Empty nester, Family, Love, Parenting

What Do You Do?

You’d think by now at 57, I could shake it off, those little shreds of shame that still bubble up when I least expect it. We were at a small outdoor gathering and, chatting with a college student, I was doing my damnedest to answer that question you always get meeting new people:  “What do you do?” I’ve worked most of my life,  and even though I don’t have a job now that pays me money, anyone who knows me knows I always stay busy. Most of what I do is take care of things, of people, of pets. And increasingly most recently, of myself.

Our conversation moved into empty nesting, her mother in the same place, wondering what she’s going to do. We talked of the gaps within our generations, technology a big one. Her smile widened when she told the story of her dad who still types www.google.com on his computer when he wants to search something. I chuckled along with her, though wasn’t fond of poking fun of her dad whom I didn’t know, but for whom I felt compassion. While I don’t type out the word Google to search, I did admit to typing the letter g out of habit to begin a search. She laughed the biggest belly laugh, grinning, because we all should know that Google is the default search engine. Has been for years. You didn’t get the memo? This time I was the butt of the joke and the laughing continued far longer than was comfortable, and I was left to sit, smiling along, exposed, found out, in my imperfect nakedness. 

My younger son and IT consultant

I still go to Utilities and find the Bluetooth icon to turn it off and on. Same with Wifi or anything else I need to engage or disengage. My son keeps reminding me I can swipe up (or is it down?) and just yesterday watching me press the home button to ask Siri, “What’s the hourly forecast?”, he demonstrated how with this newest iPhone software update you can swipe left (or could be right) and find your hourly forecast perfectly displayed. All these saved steps. Where have I been? I’ve struggled feeling and being so behind the times with technology, but somehow I’ve gotten by with my go to limited cadre of tools and shortcuts. 

So here we are, another Mother’s Day is upon us, another sunny Sunday where we’ll serve up quiche and cards and mimosas to celebrate these tireless women, some of whom want nothing more on this day than a break. Someone else to do the laundry, weed the garden, respond to bickering children, walk the dog. The commercials and advertisements deceptively feature a beaming well-dressed woman surrounded by her loving family. They’re all getting along, attractive, enjoying delicious foods and fun times. 

My older son years ago who picked these from our yard

Today we celebrate those women who do that “hardest job they’ll ever love,” and I’ve been wondering what it is about this role I love most. Obviously, you get the kids, cute as buttons when they first appear wide eyed and downy soft. Memories of those early years linger — the soft lovely smell of baby powder, the sound of swishing diapers as your little ones first crawl and then toddle around the house. Those sweet baby doll dimples on your baby’s fingers, the small of their backs when they’re sitting up as you dress them, the startle reflex where in an instant their arms resemble orchestra conductors’, the little stars their five fingers make as they begin grasping things or reaching for you. The toys, strollers, bassinets and high chairs that fill your home, the cries, the baby giggles, ear infections and scraped knees. I could go on and on. But I’ll stop with this one, the sweetest memory of all: that they make you their world. You’re their Google, their everything, their portal to discovery. 

Always glad these two were two years apart

The sleepless nights, the endless school forms to complete, soccer practices, teacher conferences, dances, hurt feelings, missed homework, you’re privy to it all. Unlike a job where you might be limited to your role which may or may not interest you, here you can do it all if you want. Give yourself that promotion you’ve wanted, expand your role on a whim. So much you improvise because, necessity IS the mother of invention. Which preschool is best, when is dinner, what’s for dinner? The list goes on and you get to write the script, drawing on your own childhood on what to keep or bury, what you eat, where you vacation, what they wear. 

Soon enough they grow up and compare you to other moms and later discover all that you don’t know. So in so’s mother let’s them stay out later, why can’t we have (insert overly sweet juice brand, tv in your room, bigger car, better clothes). I did it too. There was Lisa in third grade whose mother packed her the most perfect lunches. Shaved ham piled high on gorgeous deli bread, a full bag of chips vs the little baggie with a short stack we got, and some gorgeous enormous cookie. Where is this deli they found? Our A&P didn’t have anything close. I rolled along with my peanut butter and bacon (actually REALLY good if you haven’t tried) or packaged slippery deli meat (I ate it often but OMG not today), uninspired American cheese on white bread (why the mayo, mom?). I’d of course come home and ask, “Why can’t we have shaved ham?” and go into detail about the glorious sandwich Lisa’s mom packs her. Or there was that girl in eighth grade who was super smart, beautiful and always perfectly dressed. One day she appeared with her pressed cords and Sperry topsiders (or were they docksiders? I never could catch up with the right ones). I felt lesser but I knew I’d be in hand-me-downs because it’s just what we did, so I didn’t whine about the topsiders. Actually, looking back on it I was content in my Tretorns.

