We are trying to do a few more things as five before we become fewer. Even though we will be sure to do special things with each of the kids as they get older, it will never, ever be like this again, so we ventured out into a nearby college town for a weekend away. Traveling as a full family is a breeze now. We all pile into the car and eat wherever looks good and browse and window-shop, even in the dead of winter. We poked in little stores and stopped at a cupcake place for a treat, went to a concert, stayed in a hotel, and were just generally together.
When we first became five, it was a different matter. We would have had a six year old, a four year old, and an infant. The amount of stuff we would have had to bring for even a short jaunt like this one would have been staggering, not to mention just the bundling and unbundling required to go in and out of stores and restaurants. Looking back, I have no idea how we did it then, but we made the effort. I hold doors open for parents struggling with strollers and make faces at cranky babies in the shops because it doesn’t really feel like it was that long ago that I was right there, in their shoes.
Looking ahead, as little as eighteen months from now, it will again be worlds different. Next year we’ll be traveling with four, and will probably be going to visit our oldest daughter at school much of the time. The year after that will leave us with three, and double the university visits. Maybe we will have a tagalong older sibling or two occasionally, but it will be pretty easy to just pick up and go on the spur of the moment. We might do more impulse traveling, doing what strikes our fancy and dragging our youngest along for the ride. She’ll be stuck with us for a few years; it’s good that she doesn’t seem to mind being around us. At least, for the moment.
A few years further down the path when we just travel as a couple again, it will feel completely abnormal and amputated.
Hmmmm. I wonder if it’s too early to start packing in preparation….
Eventually, I will have to let go.
There will be more and more that I will not only have no control over, but will not be invited to have input into. Classes for college, romantic entanglements, weddings, to have or not to have children, how many to have, where to live. As she pulls away now, in little ways like staying in her room more or just stopping briefly at the house before moving on to a friend’s house or other activities, it “stretches the balloon”, hopefully making me more flexible later.
Lucille Ball once said, “You see much more of your children once they leave home.” That’s all well and good, but seeing and influencing are two different things. By the time my daughters are in the position to make independent decisions, I hope we will have taught them enough to make wise ones. I am just going to have to trust myself to be able to hold my tongue and only give advice when it is asked for. The strength I need then will definitely be an internal one. I will need a special filter for my words to go through, where “you should do such and such” turns into “so how are things going?”
My own mother had a knack for asking leading questions, rather transparently. She wouldn’t tell me what to do, exactly, but would obviously be dragging me to a predetermined destination she had decided that I needed to arrive at. My oldest brother was the master of nodding his head and saying “of course,” and then just going on and doing whatever it was he intended to do in the first place. I emulated that through the years with varying degrees of success, but wasn’t always able to deflect my mothers advice. Guilt would kick in. I aspire to being available for advice when needed, but not an advice giving mother.
Letting go means only that. Letting them go into their own lives, into the outside world. It’s just opening the door, giving them a kiss, and stepping back.
As the morning goes, so goes the day.
If it starts out like a fine oiled machine, I get a lot done. This rarely happens. Sometimes we start sunny and go chilly. It can improve, but it usually takes more than one thing to make the morning warm back into a good day. If a morning starts out acrimonious, look out.
Our days start rather early and begin with different alarms in different rooms, including one that rings and rings and rings, usually unanswered. That can be the first piece of grit under my skin, especially when it goes off before I need to rise myself. Getting teenagers up and moving toward a place they don’t want to go becomes a second irritant. Hopefully the girls get ready with a minimum of sniping at each other, because if they get on each others nerves they just bring the discord downstairs to me and their little sister, who pops out of bed like toast every morning.
I can see the morning coming where I only have one teenager and my bright and bushy-tailed one. Perhaps the start of the day will be easier with less for them to push against, but I am still not looking forward to it. I’ll be wondering if my absent one’s alarm is ringing and ringing and ringing in her dorm room, and if her roommate will throttle her in her sleep one morning for not turning it off. I’ll also miss seeing her around, even in a less than cheerful mood.
I should just enjoy the routine now, before it changes – sunny or not. There will be enough days to get used to a new program. Contention-filled morning or smooth, eventually everybody gets safely to wherever they need to be – school and work. Then I can have another cup of coffee and push the reset button on my day, starting anew.
I need to apply a little resource conservation around here. I think I am sufficiently “green” in our refuse handling, though there can always be improvements in that area. What I really need is to apply the same process to my life as to my trash.
Reduce – I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that I need to simplify my life and surroundings by ditching or donating the clutter and unnecessary stuff we live with. I have done it along the way, if only to make room for more and better clutter as the kids grow and change. I’m not really talking about that kind of shift, more a move to less. We don’t need all the things that we fill our homes with, we merely want them. I require so much less than I used to believe, but things are difficult to let go of. Someone has gifted them, we liked them years ago, they are a part of our visual landscape, we have always had them – those are all excuses I have used myself in clutching on to possessions. I need to cultivate a ruthless attitude and only keep what I need. My first job is determining what I can do without.
