This week, on my way out of a restaurant after lunch with a coworker -- a restaurant filled with moms in their 20s and children under three, one that uses paper plates in the event a food fight erupts -- I smiled and waved at a baby in a car seat perched on a table between both her parents. When she smiled back I saw two tiny teeth poking through her drool-covered lower gums and a barrette on top of her head that cinched a tuft of hair. It was all I could do not to pull up a chair and play for the rest of the afternoon.
"She's such a beautiful baby, and so happy," I said to her parents who were watching me make silly faces at their daughter, and who were clearly smitten with her themselves.
"Yes," the mom said, "and she really responds to people."
I remember those days, I thought. How fun it was to take my kids out, to watch their emerging personalities and to be around other parents -- swapping stories and making sleep-deprived adult conversation.
While I was standing there, her mom gave her a bottle. Not a bottle of the type I remembered but a new crooked shape with a nipple that looked nothing like the Playtex model of the 90s or frankly the human model. It came out of a black bag that looked like a purse with serious insulation.
"Yeah, she's a happy handful," her mom said.
"It's a cliché, I know," I said, "but enjoy this time. It's pretty special -- even the nights you're up forever and you think you'll never have a few minutes alone again. Really, it's over in the blink of an eye."
She nodded and I thought I saw tears in her eyes.
"My older son is three," she said, "and it happened so quickly. I mean, he was just born and now he's already in pre-school."
"Mine are in college and high school," I said. "It gets harder to convince them to go places when you can't fit them into car seats with handles. There are things my husband and I said we were going to do as a family and put off because the timing wasn't right. I've learned over the years that the timing is never right when you have kids -- you just have to take a leap of faith."
The baby's mother and father looked at each other then back at me. "What else?" the dad asked. "What are some of the other things you've learned?"
I paused. He was asking me as if I knew a secret, a wisdom that is perhaps only shared at restaurants filled with parents whose kids are considerably older (but where paper plates are still needed in case a food fight erupts).
I looked outside and saw my coworker standing on the corner waiting for me to emerge. There wasn't enough time to tell them everything. And should they really hear all of it? No, they needed to discover this kind of stuff on their own. Anyway, who was I to dish out parenting advice about babies in 2013? I didn't even recognize the baby bottle they were using, or the bag keeping it cold, or know the latest about what position an infant should sleep in.
I looked back at the parents, awaiting my reply.
"Well," I said, "there are a couple of things. The biggest is family -- unless they are certifiable or criminals, try to keep your kids connected to their cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, whatever you've got, even if it means sacrificing vacations and that new fridge. And visit each other in good times and bad. It teaches your kids more than you can imagine about love and loyalty and means they will not only always have a place to celebrate and someone to celebrate with but a net to catch them if they fall.
"When the kids are little, hold off on the fancy presents, even if you can afford them. It's you they want. And a cardboard box to crawl in.
"And when they're teenagers, stick around -- they think they don't need you anymore, but they do, more than ever. Just try not to judge, though believe me, it will be hard.
"As for you two -- don't blow it all in Vegas but don't live to retire. Live in the moment.You never know what's around the corner."
And with that, I said goodbye.
"Who were you talking to?" my coworker asked when I joined him outside.
"To the couple with the cute baby. They wanted some advice," I said.
"What kind of advice?" he asked.
"About raising kids -- what I've learned."
"That didn't take long," he said.
"Exactly what I told them," I said.
Join me next Monday for another installment of The Pre-Empt Chronicles, as I transition from full house to empty nest.
Gone is the detritus of your children's lives scattered here and there, carelessly flung about and forgotten. Your bathroom towels will stay hung neatly on their bars, the dishes are placed in the dishwasher instead of left to sit next to the sink. Beds remain made, floors remain clean, clothes are neatly put away. Mystery spills vanish, and you never wake up to a mess. Who knew it could be like this?
Some couples decide that it's time to separate and move on, others remember why it was they fell in love in the first place -- or find new reasons and ways to connect to each other. Without your kids, you become each other's only companion when you're at home. It can't be overstated how much of a distraction our kids are while they are growing up. This is probably the most jolting part of the empty nest -- when you look at each other and think, "Oh wow, it's just us now." For better or worse, it will happen.
No longer are you waiting for the sound of a key in the door, or the porch light to be turned off upon your children's safe return from another night out. No longer are you part of the day-to-day ups and downs of your children's lives ... no matter how often they may text/call/email/facebook message/tweet you. Their mental and physical well-being, though still hugely important to you, are their responsibilities now, and you no longer have the minutiae of their daily lives to think about like you did when they lived at home.
If your kids are in college, or even if they're not, you may still be paying for them to eat. But it's nice to go to the grocery store and come home with the things you want, and not have to buy all the things they want, things that you really don't want in your house.
Initially, this may be disturbing or difficult for you to deal with. You may want to do things you've missed -- museums, movies, theater, travel or you may not want to do much of anything at all. Whatever your thing is, there's now time to do it ... a lot of time.
No longer do you have to socialize with other parents because of your children's connections. No more booster club barbecues or committee meetings, making small talk with people you most likely never would have crossed paths with if it weren't for the fact that your children were on the same team/in the same class/part of the same group of friends.
Your children leave home and, for better or worse, they have to grow up, no matter how much help you may be giving them financially OR emotionally. There are just too many daily things to manage, too many random people to deal with, too many bumps and blips that they have to encounter on their own that leads to them, inevitably and sometimes painfully, growing up. It can be liberating when kids take over, driving or planning or explaining -- giving up some authority is in many ways a big relief.
There's nothing quite as wonderful as seeing your kids after weeks or months apart, especially when they first go away to college. Their faces are familiar and beautiful, their smiles just for you, their laundry ready to be washed...it's such a thrill to have them home for holidays, or summers, or a weekend visit. Within minutes of their return, it's as though they never left. You love having them home for a while, but then...
Remember before kids, when you would dream and plan for the rest of your life? Remember when it was wide open, and you had no idea what would happen next? Well, you can do that again, now that you're an empty-nester. No longer do you have to worry about childcare, or kids missing school, or whether they'll like the place you pick to go on vacation -- your time, your future, and your life is yours to create. Always wanted to travel? Now you can. Go back to school? Now's the time. Write a book? Get cracking. You have your life to live, just as they have theirs. Go do it!
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