When I sent my youngest son to kindergarten, I felt like I had already done business with my heart ahead of time. That “business” included emotionally breaking down several times before hand, journaling out the struggle of watching these kids grow up too fast, and allowing myself to shed a tear with each back to school purchase. The first day of kindergarten is brutal. Always. The last first day of kindergarten for your entire family? Well, it probably ranks up there with water boarding.
It wasn’t my first rodeo, having sent his brother and sister to school a few years prior, so I knew what to expect. And he was ready. Resolute. He walked into that cheery little classroom with all the confidence of a pint sized American president, while I looked on hoping my proud smile would strangle the knot out of my throat. I took a few pictures then quickly kissed him on top of his head and darted the heck out of there and that’s when things kind of got weird and twisty and a fear of something I didn’t recognize creeped in. To my surprise I was encountering something very large, very frightening and very empty. A whole day.
I’d love to tell you I just took it on the chin like a champ and went about my business, owning every minute of it while I set the world on fire, but the truth is I thoroughly and unabashedly freaked. out.
See, when I made the decision to be a stay-at-home-mom, I struggled deeply with the fact that I was putting years of education and career experience on hold to do laundry, make bottles and sing silly songs about things like counting to 20 and barnyards. I knew what I was doing was important, but in a society that assigns dollar amounts to things of worth, it’s hard to feel valuable when you’re not making money.
I struggled with that so fiercely, in fact, that I briefly went back to work … where I then proceeded to struggle with dropping the kids off at daycare. Nobody tells you, before you have kids, that there is no proper place for a mother. That you’ll forever feel like a worn out rope in a relentless game of tug of war. Eventually I accepted the condition that I would stay home, but that once my youngest son went to kindergarten, I’d return to work, and the promise of an expiration date made it much easier to allow my professional life to collect dust so long as there was the promise of a proper dusting off later on.
You can imagine my dismay when, nine years later, I was confronted with the expanse of nothing to do. No noses to wipe, no snacks to fetch, no boo boos to kiss or cartoons to watch. Just seven silent hours and surprise!—no career waiting in the wings.
So I did what I do. I called on my people. I immediately met my friend Teri for lunch and wallered in the throws of an epic existential meltdown in the middle of a local cafe. I cant remember exactly what I said but it was along the lines of “I don’t know what I’m doing with my life. I have nothing. My whole world grew up and went to school and now I’m hopelessly alone and have no purpose and maybe I should just sort of homeschool them, you know? So I can have people in my day again! Yeah! Yeah! That’s it! Homeschool. Or maybe I should just hurry up and get a job! Like tomorrow.”
Now, having Teri in my life is not unlike having a resident cheerleader who’s on call with an arsenal of personal chants and pompoms of encouragement. She also happens to be a life coach which is a lot like being a psychologist who excitedly scoots you along your path and when you leave her presence you’re ready to W-I-N. Go! Fight! WIN! Yeah!
So when she got in my way and said “No” my ears perked up. “Ya know, Melissa, I’d take this time for yourself,” she said. “You’ve given your everything for nine years. Why don’t you try just being still for awhile?”
I was more–not less. It was something I desperately needed to know, and something I’d have surely missed if I hadn’t taken the time to sit still.
Well, that sounded perfectly reasonable. Of course that was exactly what I needed to do with myself. There was just one problem with it. I don’t do still. Not well, anyway. So, instead I went home and got to work unpacking what I’d been collecting and storing away for nearly a decade: this degree, that degree, this license, that certification. I asked a lot of questions. Should I go back to teaching? Continue on with speech therapy? Should I try something entirely different? How can I collect all of my previous education and job experience and make them fit neatly into my life? But it felt like I was holding a box of square pegs in front of a field of round holes. And then I discovered something even more terrifying than I could have imagined. Not only did I feel completely lost … I also felt completely new.