Reuse – If I reduce enough, there won’t be things I need to reuse. Instead, I should repurpose some of the knowledge my mother and father left me with. There are concepts and ideals they followed that could be shaped to fit my life today. They were frugal and only spent what they had. Family connections were vital. My mother believed in community service, through groups and volunteering. My father loved being at home and was content in his own company, yet was the life of the party when he went out. They both were there to help whenever help was needed, be it around the neighborhood or for family. My second job is determining what I can do more with.
Recycle – It has been quite a while since I had time for myself and the happy luxury of filling it. Old skills and interests were put on the back burner for so long that they just boiled away. I need to take the time to remember what activities I used to enjoy and hold them up against the person I have become, to see if they still fit. For those that do, it will be a rediscovery. For those that don’t, perhaps they will meld into a current interest and reform. My third job is determining what I can recreate and do today.
The three Rs of “empty nesting” – restrain, reconnect, and reinvent.
New Year’s Eve is a knife’s edge from which I can fall either direction. I’m not sure whether to look back or look forward — so many things have changed this year and will be different next year.
2010 saw the beginnings of a great shift in our family. Everyone moved a step closer to the empty nest I see in our future. We survived the first daughter’s senior year, the second learning to drive, and the third leaving elementary school behind and everything that means. With all that transformation around me, the biggest change for me was actually the process of becoming aware and looking forward rather than just treading water enough to keep my head up. I have been just getting by for too long, without thought beyond the reaction to whatever needed to be done. I’ve been letting moments slip by without notice, and it feels so much better to acknowledge and appreciate things, even as they change.
2011 will be a year of major adjustments for all of us. The first chick will actually leave the nest, the second will go through all the senior activities, including college applications and visits, and the third will start middle school. Each of those things will require different strengths on my part, but rather than just keep up with the changes, I’ll be prepared and looking forward to them. It will be more of an exchange than a change; just moving on to the next phase with eyes and heart wide open.
Up until now, I have been surviving, day to day. Surviving is good; living is better. I intend to do more of that in 2011.
My middle daughter started driver’s education class yesterday. We took the older car down to the school parking lot on Saturday to get a little bit of practical experience in, and may very well have terrorized a few walkers and runners who were cutting through the school grounds on their daily route. Our practice session might have been a little illegal, but I wanted her to get a few minutes behind the wheel before she had to do it in front of people she didn’t know.
“A little slower… no, ease on the brake… pretend those empty parking spaces have cars in them… oh jeez – you would have hit that one… okay, now you’re going better… go a little further before you turn that corner… stop up by that lamp-post and we’ll try it all again.” She ended up the session with a smile and not tears of frustration, so it was a small victory for the books.
I sat through the parent orientation at the beginning of the first class with only one ear tuned to the instructor. Looking around at the other parents it was obvious who the neophytes were; they were hanging on the teacher’s every word. I met the eye of another mom who gave me a small smile, as if to say, “yeah, here we are again.” She had been tempered through the fire of a previous child in the program, I could tell. When you’ve been through more than 50 hours driving with a teenager you either bend or break. I always have faith in my children’s abilities; it’s everybody else I worry about, so putting them out on the road and calmly sitting in the front seat next to them makes you consider buying stock in Clairol.
We teach our children many things as they grow up, some more consequential than others. We move from teaching them how to hold a crayon, to how to write their name, to how to write a college application essay. Talking, walking, and even eating all become efforts of education at different levels. There are parallels between teaching them to walk and teaching them to drive, though they are far apart as child-rearing milestones. It’s a gradual thing to learn, and takes some trial and error before it’s smooth. You watch with pride as they accomplish their goal. And once they learn, they will be one more circle away from you and the nest.
I love running into the right thing at the right moment. Who knew there was an old Billy Rose foxtrot from the Twenties that would inspire me and make me rethink the “empty nest” paradigm?
Red Nichols led the Captivators in this 1929 recording. I play trumpet, so this old stuff is the history of my own music – he was a prolific jazz cornet player in an age of wonderful bands. I found the following story when I was looking deeper into this song, trying to learn where it was from. It resonated with something in me:
In 1965 Nichols took his Five Pennies band to Las Vegas, to play at the then-new Mint Hotel. He was only a few days into the date when, on June 28, 1965, he was sleeping in his suite and was awakened by paralyzing chest pains. He managed to call the front desk and an ambulance was summoned, but it arrived too late. That night the band went on as scheduled, but at the center of the band a spotlight pointed down at an empty chair in Nichols’ customary spot. Red’s bright and shiny cornet sat alone on the chair. Around it swirled the “happy music” Nichols had loved all his life.
How inspiring to have something to contribute to the world like that, and to be commemorated in such a classy way. How do I translate finding this song and story to my journey? I’m left with this thought: wouldn’t it be smarter to start “Building a Nest for Mary” rather than sweeping out the old one?