Saying goodbye

Separation comes to bear in Morgan Baker’s “Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Goodbyes.”


“I suck at goodbyes, separations, and transitions. Sometimes, I sneak to bed to avoid saying goodnight to my family. When our oldest daughter, Maggie, headed off to college — a big transition — I expected to struggle. And struggle, I did.” Thus opens seasonal resident Morgan Baker’s book, “Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Goodbyes,” a testament to the human spirit both to learn that we can experience loss and recover from it … and, in turn, grow more compassionate toward ourselves in the process.

Baker traces her possible difficulty with separation to childhood and her parents’ divorce, but while touching on the past, the book is primarily a deep dive into the year that Morgan’s oldest daughter Maggie applies to college, and what happens after she leaves.

Baker builds an intimate portrait of her family, including an array of emotional and physical challenges and/or life-threatening food allergies. Intricately interwoven into the family dynamic is the unfolding of her and her husband’s decision, after much deliberation, to breed their Portuguese water dog, and the gripping story of the puppies’ birth and adorable early months. She writes tellingly, “The learning curve was going to be steep. There was a lot to find out about breeding, and I wanted to make sure we did it the right way. There wasn’t much time for me to learn it all. Maybe this project could distract me from obsessing about Maggie’s impending departure from our family.”

There is an amusing section where Baker learns that the litter consists of 10 pups. Not surprisingly, she (and the rest of the family) falls in love with them. But for Baker, now their departure was a portent of what was to come eventually, when both her daughters left the nest. She writes, “The puppies would leave after nine weeks. But, just as I fell for Maggie and Ellie as babies, knowing full well they would leave home one day, I was a goner for the pups. There was no way to protect myself — there was no wall high enough — to keep me from losing myself in my kids and puppies. Loss was coming.”

And in fact, after Maggie leaves for college, Baker spirals into a serious, debilitating depression, which she poignantly describes: “I had a hard time explaining to friends or family why I was depressed. Depression doesn’t always have a reason … But loss made me unreasonable, and depression didn’t listen to the rational side of the argument … I listened to the internal voices screaming at me that I was fat and lazy, I didn’t contribute to the family financially enough, I was inefficient as a teacher and writer, and I was pathetic as a mother and wife … There were, of course, no facts to back up any of those assertions. Depression is an excellent liar, and it’s hard to see that when you’re drowning in its lies.”

Eventually, Baker not only pulls out of the depression but is better prepared when Ellie leaves, and Maggie graduates and relocates to LA. She movingly shares all the important things she has learned about focusing on herself and redefining her identity. In a recent email, Baker explains that at first, she thought she was writing about the puppies, but then realized she wanted to understand how all these events — the puppies and her daughter’s departure to college — were affecting her. She says, “Some of what I discovered surprised me. As I was writing it, I realized I was probably in good company. Most likely, I wasn’t the only one watching my kids grow up and move out. It’s what we want for our children, but it can also leave us feeling like a popped balloon.”

Baker hopes that readers will recognize that mental health challenges need to be talked about. She says, “I was scared sharing myself like that, but I realized in order to break stigmas, you have to take a leap. And second, that there is life — and it can be fun — after kids move on. There are adventures, and there is more room for you. My husband and I moved to Hawaii for a year, and my professional life is richer than ever. It’s weird to think that as some people are thinking of retiring, I’m just getting going. We are all more complex and interesting, and accepting that and reveling in it is important. Being a parent is the most important role in my life, but I have others that I’m enjoying now.”

While the title “Emptying the Nest” alludes to the saying about when children leave home, Baker gives us an intimate view of her personal journey rather than a self-help book. And, if anything, she leads by inspiring example.

“Emptying the Nest: Getting Better at Goodbyes,” by Morgan Baker. Available at Edgartown Books and Bunch of Grapes or at Morgan Baker will present “Jumpstart Your Memoir” on July 15 at 10:30 am, at the West Tisbury library, as well as a book talk on July 20 at 4 pm, both in conjunction with the Vineyard Haven library.