“Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” —Elizabeth Stone
They really have no idea, these twenty-something adults, exactly how painful it was for us, their parents, to have to say good bye over and over again. I remember (yes, as the cliche holds, like it was yesterday) when my oldest daughter went off for her first day of kindergarten. This was a little girl who had been driving me crazy all summer, wanting me to answer every question under the sun (actually, every question ABOUT the sun), and wanted me or her dad to teach her to read and wanted to know about this, and this, and that…..I pretty much couldn’t wait to hand her off to a kindly teacher who would answer many of the questions I couldn’t or, even better, show her how to find the answers herself. But when I actually let go of her hand after helping her make that huge first leap of a step onto the school bus, I had to push down not a welling up of tears but a loud, guttural sob. Fortunately I had a new (we had just moved to the town) but welcoming group of friendly acquaintances who were the parents of her summer friends and we all met for coffee at a local Starbucks BY OURSELVES. Ordering our lattes, we were loud and raucous, we swore just because, childless even for a few hours, we COULD, and we commiserated while still pretending to each other that our hearts weren’t breaking.
This kind of farewell happened over and over again with both my daughters as they grew up. Some were harder than others, but we got through them, all of them. And they weren’t, of course, simply painful. They were joyous, too, and sometimes they were a strange combination of both. The big shocker is that, in a different incarnation, this kind of leave taking is still happening and it has lead to a feeling that my family is going through an awkward phase.
Or maybe it’s an identity crisis? Take the most recent winter holidays. When my daughters come over Christmas Eve and cook and bake and wrap presents and get into the backseat of our car (bickering less than they used to, but still bickering) as all four of us go off to annual family parties we have been attending for years, it feels like ten years ago. As it still does the next morning when we open presents and cook and eat brunch and prepare for guests for Christmas dinner. For a few hours, all of us in the sweat pants and T shirts we slept in and working at our prescribed tasks, I can pretend we are the same family we have always been.
Except, we are not. I no longer have children, or, rather, my children are no longer children. After dinner they will go home, THEIR home(s), and this year both are taking off for the following week to places across the country to spend New Year’s with friends. Our house will be quiet again, and I will take the tree down a week earlier than I used to, because nobody is around besides me but my husband, a lapsed Jewish guy with no sentimentality about Christmas decorations, and suddenly the sight of the lit and sparkly tree makes me melancholy and I feel a need to get the house back to normal. Back to normal. I don’t even know what that is anymore. (One of the things that is not normal is we no longer have my own parents come for Christmas, it is just too stressful and exhausting for everyone. We visit them Christmas Eve at their place, all of us wearing plastered on smiles and acting like the fact that they no longer recognize my kids is no big deal.)
I am saying good bye to my parents. the long good bye, as I watch them fade. I guess I have said goodbye to my “children,” but I see the young women who have (mostly) replaced the children and teens they once were all the time. My kids are not, at least for the time being, really going anywhere, they are still in our if not daily then certainly weekly lives, but pretty much everything is different. I miss the time when we all had our roles and the relationships were easier to navigate. Even during the adolescent years when there was a lot of conflict and drama, I kind of knew what to expect. But parenting this age…..can we even call it “parenting”? I do feel that my role should be more of a quiet but steady support system, but sometimes we, the kids and me, both fall into unhealthy patterns of regression. They regress into little kids who want to be taken care of, and I regress into an overbearing and enmeshed mother. (But maybe we’ll get into that another time…)
This wasn’t meant to be yet another musing about the empty nest. I have never really liked that term, because Mitchell and I had a nest together before our children arrived, and I even had my own nest before that, when I was single. Our nest isn’t empty, WE are here! But it can be challenging, figuring out this new, post-college phase. I don’t believe in living in the past and in many ways I love this time, watching my daughters find their way in the world. But I think that perhaps my family is in an awkward stage. If my family was a girl, she would be thirteen with braces and breakouts with one foot in childhood and another fully in the precocious teen world. We don’t quite know who we are. My friends who are either a bit older or started having their kids earlier than me, they are for the most part over the hump. Mostly their parents are gone and mostly their kids are more settled in their grown up roles, whether or not that includes marriage or partners or their own, new families. New rituals have evolved. Possibly Christmas trees or Hannukah menorahs are up again, given new meaning with the presence of grand-children. The parents themselves are in a new time, they may have left the house in which they raised their children, perhaps moved even to a condo in a new city, but they are in a different chapter and everyone has accepted it. And my younger friends, or those who had kids later than me, they are still in it. The pre-teen or teen drama, the college tours…not an easy time but a clearer time, a time where you are still part of that child-raising village and identity. A time where the family members understand what is being asked of them, and their place in society, even if it can more than occasionally feel like hell.
