On June 7, 2014 my youngest child, Little Man, walked across the stage at a local college gymnasium and got his high school diploma. As it was when his older sister and then his older brother did it, the day was filled with emotions that cover the spectrum. I was proud of him for sticking it out and getting there, when school was never an easy thing for him. I was happy that he could exhale and take a little break from all that effort (having decided to take a “gap year”). It was emotional knowing that my last “baby” is really growing up– though I have come to understand that 18 is the new 15, and this in no way means my nest is truly empty. Even if he were going off to a 4-year college and moving out, it ‘aint even over when they walk across that other stage! ‘Cause 22 is the new 17– and they often come back! *Do not question my math!
If you’ve ever been in a gymnasium, watching your youngest child finish twelve years of school–
Twelve years of hand-holding; birthday parties; play dates; schoolwork and school friends; parent-teacher conferences; field tripping and chaperoning; worrying and celebrating; sports events, and dances… twelve years of watching your child work toward going out in the world on their own– then you know how a mother’s heart can expand and surge, fracture and grow. You know the taste of bitter-sweet. That moment was precious and overwhelming all at the same time.
When my older daughter and older son graduated from high school it was emotional as well. Watching your oldest child take those first steps into adulthood is certainly transformative. There are no previous touchstones; it’s all new and impactful. Our girl is such a free spirit, such a self-driven individual. It was amazing and emotional to see my baby finish the first phase of school and life. I cried me a river, channeled by equal parts joy and loss. It was no easier when my middle son did it. He was attending a challenging boarding school, living and going to school an hour away from us– I was so proud of him when he walked across the stage to get his diploma. Sacrifices were made on all sides, for him to reach those goals, and we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and joy, to see him succeed and move on.
I watched my two older children graduate from high school and move on to college. I cheered them and supported them as they navigated living away from home– Principessa: in Massachusetts, 3,000 miles away, and Middle Man in California, just a two-hour flight. They both graduated college, and have flown afar. It hasn’t always been easy; there have been countless speed bumps. She went off to Israel, where she now lives full-time, and he did half a year in China and is now in Australia for a year. As I’ve written previously, there are so many adjustments as your children grow up and move on. You come to accept that they are no longer in your care and watch– or, you become a neurotic mess. They are out there living their own lives, and as a parent you can only sit back and hope for, and wish them the best.
Even though I’ve been through this two other times, watching my youngest son graduate from high school was transformative, in a much bigger way than I anticipated.
My youngest, Little Man, grew up in the community where we have now lived for thirteen years. He started kindergarten here and graduated from high school here in June. As a stay at home mother, I have been very involved in my children’s school lives, and particularly in the case of my youngest, that has involved many years of working side by side with so many players in so many roles. It has involved watching him struggle and succeed, and make his way to that day. Somehow, watching him graduate, I felt as if it all was happening in slow motion, as we both exited the arena we’ve both been in for all these years.
As I sat at graduation this time, I looked around the huge room and took in so many faces that I’ve known for years and years. Many of those faces have been a part of my son’s life– they’ve encouraged him, they’ve chaperoned him, they’ve baked for, cheered for, and witnessed countless moments in his life, and many of these same faces have walked side by side with me. While many of them have embraced me, many have not; we have not always been friends, but there we all sat, feeling many of the same things: a wellspring of so many emotions.
As all of this swirled around my head, and I craned my neck to see my boy’s anticipatory expressions, as I watched he and his classmates take in these moments of transition, I realized that my life was spinning into an enormous new zone that is entirely foreign to me. Empty nest is over used. It’s a fun and universally known phrase to throw around when talking to people, but it doesn’t begin to address what it feels like as you arrive there. What’s the nest? Is it the house you’ve all lived in? Is it the seasons of your children’s lives bundled together? Is it your mother-heart? Your life as a family? What is the nest, and is it really empty? That thought has swirled in my head for months now, as I begin to wade through this new phase.
Little Man turned 18 this summer. He is taking classes locally and working at the grocery store where I shop all of the time; he’s living at home for now. My nest is not empty, if we look at my home and our daily comings and goings. It’s quieter, but not empty. But, when I reflect on where I was 18 years ago, when we were starting out together, it was an entirely different world, an entirely different perspective. If I go back two more steps, to the arrival of my first child, I was 27 years old. That is stunning to me! My own daughter is three years away from that age now. I was starting out as a mother and heading into some of the most amazing years of my life. Age seemed a silly number to me, then. I had no clue what it all meant, or how to really appreciate those moments. I was so busy! When Little Man walked across that stage, and stepped off into his future, he unknowingly launched into some of the most amazing years of his life! The launch looks very different to me– those same 18 years will see me turning 70… Seventy years old!
It takes my breath away.
It’s unreal to imagine those years are before me, when I can so easily remember my young babies, and I’m still circling the nest we shared. I can still see their nursing faces close to my skin, and recall their sweet early years. But I can’t begin to imagine myself as a 70-year old woman. I can’t honestly see the road ahead. As scary as that is, it is also freeing. The day my boy graduated, in a sense, so did I. I’ve realized, more than ever, that these years can’t be wasted. There are no guarantees, and while there never were, that fact is a lot clearer now. I can’t waste my energies on anything that doesn’t bring me joy, that doesn’t fill me up. I don’t have room for people, things or situations that suck the sparkle out of me, and I don’t want to suck anyone else’s from them.
I wish it was easy, but it isn’t.
I can certainly see the writing on the wall, but I don’t always get it– still. In fact, I often don’t get it. I don’t always know the way and I feel lost. If you’ve read this blog long enough, you know that I’m my own worst enemy. I’ve certainly read the wonderfully supportive comments and the thoughtful suggestions; I’m grateful for the support and wisdom. I’ve worked on all of this long enough, that logically I should be past it, but it’s clearer and clearer to me that the road is not straight; it’s not even, and it’s certainly not easy. There comes a time when you either get that some people don’t want to play with you– no matter how many times they like your Facebook status or smile at you in public; that wanting something– working hard for it, doesn’t mean it’s going to work out (and you can find yourself paralyzed in seeking your own dreams), and that the clock is just keeps ticking– or you are destined to wander lost, forever. Tick, tock, tick!
My daughter sent me this 1+ minute video, recently, and it really struck a chord.
This is where I am. I’m a lobster.
I am a lobster, who has grown out of its shell; I’m a lobster that had to get very uncomfortable to move on and find a new shell. I’m a lobster, and that’s a good thing.
Graduation day was huge this time around. I know Little Man will be fine– in fact, he’ll be great! His high school graduation is just the beginning of some amazing times to come. For me, it’s the start of a very different time in my life. It’s a time for me to pull back and figure out what I really want, what kind of shell will fit now. It’s not a time to chase my tail or race down one-way streets. A good friend recently noted that deciding to really be true to what is best for you can sometimes make for some lonely days and nights. So true! But, I’m no longer afraid of being quiet; I don’t need to fill the space. I’m not aching to be included anymore, and I’m fine sitting by myself– at home, at a café, at lunch. I’m grateful for the friends I have, and the amazing life I’ve had. None of it’s a given; I’ve worked hard for it. This next twenty-four years will be very different than the last twenty-four, and while my boy got the diploma in June, I feel like– at 51, I’ve finally graduated too.
This song was played at my high school graduation practice, in 1981– sung by the incomparable Stevie Nicks, who wrote it when she was much younger too. As I walked into our high school gym, beside my friends and classmates, I heard it and was touched– but I didn’t really get it. All these years later, I finally understand what it means.
“Time makes you bolder; children get older… and I’m getting older too.”
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