Recently, I appeared on a segment of "The Today Show" with Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb. Boy, five minutes fly by quickly when you're on television. And the clock moves at warp speed when you are on television sharing your five minutes with two other guests as anxious as you are to seize five minutes of fame. As the woman on the stool next to me chatted away oblivious to the fact that I existed, I mused, "What would Lucy Ricardo do in this situation," but by the time I hatched a plan to fake a sneeze while pulling my neighbor's microphone out of her jacket, our segment was over and I had probably contributed all of 50 words to the conversation. They were an erudite and penetrating 50 words, but still...
I had been asked to give Kathie Lee words of advice as she prepares to send her daughter, Cassidy, off to college and return home to an empty nest. Here is what I had no time to say:
On the day I dropped my firstborn off at preschool for the first time I was crying so hard on the way home that I drove into a tree. On the day I dropped my youngest off at college I cried so hard that I walked into a glass door. Sadly, I am not making this up. On both occasions I was completely unable to imagine what the next few days, much less the next few years would be like without my babies attached to my hip and/or my heart. As it turned out, the next few days were fine. Soon the days became better than fine. And much sooner than I could have imagined the days became glorious. I reconnected with the woman I had been before motherhood laid claim to my heart and my time, and happily, I still enjoyed being in her company.
When we are in the thick of mothering we are sometimes incapable of imagining being fulfilled and content when our children are out of our reach. And thank goodness for that. That very lack of imagination makes us good mothers. What kind of mothers would we be if, as we were raising our children, we perpetually visualized a happy future sans young'uns? What a pleasure it is after 18 or 20 or more years of day-to-day parenting to reawaken to the fact that our lives can be rich and fulfilling without the everyday presence of our children.
I wanted to tell Kathie Lee to be grateful to be living at a time when mothers have two umbilical chords. God or Nature created the first. We carry it on the inside of us and it is severed when we give birth. Human beings created the second. We carry it on the outside and it is never severed. It is called a cellphone. Throughout my college years I phoned home every Sunday morning. Once in a while I called during the week. If I called too often my father would refuse to accept the charges. Today there are no charges. Going away is not really going away. Given the chance, I would have urged Kathie Lee to resist the temptation to call her daughter at every whim. I would have coached her to grant Cassidy the independence she needs to break away and become an adult. Let her make the calls. She will. They all do. I would have told her to hone her texting skills. Texting is a mother's miracle. We can determine if our children are alive without our kids ever having to hear our anxious or whiny voices.
I wanted to inform her that only part of her anxiety about sending her youngest child out into the world alone is about the separation. Part of her angst has nothing to do with Cassidy at all. At this juncture in our lives we all have that nagging voice in our heads that taunts us by relentlessly asking, "How in the world did you get this old? How can your childrearing days be behind you?" At some point we must all tell this voice to shut the hell up. I think it was Woody Allen who once said, "If you wake up in the morning and your pancreas is still working, it's a good day."
Given the chance, I would have told Kathie Lee the best is yet to come. She wouldn't have believed it. Not yet. We all have to slog through the loss to get to the other side. Fortunately, the next chapter in life is well worth the slog.
EARLIER ON HUFF/POST50:
In the same way that volunteering at your child's school makes you part of a community and helps you make friends with fellow parents, volunteering at your local library, homeless shelter, or with a civic group will immerse you in a new community that includes neighbors and empty nesters.
Did you know that Laura Ingalls Wilder didn't start writing books until her children were grown and with kids of their own? Take advantage of your empty nest and get involved in something that you have wanted to do and previously did not have enough time to do. Take a class, play a sport, or find a hobby.
If you've only ever done poorly paid part-time jobs while the children were at home (or if raising kids for 18 years was enough full time work in itself!), now you've got the chance to have a fresh start. Or you may have an ambition to run your own business -- the 'encore career' movement is rife with fresh faced entrepreneurs over 50. Now is the time to discover what passions live within you and pursue them to the bank!
Now that you're not responsible for getting a kid to school at 8 a.m. five days a week, explore the idea of exploring. Rejoice in the freedom you haven't had in years and see the world. Feel like seeing the pyramids? Versailles? Living in Costa Rica for a year week? Step to it amigo!
If an empty nest means anything, it's privacy. Rejoice in your long-deserved break from acting like a parent and act like an adult. Whether you're married or single, take the opportunity to reignite the sputtering spark in your relationship or get out there and carve out for yourself a love life worth living. It's true what they say, sex IS better after 50.