Tag Archives: empty_nest

Beta-testing Stormy 2.0

Despite the fact that I’ve never considered “Mom” to be my primary identity, I’ve been having a tough time adjusting to my empty nest. I remember back to when my mother-in-law found herself “retired.” Her husband passed away about the same time her youngest two graduated from high school. After spending 40+ years as a wife and mother, she literally didn’t know what to do with herself. She spent the next several years in a funk until a chance meeting with an old high school friend blossomed into a “golden years” romance.

Having seen her go through that, I—as a young mother—vowed to have more balance in my life so that my identity wouldn’t be defined by my relationship to my family. But as most of you probably know, raising a family while building a career doesn’t leave a lot of extra time for “self-actualization.” So despite my best intentions, now that my children are off starting their lives, I’m floundering too.

I try to get excited by the potential of what lies ahead—I’ve got time to pursue my interests now (if I could only remember what they are!), I’ve got time to volunteer for causes I’m interested in, time to reconnect with friends. I can totally reinvent myself for the next phase of my life. However, before I unleash Stormy 2.0 on the world, I need to figure out who I am today—independent of my role as wife and mother.

So, as an experiment I conducted a poll, asking my Facebook friends to describe me in three words. I thought this would be an interesting experiment because my Facebook friends are comprised of people from all walks of life: family, coworkers, former coworkers, and friends from high school, college and church. I assumed that I acted differently with these various audiences, and therefore different descriptors would emerge based on how I knew the person responding to the poll.

Here’s a Word Cloud that shows a distribution of the responses:

Screenshot 2014-03-24 21.05.25

Me in Three

First of all, keep in mind that the poll was conducted with Facebook friends. Consequently, I expected most words to skew toward a positive light. (But because just about any trait—when taken to an extreme—can be negative, I also tried to keep in mind that some of these traits might be categorized in a less positive manner by those who don’t know me as well.) Although it’s true that an assortment of terms were posted, a few themes emerged…

“Driven” took top billing – Okay, I expected that one from my coworkers, but I was surprised when a few family members chimed in with that descriptor as well. KitKat and I have observed that we both share a vague dissatisfaction with life—always wanting more despite the fact that we are both pretty blessed. So I recognized this trait as the source of my current unhappiness—because it’s a core part of my personality, yet I have nothing I’m driving toward. As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s a fine line between contentment and complacency. On the one hand, I credit my “drive” with helping me to accomplish many things in my life. On the other, I sometimes wish I could learn to be satisfied with all I’ve been given.

Another set of words centered around authenticity—being genuine. This surprised me a bit. I know I could apply a little more diplomacy at times, but I guess it’s generally considered positive that people know where they stand with me.

The most surprising responses? A current coworker who described me as “sweet” and a former employee who described me as “empowering.” Both of these responses made me smile.

Overall, the “Me in Three” exercise was insightful. While there weren’t any life-altering revelations, it was a good reminder that there is more to me than just my role as an employee, wife or mother, and I’m generally happiest when I can find a way to express all sides of myself. Now that I’ve got the time to reacquaint myself with those other aspects of my personality, I plan to do just that. At the same time, there are a few words missing from my Word Cloud that I would have liked to have seen appear among my three-word descriptions. Apparently these are traits that I haven’t quite mastered. So this exercise may also serve as my inspiration to make some new descriptors a reality. Can I do it? Of course… After all, I’m “intelligent,” “capable,” and let’s not forget: “driven”!

 

Baby bird gives mama bird lessons in flying solo

I’ve mentioned in a few posts how my youngest has flown the nest and how this has left me in a bit of a free fall. After spending 24 years actively parenting, it’s a little unsettling when you’re no longer needed except to dispense money and advice on occasion.

Child #3 left for college on Labor Day weekend and has barely looked back. She settled right into the collegiate routine, making friends and getting good grades. As her mom, I’m very happy that the transition was so easy on her, but I found myself missing her tremendously during the fall months.

A picture really does say a thousand words. Her smile in this orphanage photo was a promise of everything that was to come once she joined our family.

A picture really is worth a thousand words. Her smile in this orphanage photo was a promise of everything that was to come.

That’s because she is not only my baby, but from the time that she was very small, she was also my steady companion. Whether I was running errands, cooking dinner, visiting my parents, or doing chores—Blossom (in Stormy fashion, not her real name but a variation of her Chinese name) was always at my side, ready to help. However, during the last couple of years of school, I didn’t see much of her: Between school, work, sports, and volunteering, she simply wasn’t around.

So I was pleasantly surprised to be given an opportunity to spend time with my youngest over her Christmas break. Originally, Blossom had been planning to leave town shortly after Christmas, but her trip fell through and most of her friends had to head back to campus before her, so she found herself home for an extended break without any real plans.

During this time, we hung out a lot. We went shopping together. Despite my daughters’ no-holds-barred fashion critiques, Blossom wanted some pointers on how to evolve her look from high school jock to sophisticated undergrad. I remembered shopping with my mom at the same age (something I used to hate because my mom—having birthed nine kids—was never very happy with what she saw in the dressing room mirror) and was flattered that my daughter actually wanted my help. Being the experienced shopper that I am, I helped her get the most for her dollars and she came home with a bunch of new looks.

She accompanied me to the gym a couple of times, once as my personal trainer—a task she took very seriously. Why was I paying someone else to do this when my little sadist was as effective as any of them?! We also went grocery shopping, cooked together, and she visited me at the office, meeting my coworkers and going out for a “business lunch.”

pantry

Six boxes of lasagna noodles. Are we anticipating a global pasta shortage?

