In our lives we experience multiple transitions, and in these moments of change we renegotiate our sense of self. Events like communions, weddings, baby showers, and retirement parties formally mark the new roles and statuses we take on. We cross other thresholds without rituals or celebrations—even though divorce is a momentous life transition there is no script for marking its passage. I am intrigued by the ways in which we move from one life phase to the next, and I am working programmatically to represent complex processes of changing identity.

In “On the Nest”, I use environmental portraiture to examine two moments of change that bookend parents’ lives—the transition to parenthood with a first child’s birth, and the transition to life without day-to-day responsibility for parenting when young adults leave their childhood homes.

I photograph expectant parents in nurseries or other spaces they have made ready for their newborns, and I photograph empty nesters in the rooms left vacant by their grown children. The nursery is a canvas on which parents paint in broad strokes their imagined picture of the future. Creating the space is itself a celebratory ritual, and for many parents- to-be the nursery is a showplace—and a sacred space—to be shared.

Teenagers’ abandoned bedrooms tell different stories. The transition to life as an empty nester lacks formal ritual observance. There is no finite gestation period and the new beginning it heralds may be more sobering. In some vacated rooms, abandoned childhood toys compete for shelf space with high school trophies, providing a time-lapse history of nurturance, growth, and development. In others, boxes containing once treasured items await their final disposition. Unused beds become temporary worktables. A sewing room is born.

By showing expectant parents alongside their empty nester counterparts, I invite viewers to reflect on their own experiences of change and the trajectories we trace in the course of a lifetime.

—Dona Schwartz