovered, but then when you were two months old, your dad and I split up and we faced loss and financial hardship. I became a single mom.

When you were five, we moved from New York to LA for me to pursue a career in writing. And starting in pre-school, I got called into the office about you over and over. Teachers only knew you were restless and disruptive and begged me to medicate you.

People called you “a handful.” They finally assessed how you learn and found you learn through movement and music. If that were true, how could they expect you to thrive in an environment where the rules are to sit down and be quiet? 


Photo: Alexandra Defurio

Kids didn’t understand your love of musicals. They called you “fat" and "faggot," and didn’t want to be your friend. I often felt sad, frustrated, and inadequate. Finally, in middle school, you found the theater, your passion, your true friends, your tribe. 

You were accepted into The Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, ranked the number one public arts high school in America. Going there meant traveling 30 miles to school each day, a journey that takes 2 hours each way on public transport, but we made it work.


At 16, when your doctor wanted to put you on medication for high blood pressure and high cholesterol, I changed our diet, got you a trainer, and put myself on a marathon-training regime so I could lead by example. You lost 65lbs and got a clean bill of health. I lost 30lbs and crossed the finish line of the LA marathon with you cheering me on. We did it together.

When you began applying for one of the most competitive degrees in college with less than a 1% chance of getting into one of the Top 15 musical theater schools in the country, I got extra work for the expenses of traveling to auditions and we talked through your essays. We did it together. You got into not one but four of the schools on that list.

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We seemed to have beat so many of the odds. How do you ask? By believing we could. By surrendering a backup plan. And by surrounding ourselves with a supportive community.

For years, you wanted the same tattoo — an ampersand on your left wrist. When people asked why, you explained hearing a story that said, “It’s an 'and universe'.” When we lose something, we can have everything we had and more.

You didn’t grow up with certain things other kids had, one of which was having a father at home. There were times that caused you a lot of pain and I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t show you how to be a man but I could surround you with exemplary men who could. Instead of focusing on what was lost, you chose to focus on what got put in that void. The and. The countless men who showed up in your life to guide you.

One took you to see over 30 operas. One taught you how to ride a bike. Swallow a pill. Tie a bow tie. Hit a high note. Pick a well-fitting suit. Shave your face. Be of service. Build biceps. Treat women you’re dating. Cook a perfect egg. Own your mistakes. Say sorry. Move on. Forgive. Love.


Your name, Joseph, means "he who multiplies" and you have increased the value of my life in so many ways. I thought I was the one who was meant to teach you how to be a good person, but it was you who has taught me. You taught me patience and love.

You taught me to be better, stronger, and braver. You taught me that sometimes what others perceive as our biggest mistakes turn out to be our greatest miracles. It wasn’t always comfortable, but I can’t unlearn what you’ve taught me. I can’t return to the weaker, less wise version of myself.

Two days after your 18th birthday, we went for your tattoo. You wanted me to get one so we’ll have a permanent part of each other with us when we no longer live under one roof. I was unsure but that morning I decided on an X in the same place as yours.


Photo: Author

Just as you’re taking the man you’ve become into the world, I will take the woman you’ve made me into this unchartered territory of the empty nest. X is also the unknown entity we solve for in algebra. It is the undefined thing we are stepping into. Unchartered territory.

As you begin college, I too will begin anew. I am giving up our apartment. Moving from the city to the country. I plan to spend more time freelancing instead of going into an office. Everything is changing — for both of us.


For a single mom with one child, the words “empty nest” hold a different meaning. Many people use that term even though they still have a spouse and/or other children at home. It’s not necessarily harder for a single mom, although for some I could see where it would be, it is very different. 

You have given my life meaning, Joe. Love and light. Purpose. And now there will be the opportunity to direct that energy to other places. Work. Romance. Creativity. Adventure. Where will I put it? Who and what will get this life force that I have given to you and your development for the past 18 years?

I am not sad or scared, but excited and curious, as excited and curious as I am about what will unfold for you.

There is no way to know exactly where our lives will lead us, but I can tell you with certainty, that we’ve beaten the odds before and we’ve got this, baby boy. Godspeed.


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Michelle Fiordaliso is an executive coach and award-winning writer and filmmaker. She is the co-author of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ex and has appeared as a relationship expert on Today, Tyra and Oprah Radio. Follow her on Instagram.