It appears that I have survived week one of my empty nest relatively unscathed.
A few weeks ago, I found myself with tears in my eyes at the grocery store because the milk I was placing in my cart had an expiration date of September 5th. "They will both be gone on September 5th," I thought to myself sorrowfully. The milk’s expiration seemed to eerily coincide with the dissolution of my family…foolish, of course, but that’s how it felt in those last emotional weeks.
The last few weeks of preparation for my youngest daughter Brooke’s move to Boston and big sister Alex’s move to London were bittersweet. Lots of quality time together shopping, planning and packing. Even an impromptu trip to Cape Cod with Alex on our way home from dropping Brooke off in Boston. The anticipation of saying goodbye was in many ways worse than the actual goodbye when it finally arrived. At some level, it was really a relief when we were all settled in our new or much quieter homes.
So here I am. After 20 years of hands on parenting, my babies have flown the nest and are off having wonderful adventures in far off places. I am pleased to say that they are both doing well. In spite of an occasional pang of homesickness, they love their new homes away from home and I love to hear about them making friends, enjoying classes and exploring their new cities. That knowledge gives me an enormous amount of peace. So now that I helped them get settled, what’s next for me? Because of the financial security that my husband's job provides, I am blessed to not have to go out immediately and earn an income, so what will I do instead with this space left behind?
I remember the year that both girls were finally in school full time. After 7 years in the trenches of babies/toddlers/ preschoolers, what would I ever do with all this free time? What I did was run out and sign up for WAY too many things. Room mom for both girls classes, new stuff at church, etc….but I had so much free time, right? It quickly became apparent that I had over booked and over committed and over reached my personal capacity for juggling. Trust me, I am NOT a very good juggler. That was the year I learned to say no. Looking back on that time, I think there were lessons learned then that might just be applicable for me now:
- Take time to pause and breathe. After my experience, I have often counseled moms coming behind me to not to commit to anything new that first fall. Making it through to that stage of parenting is a big accomplishment. Job well done, mama! It’s ok to take a moment to reflect, to regroup, to refresh and to renew. I jumped so quickly into being elementary school mama that I didn’t take time to enjoy the quiet in my house. It is ok to enjoy the quiet. And it is ok to do some things for yourself before you immediately jump into the next thing. In this new season, I am remembering that lesson, with reminders from my husband. It is ok for me to take a moment now to reflect on the journey to this point and take a deep breath and just be still for a bit. Since my self-esteem has often been directly tied to what I am accomplishing, sitting still can be difficult. I am giving myself some time to be still and catch my breath. Praying is the only way I can do that well.
- Take time to grieve. For some moms, it might also be important to take time to grieve. Frankly, I didn’t miss having babies and toddlers. I liked it when my kids got big enough to have a conversation with them. But I am grieving this time. I miss them terribly and I miss being the mom of high schoolers. I liked their friends hanging around, I liked the activities with which I was involved at the high school. I liked hearing what was happening with all their friends and hearing about their day and bearing daily witness to them growing, evolving, changing and becoming. I miss knowing them every day. And so I have given myself permission to be sad for a little while and to cry sometimes. As a person who is more likely to cry at a Hallmark commercial than about my own life, my tears annoy me a little and they kind of freak out my husband who keeps looking at me like I might break or spontaneously combust. But luckily we have a sense of humor about this transition and I am learning to be gentle with myself in the process. Being happy for them and being sad that they don’t live with me anymore are not mutually exclusive. I hear so many parents say “it would be selfish of me to be sad when I am so happy for them and proud of what they have accomplished.” As human beings we can have more than one feeling at a time, even feelings that seem contradictory. Yes, it helps that they are happy where they are, but I still miss them and that’s ok. Trust me, I have all sorts of degrees in this stuff. :-) I also have to remember that every person experiences these transitions differently and there is no “right” way to feel, so it does me no good to compare my journey to someone else in a way that makes mine better or worse.
- Take time to reconnect. The space, time and energy that once was occupied by that child can now be diverted elsewhere. Last time, I diverted that time and energy into more activities. This time, I want to choose connection. My husband is both excited and terrified by the prospect of my attention being focused on him now. If you have seen the Lord of the Rings movies, we liken my focus to the eye of Sauron…..mesmerizing and terrifying when it locks on to you. Brooke experienced it when Alex left for college, now it is Steve’s turn. I am being playful, but I am excited about the opportunity to reconnect with my husband who often felt like he was low man on the totem pole of my affections during certain phases of our childrearing years. I am also looking forward to spending more time with other loved ones: more evenings and weekends with couples we enjoy, more dinners with girlfriends, more trips to visit far away family. I remember the joy of meeting a friend for lunch when my girls were first in school all day. Now that time has expanded exponentially. Time with loved ones feeds my spirit like nothing else and I feel blessed to have this time to reconnect. One of the most healing things I have done in this process was to spend time with other mamas going through these transitions. Other mamas just get it.
- Take time to dream new dreams. This is the exciting part and maybe the scary part too. I am starting to think about this new phase differently, more of an empty canvas, rather than an empty nest. I am enjoying sleeping a little later. I am enjoying running the dishwasher once or twice a week instead of daily. I am laughing at the lack of laundry and mess and noise (and will celebrate and cherish it when it returns in December and again in May.) I am cleaning out cabinets and throwing away clutter. I am reading books I have been meaning to read. I might learn to play the piano or take voice lessons again. I signed up for the Storyline Conference in late October, including a full day Writers Workshop…a decision which I find both exhilarating and terrifying. I am tagging along on trips with my husband, just because I can. I am exploring a new church and the potential there for new places to serve and grow and connect. I am writing again. I am digging deeper into the activities which I am carrying over from my pre-empty nest life and deciding where my gifts, talents and passions might be leading me to serve going forward. I am listening patiently to God for His direction, guidance and permission. I am deciding what I want to be when I grow up this time.
So friends in transition, how are you “taking time” in this next phase of life? How are you embracing the change you find yourself in? I would love to hear your ideas!