I have a couple of friends with kids who graduated from high school and will soon be off to college. Their pride is tempered by gloom mixed with apprehension and rolled like a burrito in a wrapping of grief. Their children will leave them to rattle around the shell of what was once a rich life, clinging to memories of not so long ago.
I know what they’re going through.
For years, outside of my job, I did little except be a mother. I volunteered in classrooms, shuffled kids to and from activities, and enjoyed a house filled with their friends. My children were never far from my thoughts—even when I “ran away” to walk the dog. During those walks I encountered a mysterious woman in our neighborhood.
She was tall and lean with short sandy-blonde hair that wisped about her face and curled against a khaki sun visor. She had excellent posture. Her gait was slow and smooth like a runway model. I marveled at her apparent serenity, her solitude. I remember her as a creamy ivory color. She was older—the age I am now.
Her eye contact avoidance gave the impression she didn’t want to be disturbed. I ignored that desire by hollering “Hi!” which force a whispered, “Hello.”
I knew nothing about her which gave me free rein to imagine her life. Because she was older, I suspected she had no children at home. I envied her tranquility, but pitied her loneliness. Poor thing. How could she possibly be happy when the years of raising children were behind her?
She made me fear my future lonely existence. At the same time, I looked forward to the possibility of long, peaceful walks.
Twenty years later, my children grown and living far away, I view her differently. She was neither sad nor in need of pity, which doesn’t mean she might not have missed the hectic life she once had. Time gave her the ability to appreciate that tranquility I witnessed. She was probably grateful—as I am—for her life, then and now.
For those with kids poised to leave home, let me share a few things I’ve learned along the way:
1. You get kicked out of the “Parents Club.” It’s a horrible feeling of abandonment and betrayal. Scratch and claw all you want—you will never get back in.
2. You will be depressed. For months after our younger child went to college, I could barely vocalize more than a grunt. Whenever someone asked—and always with a smile—“How does it feel to have an empty nest?” I’d snap, “It feels like crap,” offended by their insensitivity and bitter to be forced to articulate actual speech.
During this period, it helps to connect with people whose lives are more depressing than yours. Watching Judge Judy did wonders for my husband Gary and me. I was also nurtured by episodes of Dog the Bounty Hunter and Breaking Bonaduce.
3. You get 100% of your adult life back. The problem is you’ve forgotten how to live that life. Raising children is like drinking just enough coffee to get a little hand tremor going. Their youthful energy, the company of their friends, and bonds forged with other mothers is addictive. Over the years, those little buggers turn you into a mother junkie. For six months after they leave, you will detox by sitting in rooms lit only by the glow of a television, rocking back and forth. You will cry—a lot.
4. You’ll have lots of spare time for self-reflection. Ugh—nip that in the bud! After our younger child left, I was so desperate to avoid reflection that I volunteered in a first grade classroom. I quit a few years later when my teacher transferred to the middle school, and I decided I’d rather suffer reflection than deal with that age group.
5. Six years into the new deal, after you finally have a handle on adult living, your kids will take pity on what they perceive as your boring life and give you a puppy. You will not immediately realize the merits of this gift, but after enrolling in a half dozen doggie classes, you’ll be welcomed into a new group—the Dog Owners Club! The wounds of being thrown out of the Parents Club will finally heal. You will become addicted to puppy excitement which will, thankfully, take away any time for self-reflection.
Any fantasies I once held about morphing into that ethereal woman from long ago have not materialized. When I finally had no one at home to run away from and could stroll at my leisure, a puppy arrived and put me back into the demanding feeling of caring for children.
I suppose I could run away from Lucy-puppy by taking walks by myself, but I’ve discovered that tranquility isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I prefer the hullabaloo.