Blossom also helped around the house, taking down all my Christmas ornaments—heck, she even tackled my pantry solo. A daunting task, given I’m an impulsive grocery shopper who loves to cook.

I reflected on how much Blossom had grown up since leaving for college just a few months earlier. And I realized that, in many ways, she was a more functional adult than her older and ostensibly wiser mother.

My youngest is incredibly competent. The family joke is that it’s because she doesn’t share our genes or that it’s the result of “that good Chinese orphanage training.” She just dives in and does things. She doesn’t hem and haw or overthink things or dither around and get sidetracked (as I’m known to do). And it’s impressive to watch. She’s not intimidated by anything and she’s incredibly organized. As an employer, I’d hire her for any job in a heartbeat.

At the same time, she’s incredibly thoughtful and compassionate. When I was staying with my dad who has dementia after my mom’s hip surgery, she offered to go with me because, “I want to get to know Grandpa better and I know this whole thing has been hard on you.” She must have made an impression on him, too, because I was surprised a week later when my dad actually remembered where Blossom was going to college. (Heck, after 7 years, he still can’t remember where I work.) In fact, after one particularly trying day at the office, I came home late and she offered to 1) make me dinner and 2) give me a backrub!

The night before Blossom was to leave, I told my husband how much I was going to miss her. I realized she had temporarily filled a spot that my husband’s Parkinson’s had left vacant in my life. Although I’m an introvert, there are some activities I can tackle better with someone at my side—cajoling, challenging and encouraging. That’s Blossom in a nutshell. I know I can’t rely on my grown kids to fill that gap, however. They have their own lives to live and their own adventures before them. It left me thinking about how to address this on my own, and that’s when I realized my baby bird could teach me some lessons about flying solo.

A fierce competitor...against herself

A fierce competitor…against herself.

I decided I would do well to model a few of her behaviors—the ability to jump into a task without procrastinating, for example, or the genuine interest she shows in everyone from the butcher at the grocery store to her older relatives. As parents, we usually think of ourselves as the one teaching our kids, but as my kids have grown, I realize it’s a bit like horticulture—we’re propagating the strongest features, cultivating the best traits—and so I’ve learned there are many things they can also teach me. I hope that by learning from my kids, I’ll be able to fill my own garden with more blossoms and less weeds.

“Eat the spaghetti, it’s about to go bad”

I have eight siblings, and in talking to others from large families, I’ve discovered some commonalities to our respective childhoods: Hand-me-down clothes, waiting for the bathroom, sharing bedrooms. Likewise, the large-family phenomenon played out in the kitchen with certain reliable themes: Going out to eat was extremely rare and special (too expensive), there was a ubiquitous stack of white bread on the table for every dinner (aka: filler) and we all remember waking up early to snag the prize from the Apple Jacks (or even to get a bowl of Apple Jacks, since any sugared cereal would be consumed in half an hour and anyone who overslept was relegated to Wheaties instead).

hot_dogger

Electrocuted hot dogs, anyone?

While I experienced all of these things in my youth, this wasn’t my experience throughout my entire childhood. That’s because I occupy a spot toward the end of my sibling line-up: Eight of Nine (not to be confused with Seven of Nine from Star Trek). There have been some unique benefits from holding this place in the family, as well as some drawbacks. For one, I’m a pretty decent cook. My mother—who was a devoted homemaker for most of my older siblings—joined the workforce when my younger brother and I were in elementary school. So, as latchkey kids, we learned to cook earlier than many of our sibs. In fact, the baby is a rather accomplished chef. (It’s fun to think I knew him when his favorite kitchen appliance was the Presto Hot Dogger!)

So, I learned to cook at a young age. And, because I come from a large-family, I have a special skill for being able to cook decent food in large quantities. I can host Thanksgiving for 25 people without breaking a sweat—heck, I cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner of that size at the tender age of 17. (My parents were lined up to host, but my mother was sick that year, so I assumed the role of Head Chef.) I generally don’t break a sweat unless the guest list exceeds 50.

Part of this is due to my upbringing, but part of it is practicality—after all, it takes approximately the same amount of time and effort to make a 11×14 lasagna as a 9×9 lasagna, for example. In addition, it’s more economical to make, say, five pounds of pasta salad instead of one.

So I learned this particular skill from my mother, but there was a dark side to this cooking abundance. My mom never managed to adjust her cooking style to her shrinking family. Which means my little brother and I often heard the headline of this article (but you can substitute any number of foods for the word “spaghetti”) whenever we asked the dreaded, “What’s for dinner?” question in our teen years. He and I still laugh about this, but my older siblings can’t relate. Leftovers never lasted long enough to “go bad” in their day.

Which brings us to the present. I have three kids, so I became accustomed to cooking my usual “large batch” of whatever and putting half of it in the freezer. When we frequently ate family dinners and my son was going through his rabid-wolverine-growth-spurt phase as a teen, this method of cooking served us well. But now, with one kid away at school and the other two grown and rarely eating meals at home, I find myself throwing out perfectly delicious food—because it just isn’t being eaten before it starts to spoil.

It’s clear I need to learn a whole new method of cooking, but I think part of the problem is letting go of big family meals. I don’t want to admit that those days of the five of us gathered in the kitchen, comparing our busy days, and joking around–instead of a stack of white bread, our meals were always accompanied by much laughter–are over now, except for special occasions and holidays.

Perhaps instead of splitting my large batches into freezer portions of two five-person meals, I need to make five two-person meals. I’m sure I’ll figure it out, but I have to admit that on more than one occasion lately, I’ve pleaded with my own family to “eat the leftovers before they go bad.”  😦