Commentary: Parents, prepare your empty-nest bucket lists
My daughter, Maya, recently graduated from high school, and the flurry of social media posts and yearbook signings and graduation parties has wound down. The anticipated August morning of her departure has arrived way too soon; Maya is boarding a plane to attend school in Boston, 3,000 miles away. She knew last fall where she would be going to school, because she was recruited for the track and field team. One winter day, though, her attention turned to me, and my plans.
"Momma, have you started your list of things you are going to do when I'm gone?" she asked.
"Besides cry?" I responded.
"No, really, I want to see you doing things that you didn't because you were busy taking care of me," she said.
So I took her advice, and I have started making my list. Among the goals are walking the 40-mile Timberline Trail around Mount Hood, cross-country skiing in Slovenia, becoming fluent in Spanish, maybe even getting a full-time job to fill my ample free time. My son, a rising high school junior, is still at home, but he's fairly self-sufficient and likes to remind me, "Mom, the umbilical is cut." I tell him it's never cut, but the strength of the cord changes, and, after all, he can drive himself to school.
Indeed my life will start a new chapter when Maya leaves. No longer will I experiment with recipes from Shalane Flanagan and Elyse Kopecky's "Run Fast Eat Slow" cookbook or stock my freezer with half a cow as I have the past few years to properly fuel her for cross-country and track meets. (Maya passed out at the cross-country state meet when she was a freshman because of a lack of iron. Since then, I have made it my mission to feed her properly.)
Some days I tear up thinking about this new chapter, and my gut hurts just imagining our home without Maya buzzing in and out. "It feels like postpartum depression," I tell another mother, of a much younger child. For the past 18 years, my life has revolved around my children. I worked part time so I could be more available for them when they needed me. My husband and I wanted to show our children the ocean, so for three years when they were in elementary school we traveled from San Francisco to Australia on a 50-foot sailboat, making hundreds of stops along the way. We visited Mexico, Nicaragua, the Galapagos, French Polynesia, Vanuatu, New Zealand and more. We functioned as a city in itself, taking care of our utilities and boat-schooling our kids. This was our family's "Cocoon" chapter; we were wrapped tightly together, and called ourselves the Kamayans, a nod to the name of our boat (a combination of our children's names, Kai and Maya).
When the kids got older, we returned to Oregon and started the "Being Normal" chapter of our family life. The kids started spreading their wings more and venturing out separately. We were no longer together 24/7. We traded Kamaya for a house, and the kids replaced their stuffed animals with Stormy, an Australian shepherd. Middle and high school brought a rigid schedule. Maya ran, and Kai translated his love for Star Wars into competitive fencing. Both kids prioritized school, sports and friends.
Now, as we shift from a family of four (five if you include Stormy) to a family of three, a new chapter begins. I am uncomfortable and nostalgic just thinking about Maya being so far away. But she has inspired me to take action before. When I traveled across Finland, from the Russian border to Sweden, on cross-country skis, I was occasionally tempted to call it quits in the midst of an 80-kilometer day. But I could hear her voice in my head saying, "Mom, you didn't come all the way to Finland to take a snowmobile - get in gear and finish the day on your skis." She also kept me going on a hike through the Tiger Leaping Gorge in China. Men on horses wanted to sweep me up and carry me, to make the journey easier. But Maya urged me on, saying, "Mom, you can do it!"
So I'm taking Maya's advice and sharing it with other parents. Start making your list. It's time for parents to let the kids soar with the eagles. And instead of being left behind on the ground, spread your own wings, as well, and embrace this new chapter. I just signed up to be a volunteer attorney for one week in Texas and am dedicating myself to vegetarianism. What's on your list?
This article was written by Ruth Berkowitz, a reporter for The Washington Post.