Is anybody ever prepared for parenthood? We certainly hear all the platitudes about “mothering is forever,” “your life will never be the same,” “as they get bigger, the worries do too,” but parenthood is a state of being that we literally cannot comprehend until the kindly professionals and the loving extended family members leave and we are alone with a new human being. You’ve seen babies before, but this one is yours. It’s here and it’s permanent.
We all adjust to parenthood in our own ways and at our own paces. Before we realize it, parenthood is simply part of who we are. We’re in carpools; we’re keeping a family calendar that is more complicated than a Fortune 500 company spreadsheet; and we’re suffering through, and loving every minute, of football games, band concerts, plays and dance recitals. We incorporate parenthood into our lives and we feel, if not invincible, at least capable.
Then they’re gone. Now what?
My husband and I took our youngest daughter to college last fall and afterwards I felt like I had when our first child was born. Friends with older children told me that my life would be different, that I would miss my children in new ways, and that my marriage would enter a new phase. However, we can’t know until that door closes and we and our spouses (and the dog, because of course your kids demanded a dog) are alone with one another. What comes after the empty nest?
My daughter had been entirely insufferable for three months before she left. She was demanding, belittling, rude and thoughtless. At the time, I was at my wits’ end trying to figure out what horrible thing had befallen us. Was I being equally troll-like to her? Was she suffering from some sort of sudden-onset personality disorder?
In retrospect, I think Sarah was extremely nervous about starting college and she hates being nervous. It makes her angry, so she lashed out. I tried to explain the errors of her ways, and she got even more frustrated. I’m pretty sure I get it now, but back then it was just an ugly fog of negative emotions.
These prolonged leave-takings and the swamp of negative emotions probably are a good thing. We need to imagine (if not yearn for) a day-to-day life without our teenagers in it, and they need to sharpen their survival skills on us before they are truly on their own. Just as teething and acne didn’t last forever, this difficult phase doesn’t either. It’s just another step along the road toward their adulthood.
Go way, way back in your memory. Remember when you first began to realize you were an adult? That you could eat cereal for dinner, stay up all night, go for a taco run at midnight, spend the day watching television? Those days were cool, right? Then you had kids and, before you knew it, you were serving three nutritious meals a day; adding semi-nutritious snacks when necessary; going to bed at eight o’clock because the kids would be up at five; and turning off the news to avoid explaining “genocide” to your five-year-old. Life became a series of decisions in which your preferences almost never got top billing. Gradually, such calculations become automatic, until you’re trying desperately to remember when you last had a night out and you have to ask your teenager what “full bush” means.
More good news, though. Your preferences once again can rise to the top of the daily to-do list, if you let them. Your inner voice – the one that says, “me first!” – has gotten very quiet over the last twenty years, but if you listen, it’s still there. You just have to encourage it to speak up and then actually do what it says.
I have always loved to write, and I was very fortunate to land in a career in which developing my writing was encouraged and rewarded. The challenge was that, after writing all day for other people and other purposes and then getting home and doing what I needed and wanted to do with my family, I had no juice left with which to explore new ideas, new forms of writing or even to journal.
Now that the nest is quieter, I have time to listen to my own writing voice, and to read, explore and write the works that interest me. This private work of writing, for me, seamlessly fills the spaces formerly reserved for the wants and needs of my children. As they are growing outside the nest, I am growing too
Another positive development is that after that door closes, you and your spouse can take a breath and look at each other. This is a golden opportunity to not just rekindle the love and companionship that brought you together in the first place, but to light a brand-new fire.
You definitely are not the same person you were twenty years ago, and neither is your spouse. Both of you have learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons from parenting, but you also have grown and developed in individual ways, such as in your work life. You may realize that you don’t know this person in your house and in your bed as well as you formerly did.
Now you can enjoy getting to know one another all over again. My husband and I have had a tremendous amount of fun thinking back to our relationship before we had children, and planning outings to the movies, to the nearby national park, and just to browse the mall. The relationship is not the same as it was all those years ago, but our outings today are informed by those long-ago dates as well as our journey through parenthood. A new beginning
After the dust settles and the nest is quiet, the post-children adventure will become what you make of it. The quiet, the occasional solitude and the one-on-one time with your spouse can become blessings. My own approach, so far, has been to push and stretch the outer boundaries of each day, to learn how to make the next twenty years as much of an adventure as the last twenty have been.