He was sitting in his high chair when I handed him a baby spoon filled with pureed carrots. I'd done this countless times before -- watched as my son grabbed the spoon with both hands, only to see the contents splatter everywhere before reaching his mouth. But this time was different. This time, he used his left hand and the spoon made it to his nose first, then to his lips. I remember this like it was yesterday not only because it was his first step towards independence, but because as a first-time mother, I was relieved to put this milestone behind us. There were a zillion more to go and I had no training as a parent -- it's not as if I'd interviewed for the role. I only knew that I wanted it, wanted him, wanted to be his mother. It was the job of a lifetime. But would love and instinct be enough to see me through almost two decades, and him off to college?
Two years later, by the time his brother was born, I was in the groove -- I'd found great pediatricians, enlisted the advice of other parents, and read many books about parenting. All the while, I continued to work full-time -- sleep deprived, commuting for as many as 4 hours a day, getting promoted along the way -- until what I mostly felt was guilt, for either being away from my boys or away from my job. But the role I most identified with, first and foremost, was that of their mother. My husband worked full-time as well. Something had to give. After much discussion I decided that my career dreams could wait. Especially since it was all or nothing in my particular ladder-climbing workplace -- there was zero in between.
So I went freelance and became my own boss. It turned out to be the best decision for my family, though not a great one for my identity apart from being a parent, something I didn't realize until much later down the road, when I looked back.
And now, here I am all these years later, and both of my sons are in college -- and I'm wondering if I'm supposed to stop thinking of myself as a mother, first and foremost.
I'm profoundly different now than I was when my first child was born. Mothers mature, too. Nobody talks about just how much. We start out as undergraduates in parenting and when all is said and done, we've earned advanced degrees in psychology, medicine, teaching, research, business, and the like. Yet it's the only profession that I know of where so many women who have accomplished so much end up being not only undervalued, but told to buck up and get on with their lives when the primary job they've held for two decades slowly becomes irrelevant. It's worth noting that after twenty years, members of the military can retire and draw up to half their pay.
I've read studies that say it's all about the marriage -- if you have a strong marriage, you won't feel the same sense of loss when your kids leave home. Others say it's about your lack of self-esteem, or the fact that you don't have a career, and if you do, perhaps it's the wrong one.
I enjoy my work, it makes me happy. But my heart only beats for the people I love, and some of those loves are leaving home.
At times, this last year has felt like The Long Goodbye as one routine after another falls away. It sure makes it difficult to ignore the loss of a role intrinsic to my identity for the last 21 years.
So many milestones have passed since that day my son fed himself for the first time. And as it turns out, yes, this was the job of a lifetime, and yes, love and instinct have served me well in my role. Which is why I cannot simply flip a switch and get over the loss in an instant.
I know, of course, that it's not really a "loss" at all -- my boys have matured to become productive, curious, and kind young men. They make me proud every day. But I'm only human, and therefore subject to feelings that have nothing at all to do with logic.
The way I see it, until science figures out how to make mothers who look like mothers but are actually computers, who can successfully raise a family by logic alone -- and at this rate, that will be sooner than later -- I make no apologies for my complex, beating heart.
Forever and always a mother, then. Though perhaps no longer first and foremost.
Melissa's working on a book about transitioning to an empty nest.
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.
Follow Melissa T. Shultz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MelissaTShultz