On the soccer fields way back when

You give birth and, in that minute, you’ve transitioned to a mother. You think on your feet, show up, produce opinions, advice, meals, birthday celebrations, wardrobes, a home, your heart, all of you. We’re all doing our best, but let’s be honest, who really knows what they’re doing? That you’re there is a biggie. Your children run to you in the night when they’ve had a bad dream, or when dinner is ready or when they’ve finished artwork or aced a test they must show you. You’re always there. A fixture, a beacon, a friendly mountain they can climb. You’ve melded into the furniture – the bed, the couch, the kitchen sink. Your presence is felt all over and when they call out for you, you answer and if you can’t, you find someone else to. Whenever a child call’s out “mom” in a crowded room ,we all turn our heads to answer. Even now with grown children, I know I still do.

My mom, Susan, and Lad

There’s no manual on motherhood. My own mother died before I even married, so I didn’t get any advice from her. All these years moms have held their ground, stood firm by their choices amid the whines. Never once when I didn’t get the lunch I wanted did I think any less of my mom. Or think she didn’t love me as much as Lisa’s mom loved her. That love was just there. Always. I think of her often and today being Mother’s Day, especially today. She was always up. I don’t remember her showering or getting ready for the day because that was done hours before anyone woke. The engines had started – the coffee – Taster’s Choice stirred into a Corningware pot with a wooden spoon. Mathis Dairy milk splashed over the top. You see her face your whole life and never once consider that someday you might not anymore. But that day does come, and you’re left trying to repaint her image for your mind. It’s funny, the visage is cloudy but the feelings are still so clear.

So what is it you do? You don’t have to explain. You’re doing it every day. (please see video below) I remind myself we’re all works in progress, and we should loose the shame. Instead we ought to keep giving out our love, saving big doses for ourselves. Hats off to all of you “motherers” who came before, who are here now and who will be here in the future. And big love to you, mom. xoxoxo

Atlanta, breast cancer, connection, Empty nester, Encouragement, hope, loss, Uncategorized

Scar Tissue

I started physical therapy to restore range of motion in my shoulder and arm, left tight and knotty from a recent lumpectomy and radiation. Being able to reach behind and scratch my back easily and pain-free is a new goal, as is securing a bra clasp. Over a year since surgery and nearly that long since treatment, you’d think by now the healing would be all done, but seems the tightness has only increased. The tissue under my arm feels like fabric sewn with too tight stitches and all we need is a seam ripper to break through and pull the threads loose. 

You’d think by now the healing would be all done.

Like you do when telling an infant’s age, I used to talk in months – I’m three months post chemo, six months since radiation, etc. – but thankfully now I can talk in years since all this started up in late 2019. My surgery and treatments have graduated out of their infant stage and into a toddler stage, with tantrums arising as this little blocked lymphatic circulation mess I must now clean up.

The physical therapy office is close by, convenient and calm — nothing like my last PT experience several years ago where the incongruously L O U D radio was routinely tuned to the unholiest of trinities – The BeeGees / Gerry Rafferty / Air Supply – and my physical therapist’s brash order-me-around style certainly didn’t fit my idea of a first-string player you’d pick for your healing team. Last week at my initial session, I was assigned an Emory student, a no-nonsense tucked-in clean-shaven guy who, after moving me through several stations working my arm and shoulder, moved into a deep tissue shoulder massage miraculously landing on all the tight unyielding spots which, albeit stubbornly, gave way. I left with a sheet of homework exercises, most of which I completed except the one involving a Theraband. Surely I own a Theraband, but, alas, where is it? Still haven’t brought myself to enter a Target or Walmart since the pandemic began, so opted against purchasing. I know, Amazon.

At today’s session I worked with a petite young lovely woman who moved me through various stretching and strengthening stations. The therapists toggle between several patients, like busy chefs minding multiple burners, careful to tenderly sauté and not let a rolling boil erupt or a pan sit unattended and burn. They move between patients rolling their laptops around on wheeled lectern style desks.

Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer

I might have blurted out to my therapist that the roving desk setup she maneuvers reminded me of the SNL skit with Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer rolling her podium on the streets of New York. She humored me with an amused/mortified smile, probably not so happy she got assigned the clown who wants to inject humor into all of it, breaking up the calm focused room she and her colleagues have cultivated. I joked now she won’t be able to shake this visual and she smiled again realizing the truth of that unfortunate circumstance.

Canele

This weekend we went for a Sunday drive, winding through various parts of Atlanta — Edgewood, Inman Park, Poncey-Highlands. Other than looking at house paint colors for inspiration, my primary goal was to score a canelé, a small striated cylindrical French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla with a soft and tender custard center and dark caramelized crust, which I found at Ponce City Market’s Saint-Germain bakery. I’m working on not consuming much sugar, but occasionally the urge is real, and I’m increasing trying to locate something exceptionally good vs the first filler sugar I can get my hands on. By the looks of things in the Food Hall, but for the masks covering most people’s faces, you’d never know we’re in a pandemic. Throngs of loud-talking particle-spreading people filled the hall, the din of noise so visual and loud I nearly abandoned the much-anticipated sugar errand. I got myself a canelé and Joe a palmier, his favorite, plus a coffee éclair and raspberry and passion fruit mousse little round cake for later. We nibbled on the canelé and palmier and meandered through neighborhoods studying houses’ paint colors from our car for our some-day repaint.

Driving through Edgewood, I noticed a ramshackle of a church with a sign out front and the message, “Your Grief is Valid.” We live in a world full of dichotomy – help is on the way with stimulus checks about to drop into accounts and Covid vaccines increasingly common, yet still there are long lines for those waiting for a bag of food to feed their family and scores of people pre- and post-Covid cloaked in a stuck-on heaviness they can’t shake. Last week, the TV networks broadcast highlights looking back on the full year since Covid was proclaimed a global pandemic. How do you bundle so much loss into a news segment? It was admittedly well done, but so sad, too. Smiling faces now gone leaving behind families who don’t know where to begin to climb out of their despair. Exhausted doctors and nurses, their virtues extolled, in search of a reset or second wind or both.

Your grief is valid.

Blue skies always return

We each heal in our own time. And time, for the most part, heals all things. But for those of us stuck in the middle between our hurt and our healing, and with a pandemic thrown in the mix, every morning can feel like Groundhog Day, a familiar rotation without much hopeful change in sight. Circling back to the church sign, your grief IS valid, despite however fresh or old, and the way you move through it is your choice. But until you feel well on your way, please don’t stoically go it alone or hide until your best self magically shows up. Because we all know things don’t quite work out that way. Instead, walk with someone, grab a coffee or a canelé and take some time together, comparing notes, taking notes, or soaking in the simple and reliable beauty outside. One day when you aren’t looking, you will feel it, a little less heavy and moving forward with a slight change that happened, when things starting looking brighter, sharper and you saw a shiny glint of hope in the distance. Try and break up the days, infuse them with connection. Sure, physical therapy can mechanically do it, but being together also melts scar tissue, and is what opens up space for all kinds of goodness.

Make A Wish
Empty nester, Family, Love, Parenting

Bed, Bath & Beyond

On mornings when she drove carpool, sometimes my mother would let me know I had crumbs around my mouth. Before I could wipe them away, she’d already licked her own fingers like you would if collating papers, and gone about dabbing the corners of my mouth. I’d like to say this happened before picking up the other kids, but it was random and often we had an audience.

My carpool memories are of us crammed into my dad’s white 1969 Mustang convertible with burgundy interior. Not sure why she sometimes drove his three-speed manual steering drafty child carriage instead of her station wagon, but maybe our Ford Country Squire wasn’t the dependable family ride its faux wood siding conjured. The Mustang steering was so tight she’d ask for help from whomever was in front, my sister or me, and we’d lean in to move the stubborn wheel.

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Where did the time go?

We didn’t have any carpools with my kids but I do recall that moment when the ride to school changed, probably as early as third or maybe it was fourth grade, when the school drop off necessitated omitting any form of motherly affection. I still wanted to hug them goodbye and sometimes I’d look around and when the coast was clear, remind them no one was looking and we could get in a quick hug. It was a rushed hug, but a hug nonetheless. Of course, as years passed those drop off hugs all but disappeared.