The best way I can think to describe it is it was almost like I had put on a costume nine years ago, but when I unzipped it … a stranger fell out. The things that had interested me before, no longer did. Nothing applied. I was looking at my own resume, and it might as well have belonged to someone else.
That horrifying discovery launched existential meltdown number two, in as many days, and yet another lunch wherein I danced with a potential nervous breakdown for the better part of four hours while my dear friend Teri listened to neuroses pour forth in tremendous bounty. In a word: ugly.
She let me go on waxing dramatic, probably thinking I was a maniac, although she never said that. Instead she said “This is OK. You feel a little lost. And I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. But I’ll say it again. You need to Be. Still. And. Listen. Try to enjoy getting to know you all over again.” She said a lot of other stuff that probably changed my life, but I’ll save it for another blog.
I listened. For real this time.
I took a lot of walks, and I listened to a lot of music and read a lot of non-fiction. I journaled and spent solo days at the beach and dug into myself creatively and made allowances to simply float on the breezes for a while. I was gentle with myself. And then I gave myself permission to be lost and a little frightened of the stranger who fell out of that costume, and when I did that, I became curious about her and explored her a little. I made lists of things that made me happy and filled me up and then I spent some time examining what I’d learned.
I realized that I wasn’t completely crazy. Motherhood had changed me. For instance, I’m far more organized than I’ve ever been. I’m also far more patient. I’m more creative. I crave more meaningful friendships. I have fewer hardened opinions. I have greater amounts of compassion. My senses are heightened. My instincts are reliable. I feel more intelligent. I feel less intimidated. Essentially, life is just much more comfortable to wear these days. While staying at home, shaking with this fear of becoming obsolete, I had actually become a sharper but softer person with a much sturdier head on my shoulders who was far less apologetic for myself and far more confident. I was more–not less. It was something I desperately needed to know, and something I’d have surely missed if I hadn’t taken the time to sit still.
If we aren’t simultaneously filling in that space with our own individual purpose then Empty Nest is the least of our worries. Empty-ness is.
That said, I don’t think this is a challenge specific to stay-at-home-moms. All children become more independent and need us less and we will all end up finding extra time and spaces in days that used to be one endless string of meeting needs. And in those extra spaces of time, I think we might be getting a tiny glimpse of what an “empty nest” might feel like … when they’re gone for good and we’re sitting in a heap of sobs pining for the days our cabinets were stocked with goldfish crackers and Muppets bandaids. And we need to see that glimpse for what it is. The gift of a gentle warning.
An empty house will no doubt feel sad to me, and I will forever look back on these chaotic days of parenthood with a smile, but this particular experience has illuminated a much different unforeseen concern. Our children need us, and we easily center our purpose around their need for us. But if we are doing our job well, we are raising them to eventually need us no longer, and if we aren’t simultaneously filling in that space with our own individual purpose then Empty Nest is the least of our worries. Empty-ness is.
We have an opportunity to prepare for that. To make sure that on that day the door closes behind them for last time, we can weep as long as we need to, and then we can stand up, wipe our eyes and step into a day we’ve been shaping around what we have to offer the world. That may look much different from what it was years ago, or it may be exactly the same but feel out of reach. I think simply naming what it is, is the first important thing. For me it’s this. Writing. For you it may be a business venture or a different creative work or the putting-to-work of an education you tucked away for later.
It’s quite possible I’m the only wackadoo in the world to unzip my full time mom costume and find a stranger inside. And if that’s the case, then you can just smile and nod at me later, and then tell all your friends that not only did I officially lose my marbles, but they’re rolling around all over the internet. But on the off chance that I’m not alone … on the off chance that you may be struggling with that too … well, I’d like to take out my pompoms and encourage you to be gentle with yourself. If you have the time, then take it and be still for a little while. Get to know who you were becoming inside your mommy cocoon. And get ready to be pleasantly surprised with who you meet in there. She’s spent all this time giving everything away.
Go love on her for it.