and then your kids leave.
Today’s cup of decaf is at the beach.
As far back as I can remember, I have had a strong feeling that I need to live near the ocean. As a child, I was an hour or two away from the ocean and that felt like too much. As a young adult, who loved living in the vibrant city of New York, I reveled in the fact that it was an island and that I could make it to Jones Beach any time I wanted. And when I made it to graduate school, and moved to California, well…I found my soul home. Ocean, bay, water, sand…it calms me, centers me, and somehow brings back that sense of belonging and being part of the bigger plan that I always felt as a kid when we spent time in Cape Cod. That feeling, however, always came with a thread of pensive nostalgia. I remember conversations with my mother about that mixed feeling. We called it “cauliflower” because I couldn’t remember the word “melancholy.”
Our life in Alameda
For over two decades, I have lived in this beach town and accomplished the two most significant and spectacular achievements of my life; our daughters. The amount of gratitude for finding our home, and raising our girls in the idyllic surroundings of our island town, is impossible to convey. Now, all these years later, through remodels and changes, we love our little home and our town deeply. Then, why the cauliflower, you ask? Because of the mixture of pride, love, and sadness, all at once.
Lump in my throat
The girls are completely thriving, living fully, and are becoming everything we could have imagined! And yet, they are not here. One is in college and the other is fully launched. They love coming home to visit and call or text almost daily, but the concept of them not living here any more became a huge lump in my throat. I know I am not speaking about anything new or un-written, but it was bigger than I anticipated and lasted longer than expected. When both our girls studied abroad as teenagers for four months each, in high school, we knew it was great for them and people often said, “Its good for you too! Get practice before they go away to college.” To which, I said, “Bullshit, who needs to practice being sad and lonely?”
So, that is it, empty nesters, in spite of all the “practice,” I continued to experience the developmental growing pains of this phase of parenting. While my husband and I thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, we are still working like dogs and are as busy as ever. We don’t have the easy-breezy-retirement-empty-nest feeling, we just have the everything-is-the-same-except-we-miss-the-girls feeling. I’m calling this the “Parenting in the Dark” phase because parenting from afar is odd and feels a bit like wandering without focus. This is the phase in which you are "supposed to be" focusing on having fun because the kids aren't home, but instead you are in between rungs of the ladder. Climbing up to the next phase, but not quite there.
I've been a therapist and school psychologist for a million years, so I have read about the 4 stages of parenting, the 6 stages of parenting, the 13 stages of parenting, etc. Some refer to the empty nest stage as the Departure phase (Galinsky), the Consultant phase, (Hosteler), or the time to "let go" and "be a friend" phase. The point is, we all know that parenting is forever, and that the kids will always need us for different reasons, whether it be financially and/or emotionally. Our relationships with our children change during these many phases and we continue to grow and learn along side them. What I am pondering, however, is not how I parent my kids while they are “departing” but how am I re-defining myself?
It's OK to feel like cauliflower
We are supposed to be nothing but excited for the kids and relieved that we don’t have to do as much cooking and laundry, but the reality is more about waiting until they text or Facetime. I find myself checking Instagram to see if they have posted anything cute and funny. The other night, a friend and I were talking about her daughter’s big move three thousand miles away. I commented how I admire her daughter's accomplishments and bravery, and yet my friend said, “Actually, I am really sad.” When I revealed that I had felt like weeping every day for five months after my daughter’s move to L.A., we hugged at the mutual experience we were having. We are strong career women, we have a lot to keep us busy and satisfied, and yet our identities are so connected to our children, that the shift can be very unsettling. We shouldn’t feel guilty or shamed for thinking about ourselves a little during this phase. It's OK to embrace the cauliflower. It's part of what makes us good moms.
So, I think this is the message for me, to honor the cauliflower, I mean melancholy. To talk about it with my husband and the girls, not to ask for anything special, but just so they are aware that these phases of development exist. People can, and often do, feel multiple things at once. Those feelings may be at odds with each other, but they are all equally as important. It takes time, like any transition does, to move through the Parenting in the Dark Phase. So, I will sit on the beach more often, sip my decaf, and wait for the next wave to hit me. Please feel free to join me!