Instead of Mourning the Loss of My Boys, I Set Off to Find Who I Was Without Them

Jen McGuire
Photo credit: Jen McGuire / Getty

From Good Housekeeping

When I was 19, I lived in Switzerland for a year as a nanny. I figured this was the start of my Great Big Life and I was both wrong and right. When I came home, I got pregnant with my first son, a year later with my second, then my third and my fourth. By 30, my sons and I were on our own together, living back in my hometown in a series of rented houses that felt almost right. My life became an adventure that felt like it belonged to just this one version of me. Instead of being this rootless girl, my feet were cemented into the ground, and this was not a bad thing. I was needed and loved, little hands touching my face and reaching for me always.

But then they grew up and turned into bearded men who weren’t reaching for me. I will tell you now that this almost broke me. My meals for one, the humming silence of empty rooms. Rootless at last, I guess, but it wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to meet that other girl again, the one who was just starting to feel like all of the parts of herself. And so I decided to go back to Europe. To see Italy and France and - sure, why not? - Ireland. For four months, I decided to revisit who I thought I would be, and then bring over the four boys who are everything I turned out to be.

I spoke no Italian. I came from a small town where I know everyone. I was afraid of everything.

And yet ...

I hiked in the mountains outside Rome with an Italian man who told me I’m like Clint Eastwood or “hard like a Spartan.” So independent and so North American in my ways.

This hike took six hours (plus two hours of ravioli and wine in between). A woman I don’t know stopped me in a small hill town called San Polo dei Cavelieri and kissed my face and called me “bella carina,” and I liked that better than the Eastwood nonsense.

I cried when I saw the Trevi Fountain - hot shame tears that wouldn’t stop. An Italian woman I met nodded and said, “Beauty will save your life,” but it wasn’t that. I just never thought I would make it back to Europe. I never thought I would find friends. After weeks of lonely walks with podcasts in my ears and frowns everywhere, I stood in the sunshine in Rome with friends and it was all happening, so of course I cried.

One dark afternoon I laid in bed and thought of my sons, left adrift, and couldn’t breathe for my selfishness. That same day my 23-year-old son called me to tell me he was proud of me. Reminded me that all those years when we were broke, no one thought I would do anything, but I dreamed and dreamed.

Proud of me. I could never have imagined such a thing. Of course I cried.



Photo credit: Jen McGuire

Two months later, in the south of France, I bought a bike second-hand and I rode it just everywhere. I rode it across the Rhone river to Villeneuve-lès-Avignon and along back roads lined with flowers I can’t name. At night, I walked the walled city with laughing friends and tried on red lipstick and fell into bed happy. My rented studio was lemon yellow with white trim and windows along one wall. My landlady became a friend, the kind of woman friend I missed in the all-male cast of Rome. She drank wine for my benefit and we drove to the market in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in her Austin Mini to buy sharp cheese, tasting all of them and flirting with French men who had a deep understanding of the subject. On the ride home, we ate pain au chocolat and laughed about our exes and our kids. When I left her behind after a month to fly to Ireland, her bright pink lipstick kiss on my cheek stayed put until Marseille. I didn't wash it off.

Belfast was hiking and pubs, men who told me their war stories and women who laughed at men’s war stories. Everyone was sweet and spicy like cinnamon. My hiking boots got a workout in the Mourne mountains, in Cave Hill where I got lost for three hours, at the Cliffs of Moher, and the Giant’s Causeway. Wind in my face and waves crashing and magic everywhere.

By Ireland, I had been alone three months. By Ireland I knew things about myself:

• I packed two dresses, a red Mad Men-number and a polka dot swingy thing with ¾ sleeves. They never made it out of the closet in four months and three countries. I’m not the sharp dresser I thought I might be.

• I wear red lipstick now, complete with careful lipliner. I wear it with jeans and t-shirts, but still. I didn’t know I would become this woman.

• I know I love the man I left behind.

• I know I love the small town I left behind.

• I know these things are real and true and not from a dark place of fear. Finally, I get to know this.

I know smaller things too:

• I wish I liked museums more and drinking rosé less.

• Eating lunch alone is sunshine on your face plus cheese in your belly, a smile always.

• Eating dinner alone is the most naked thing.

• High heels are only fun if you don’t want to be surprised and boy do I like to be surprised.

• Maybe I don’t like late nights anymore and maybe I’m okay with this. The joy of missing out.

Eventually, my kids and I all met up in Paris, four months into my big trip. I cried and cried. They are the evidence I am anchored, and it’s beautiful. My tears on their grown-man shoulders at the airport were full of relief, because they are still a little bit mine.

And yet.

My anchor has shifted in the soft sand and so has theirs.

I saw I needed to learn the way they are now, and they needed to learn me. At first it was tough, because we were all trying to squeeze each other into these old clothes that nobody wants to wear anymore. I realized that being my kid is only one little bit of them now. I realize they are new, and I am new, and we all need to be new together.

We spent two days in Paris. We walked for about 10 hours in total, one son navigating with his phone while the rest of us carried backpacks of cheese and baguettes and grapes and okay wine on our backs. That day was full of soft rain, roasted chestnuts, Django Reinhart, and Edith Piaf, and all the things I hoped they would love and felt surprised that they actually did.

Photo credit: Jen McGuire

We spent 10 days in Rome. We took the train to Santa Marinella by the sea, skipped rocks, and tried all the pizza we could get our hands on. We walked and walked for days because this is the only way to see Rome. We visited my new friends in San Polo dei Cavalieri and ate the good ravioli for hours and hours.

I had time alone with each of my boys, my tall golden boys who are not just mine any longer. We talked about things that feel important to me right now and might feel important to them someday.

It’s enough.

My oldest son made us pasta most nights and here is where we were still a little the same. We played vicious games of Pictionary, listened to Spotify, and played cards with the windows open on the patio. Fought over the dishes, loud and happy, and loud some more.

We flew home. They are ready to get back to their lives that aren’t mine.

And me? It turns out I’m ready, too.

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