I have read that when we are in our child bearing years (whether or not we bear children), our hormone levels tell us women to take care of people. They tell us to nurture our own children, our pets, our nieces and nephews, the lonely guy at the bus stop who talks too much. But once we get past menopause those levels flatten out. It explains why I used to love spending an entire day in the kitchen making cookies or soup, or creating games or craft projects with my children and their friends. Now, when one of my kids come over and they ask me to make them a cup of tea (a long time ritual in our family) I, more often then not, suggest they make it for themselves. And maybe, while they’re at it, make me one, too?
This doesn’t always go over so well. I am not sick, I am just as energetic in their eyes as I always have been, why shouldn’t I keep making the cups of tea? (I have gotten out of certain meals, they have figured out I am not much of a cook and will often prefer to make their own food. To which I say: YAY.) And when I suggest that maybe we substitute our holiday rituals with a family trip next year I am met with, “well, sure, AFTER Christmas,” whereas to me the whole point of a trip is to get out of, for even just a year, the decorating and the cooking and the shopping and the pine needles imbedded in the rug.
They want to be independent but when they walk through our door they want to be treated and coddled like children, only children who drink alcohol and go to bed at three in the morning. Sometimes they curl up on the couch together, fighting over a blanket, and watch “The Little Mermaid,” with mugs of hot cocoa. Sometimes instead of hot cocoa they will engage in the same activity while drinking the best wine in the house. (At least these days they ask.)
But maybe it’s not the family that is going through an awkward stage, maybe it’s just me? My kids don’t seem to have a problem with this in-between-ness. They can go from sweat pants and uggs and no make up (and looking like they are in tenth grade) to — WHOOSH! — glamorous, sophisticated, put together women in the time it takes for me to make that cup of tea I keep waiting for. And they can go from childish bickering to a thoughtful, philosophical conversation about some major issue of the day in even less time. Coming by with a friend and using my molds and baking equipment to make Christmas cookies before taking off in an Uber to a pub crawl doesn’t seem the least bit strange to them. And I guess it’s not. We aren’t one thing in our twenties, another in our thirties, another in our forties and so on. I just turned sixty and am visiting New York this winter for the first time in a while. The thing I am looking forward to the most is ice skating in Central Park, the way I did when I lived on the Westside in my twenties.
So maybe it’s not all so awkward, or maybe it’s a little awkward, and I just need, as you do with young teens, to kind of settle in and not get too used to any of it, the behavior, the appearance, etc., because it will all be changing pretty darn soon.
The year before this past one my younger daughter actually missed Christmas to be with her boyfriend and his family. He is in the Navy and she doesn’t get to see him nearly as much as she would like. It felt a little strange, but it was okay. Things don’t stay the same forever. I had thirty something straight Christmases with my parents and my brother Chris and then Chris got married and moved across the country and then I was married and had a baby and didn’t want to leave my house and then…..it changed. The old rituals, my parents’ Boxing Day party, their closest friends’ New Years Eve party that I went to for twenty-five years, the Christmas Eve turkey dinner with my mother’s stuffing….it all not so gradually morphed into new ways of marking the holiday.
This year the kids complained that the tree I got was too small. I agreed it wasn’t as pretty as having a big one, but since I am almost always the one decorating it and putting the ornaments away and, since I am 5’3” on a good day, it means I spend a lot of time on a ladder and I am, well, over it. This year I was able to reach up and put our Santa Tree Topper on all by myself. It wasn’t at all awkward.