BY DELISE DICKARD
Empty nest sounds so benign, like a simple way to say you finally have a chance to put things in order and know they will stay that way.
I’ve helped many people through the empty nest time of life, when children grow up and move on. But only now do I feel a tug against my own heart as my kids get older. That tug is so much stronger than I had imagined.
At this time of midlife, with my oldest daughter looking at colleges, I’m doing what I recommend to my clients: Get back to your passion.
What is it that you have been putting off for 18 years that you want to reincorporate into your life? Is it a book club, learning to golf, playing poker, swing dancing?
For me it is writing, so I recently set up my writing desk perfectly symmetrical to the window, and began looking for a couple of inspirational books for my shelf.
THE POWER OF JOURNALS
I came across an old, used journal and noticed it was one of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance Gratitude Journals. “Good,” I thought.
Journaling is another suggestion I make for refocusing on the positive during times of loneliness or transition, such as when the family nest empties. I advise people to write three things they’re grateful for each day.
When I found my old journal, I remembered that my journaling project made a significant impact on me when I engaged in it before. And yet to my amazement, my journal was nearly empty. I thought I’d kept up with it for a few months. In reality, I had made only 18 entries.
As I looked at the journal, I had a hard time figuring out when I’d written in it before. It seemed like not long ago, but on closer inspection, I realized my three girls were babies at the time. I mentioned them often in my writing. I was grateful for their health, a hug, the smell of their hair, recovery from the flu.
Most entries mentioned the girls, but the status of the house came in as a very close second. I was grateful for the laundry done, an organized closet, a clean kitchen floor. I have moved three times since then and can’t even remember the house, much less the floor. Was I really so focused on these mundane tasks?
Reflecting on journal entries can be a great way to examine where your thoughts lie.
I know I wasn’t always busy with the mundane. I remember filling up a plastic swimming pool with red Jell–O and plopping my babies in so they could squirm around, make a mess and even eat the Jell–O. I also gave great birthday parties—sometimes involving goats, chickens and hay.
But I also remember being exhausted. And as my daughters grow older and I contemplate an emptier nest, I recall a day in the grocery store, pushing all three in the basket. The 10-month-old was screaming, the middle one was ripping into a box of Cheerios and the 4-year-old was trying to pull anything she could reach off the shelves.
A gray-haired woman stopped, smiled and said, “These are the best years of your life.” I remember thinking briefly of throwing a can of baked beans at her.
Now, as I reread the pages of my old journal, I realize that I am becoming that woman. With every gray hair I pluck, I am growing into that random but kind woman I met 14 years ago at the grocery store.
I suddenly wish I had given her a big hug and asked if she would watch the kids for a second while I took a break in the produce section to contemplate her wise statement.
Wherever you are in your life, whatever the challenges or transitions, it’s worth considering the simple pleasures each day may bring.
Still perusing my diary, I finally found my clue to the exact year of this gratitude journal. It was 14 years ago on Easter Sunday, and I was thankful for four generations of girls in my family being together.
I didn’t know it would be the only Easter together with my baby and my grandmother, but at least I took a moment to be grateful—and another to write it down.
Now I wonder: How could 14 years have slipped by so suddenly?
The same evening that I found my old journal, my husband and I called one of our girls home from her boyfriend’s house so she could have dinner with us. We hadn’t seen her all week and knew we were using our last sliver of parental authority to get her home.
Obediently, she came home and sat with us, but didn’t eat. Later, she said she wanted to talk to me, almost as if she were a grownup. She is a grownup, I thought, trying to wrap my mind around it.
“Look, I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m enjoying my life,” she said. “I am not a child anymore. I am a participant in my own life and I love that feeling. I don’t want you to make me feel guilty about that. Does this make sense to you?”
She was exerting her independence but trying hard not to hurt my feelings.
“It makes absolute sense,” I managed to choke out, without a tear. “You’re lucky to feel this way so early. Some people don’t even achieve this sense of ownership their whole entire life. You are really owning your life. It’s what you are supposed to do. Even if I feel sad, it means I’ve done my job.”
And then I thought to myself, “Now maybe I’m the one who needs to grow up.”
Having a child almost ready to leave the nest may be a time of bittersweet feelings, but it’s also a time to focus on your successes and passions.
I’m hoping by the time my nest really is empty, I’ll be wiser.
Dr. Delise Dickard is a life coach, psychotherapist and director of Riverside Counseling. She welcomes reader feedback. For contact information, visit riversidecounseling.org.