Empty nest or empty bed?
I think it’s just an empty bed, because the nest surrounding it is filled with the laundry that gets washed but doesn’t go in the dryer, so there’s a forest of detergent-scented shirts and undies to hack through. And of course, I still have one child at home.
But let’s go ahead and talk about the empty nest thing. The other day on Facebook, I saw a short video meant to tug at the heartstrings and tear ducts of women my age and up (all with gray or white hair, yes!!) giving individual answers to what they’d have done differently. All said some variation of they’d have slowed down, appreciated the small moments, snuggles, hugs, bedtime delays, etc more than they did. Ok, fair enough, and it was a nice little video, but my immediate thought was, I did all that. I did all that, and I wish I had done a little (not a lot, but a little) less of that.
When I was a kid I swore that when I grew up, I was going to have children, keep them, let them feel how loved they were, know they came first, devote my everything to them while encouraging independence. Check. I’m glad I’m a mom, glad I spent the time, feel somewhat confident that I’ve done and continue to do the best I can. Mistakes made? Check. Decisions I regret? Check. But I not only adore my kiddos, I like them, like spending time with them, love hearing the laughter, and feel like the most miserable, useless human being on the face of the earth when they cry. When they were little, Husband and I practiced attachment parenting; holding them until they fell asleep–in our room–, I breastfed for a combined total of 8000 years, and agonized over which toy, what rules, which foods, and on and on.
I thought, because I was aware and making a conscious choice to center my world around them, I wouldn’t lose myself. To some degree, that’s been true. I wouldn’t resent them. That’s certainly true. I remembered to maintain my friendships and get “grown-up” time. I didn’t stop listening to the music I loved, didn’t stop reading anything other than the Scholastic Book catalogue, didn’t let my life be ruled by playdates and mommy and me classes. Still, looking back, I wish I had nudged myself and my writing just a little higher on the to-do list.
During those early years, I heard a fair amount of backlash. “you’re pregnant again?” “you’re still nursing?” And of course the whispers I wasn’t meant to hear but did, “those kids are never going to be independent.” “never going to wean.” Yawn. The same whisperers who swore my kids would never be able to fall asleep without me let alone become functioning adults, murmured again when each boy left for boarding school. “I can’t believe she’s sending her kids away!” Yawn. For the 492nd time, I didn’t send them away, I allowed them to go. Not just semantics. Boarding school isn’t the best choice for every kid for many different reasons, but it was for two of mine.
So this video has stayed on my mind. This morning I saw a link and discussion about another video. I didn’t click the link, just read the discussion, about a commercial being aired (in Asia, maybe?) about a mom sitting alone, miserable because her nest is empty and the kid(s) hasn’t called, even though she devoted her every everything to this ingrate. Call your muthah. The discussion was all about how terrible it is for women to center their lives around their children, it’s their own fault, unrealistic expectations, excessive guilt trips, and a few posts about this-is-why-I-choose-not-to-have-children. Fair enough. There are many reasons to choose not to have children, and I believe all should be accepted. #1, it’s nobody else’s fucking business and #2, parenting is long and hard no matter what parenting philosophy you subscribe to, with absolutely no guarantees about anything; not whether you’ll enjoy it, feel good about it, have a good relationship when all is said and done, or whether or not those kiddos will be healthy and sound enough to grow up and become independent.
The other day was my birthday, and I have to say, it was an excellent day. I woke to flowers from Husband, Art Child made me a fantastic card, Man Child messaged me from Italy (unexpected, I figured he’d still be jet lagged and getting his legs under him), Nerd Child not only called me, but happened to be with someone I’m a big, long time fan of, and the man got on the phone and wished me a happy birthday! I stayed in my pajamas until the afternoon, got several texts and phone calls from friends, and my buddy El Fab came over for dinner. Would I have been angry if the boys hadn’t remembered and contacted me? Given them lectures, guilt trips, and slide shows about why they should have? Nope, but it sure was beautiful that each remembered me.
It seems natural, logical to me that at the other end of this parenting gig (sure, you’re a parent forever, but there is usually a point where the kiddo develops their own life, be it from the basement apartment, across state lines, or on another continent) and there’s a period of, dare I say it? Wondering what’s next. Maybe even feeling a bit of emptiness. When someone spends years building a career and then stops working, it’s the subject of good natured teasing, maybe even compassion, “(s)he doesn’t know what to do with himself.” I don’t hear a whole lot of “I told her not to make so much damned money…be such a dedicated worker…if he had put more into it, he wouldn’t be miserable now…eventually she had to retire!” I definitely haven’t seen any videos floating around chastising retirees.
We are all individuals, same as our children are. I know parents with adult children who speak to their children every single day, see them twice a week, and live within spitting distance of each other, can’t conceive of going a month without seeing each other. They’re living their lives, and happy. I know parents with adult children who speak once a week, see each other once every month or two, live a couple of hours away from each other, living their lives, and happy. Some live in different countries, speak when they can, and are thrilled if they see each other every year or two. Others live around the corner from each other, or thousands of miles away, and don’t speak at all, too many years of anger and resentment. And then there are some who have experienced the terrible, unimaginable heartbreak of losing a child to illness, drugs, or violent crime. Yes, we can (do?) all look back and see moments where we wish we had made different choices. For ourselves, for our families. I sure as hell can’t look back at someone else’s life from my living room and my perspective and tell them what they should have done. Does this make me a bad feminist as well as a bad mama?
After all these years of mama-ing, hindsight leads me to this one question: When are we going to stop with the judgmental bullshit? Call me crazy, but I don’t think there’s one right way to parent, one right way to live, one right way to be independent.