We started biking to school and then my boys would walk themselves and later on, drive. I’m glad to have had the schools that we did, with great teachers, close by and with a wide variety of people. A slice of real life in an urban enough setting, but still with plenty of green spaces to roam. I’m still getting newsletters from our high school and occasionally I’ll scan them for details on the postponed graduation festivities, but mostly they’re full of the usual back-to-school information, complicated further by this pandemic, information now intended for other families. I wonder how long it will take me to voluntarily opt off this list. Or how many Augusts I will see school buses pass by and remember all these years. I’m swollen with gratitude and memories.

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Georgia Tech bound from an early age

This weekend my younger son leaves for college. I remember the first college drop off two years ago and its 13-hour drive. This younger son is moving just 10 miles away, yet the mental preparations feel the same. He seems relaxed and understandably ready to leave behind the drone of his mother’s voice and nonstop questions which land like a spray of bullets: Should we get two sets of sheets? Which of these comforters do you prefer? Will you take a look at these shower caddies? Certain he’s asking his own: Will she ever stop?

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Back to school Covid era

Last weekend we shopped Bed Bath and Beyond for dorm essentials. I hoped to get in and out quickly as pandemic shopping doesn’t afford the luxury of over-analyzing mattress toppers. Besides, he has no interest in a new comforter or towels and washcloths since, budget-minded like his dad, he’s decided to raid our linen closet instead. I remind myself I have boys and unlike my sister’s and my own college preparations, there will be no room theme or patterned comforter. It’s all business and boys’ nests need minimal fuss. I hope he’ll carry good memories in lieu of the current parental annoyances he and I assume most college-bound teens about to leave the nest seem to experience. It was a great shopping trip, the store wasn’t crowded, and we found it all. He’s excited to test out his coffee maker  and try out the mattress topper too, a simulation of life to come.

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Ready for move-in

I think sometimes you must take the lead your child gives you. If he needs a second set of sheets, he reminds me he can simply drive himself to Target. “Let go, woman,” I believe is the message. I’m trying. Really, I am. I joined his college’s parent Facebook group to share information with other freshman parents. One mom’s son is boarding a plane from Singapore and she’s expressing gratitude for other parents who’ve offered to be her son’s in case of emergency, his home away from home. Her vulnerability in letting her only child go is palpable and instantly I’m imagining my own. The wistfulness is coming and I feel it hovering just behind my eyelids.

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His buddy Bo especially will miss him.

After he leaves, I expect we’ll walk by his room and his brother’s and notice the picked over state of things – a lamp gone, pillows and clothes, also gone. Like my friend Carol, herself a mother of two college-aged boys, shared when I mentioned how shocking the empty room was two years ago when my first left: “The empty room is the worst. I do the same – going in there, afraid to vacuum up a single bit of DNA in case he needs to be reconstructed somehow…”

Evan, I want you to find your way and in many ways you have. These last few days together likely won’t be a celebration of family moments, but instead a rush to pack you up, even when I might instead want to hold you tight. Just when I’m feeling strong and mighty, I feel those tears waiting in the wings, asking, is it show time yet? Are you ready for us? Just as our children will, these tears also will come and go, and neither’s timing is something we can predict.

As different as my children are so are their college experiences. One moved six states away, and the other will move one county over. One walked New York City blocks to class and the other, at least in the beginning, will attend most classes online from his dorm’s XL twin bed. This pandemic finds the class of 2020 in an unusual situation. Face masks and hand sanitizer will become their closest companions, and finding a way to socialize while masked will hopefully in a few months become a distant memory. Please, vaccine, please come soon.

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Taking it all in during fall’s campus visits

I can’t wait for so much of it. That feeling of newness and excitement he’ll have as he navigates college life. The intensity of the classes on topics that intrigue him –goodbye French classes! – that pushes him out of his comfort zone and into better ways of thinking, new ways of connecting the dots. He will soak it all in and when I see him again, there will be stories to share.

I look back at life with both our boys and can’t help but smile. What a ride this has been and still is, for all of us! So much is still ahead. I hope when they look back in their own rearview mirrors, that their memories are even a fraction as sweet.

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Empty nester, Family, Midlife, Parenting, Self reliance

Leaving the Nest

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Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

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Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

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Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?