Author: Dorothy Sander

Beyond the Empty Nest

Beyond the Empty Nest

Life ebbs and flows.  There are times when we are swept away by the task at hand. Committed to our goals, we have all the energy we need to see them through to their conclusion. During these times we feel connected and involved in life. At other times, however, we may find we are living in a place of uncertainty. A kind of restlessness takes over. We feel discontent, lethargic and uncertain.

The childbearing years are a period of time when most mothers are caught up in the demands of the day as they chart the course for their children’s future.  We have little time in our days or space in our psyche to think about much else. A whirlwind of activity hurdles us through time and we hang on for dear life committed to the end.

One day, we wake up and find ourselves alone. Suddenly, we are empty nesters. It was easy to laugh and joke about it as we anticipated this moment. We couldn’t wait “to do our own thing”, “have the house to ourselves”, and “be free at last”. The reality, however, is quite different.

The ending seems abrupt and the change in our day-to-day lives seems bewildering.  We were so focused on our children that we did not adequately prepare ourselves for parent obsolescence.  Wasn’t it only a second ago that they couldn’t take a breath without us? How did they become self-sufficient so quickly? Oh yeah, that was the goal!

The empty nest can feel dreadfully quiet and lonely. In that quiet space it is easy to let self-doubt and fear creep in as we seem to lose our sense of value and purpose. Our children have left our world for their own, both physically and psychologically. They are building a life apart from us and we are no longer privy to the little ups and downs of their day to day existence.  How quickly we have forgotten how we felt at their age. Yes, we remind ourselves, they are doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing. But what are we supposed to be doing?

It is difficult to prepare for the feelings that an empty nest can create. When we begin to understanding that it is a period of transition for us as well we can give up fighting the discomfort and begin to take the necessary steps to find ourselves again. We can get through it and we will. Life will feel “normal” again. First, we must go through the in-between time.

During any transition period in life, whether it be an empty nest, retirement or a loss of any kind, it is important to take the time to grieve what we have lost. Our identity as a mother was a very important part of who we were for twenty years or more. It takes time to replace this identity with a new one. Allow yourself the time to grieve. Ask yourself, “what are the things about motherhood that I will miss the most? This is where your grief lies. Feel the sorrow. Let your tears flow. It is only after the grieving can you let that part of you go and make room for something new.

To make a successful transition avoid obsessing over the past.

Wallowing in guilt and regret about the things you wish you’d done differently as a mother is a clever way for your psyche to avoid focusing on the present or the future and to avoid experiencing the pain of grief and loss. Parents whose children are having difficulty adjusting to adulthood, are most vulnerable to falling into the regret trap. Whenever possible, stop yourself  from doing this. What’s done is done.  It is now your children’s responsibility to make the most of what has been given to them, just as we had to build a life from the hand that we were dealt. Our job is done. It’s up to them now.

Secondly, avoid the temptation to worry about the future. Living in fear of what tomorrow may bring is a very handy way of avoiding today as well.  Today is all we have. The future will take care of itself when we live today to its fullest.

The period of time between the ending of one phase of life and the beginning of another, is a  fertile opportunity for personal and spiritual growth. Rather than filling the void with fear and guilt, we can use the time to learn about ourselves.  Dare to just “be” in this quiet time, this in-between time. By tuning into our inner voice, we can listen to the callings of our heart and follow where it leads.

Spark this journey by reading a good book or learning something new. When we indulge our creative selves we are providing fertilizer for the ground of our true selves. The answers will come and the future will unfold as it should.

When we take the time to mourn the loss of our identities as mothers and dwell without resistance in the uncertainty of the now, we will uncover a new version of ourselves. We will become the women we were meant to be now.

We will be another version of who we were born to be!

 

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my book,

now available as a downloadable ebook right here on this website.

Caring for Mom ~ Midlife Reflections.

 

Every Day We Have a Choice

Every Day We Have a Choice

 

Every day you have a choice ~ to dwell on the past or focus on today. Ask yourself: what can I do today to bring me one step closer to my dream? You do have today…this moment…now. You owe it to yourself to make the most of it.

Life goes by so quickly. It seems I turned around and in a flash my kids were grown and I’m nearing sixty. Age is just a number to me. I don’t feel old. I certainly don’t feel sixty, but I haven’t a clue what sixty feels like so I can’t be certain. It sure doesn’t feel like what it looked like when I was young!  My body is showing the effects of time, but I often forget to notice and the impact is minimal.

Moving from fifty to sixty was difficult and challenging, but unlike what I had imagined, it has also been extraordinarily fulfilling. Like most mothers I cried when my kids left home and like most daughters I cried when my father died and then my mother. I churned with regret for too long about how I had spent my youth and lived in fear of the future even longer. But through hard work and the invaluable support and guidance of friends and books, I have ventured onto a path that feels like the one I am meant to be on. Trust me it’s not always obvious or blissful ~ but it is amazing and worth getting up for in the morning.

I think the fifties is the decade of change, the narrow, treacherous pathway that takes us from life then to life now ~ from seeking to being ~ from reaching for the future to living in the moment.

Life is richer now. My dreams are more meaningful and feel more attainable. We have today. I have today. You have today. We owe it to ourselves to make the most of it.

 

The Gift of Age

Getting It Together After Fifty

Mom's 100th Birthday

Mom's 100th Birthday

Mom's 95th Birthday Celebration
Mom's 95th Birthday Celebration

Today is my mother’s 100th Birthday. Though she did not live to blow out the conflagration on her birthday cake, I think she would have liked to. All things being equal, the world conspired against that eventuality. My mother was a woman who saw little in her life’s accomplishments, though they were many. She did not celebrate the number of meals she cooked in her life time, the number of loads of laundry she completed, or the number of times she came to the aid of someone in need. She did not keep track of how many batches of cookies she baked for her children, her neighbor’s children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren, and the church bizarre, while rarely eating sweets herself. My mother did not indulge in back patting. To the modern way of thinking, her perspective was flawed.

To her credit, she was able to brag about one thing and that was her age, once it advanced to the point where it surprised even her. In her last years, which numbered ninety-seven, whenever I took her shopping she would, without fail, start a conversation with a clerk in each store we visited. Often dispensing with all formalities she would get right to the point. Leaning into the individual conspiratorially (all five feet and ninety-eight pounds), with a decided twinkle in her eye, she’d pose her question, “I bet you can’t guess how old I am”. Then, stepping back she waited until they selected and announced a number that was invariably, by intention or design, lower than the actual one.  My mother would cherish her secret a moment, and then, as conspiratorially as before, divulge the truth. The clerk invariably responded to the truth with astonishment (by intention or design) and Mom beamed with the pride of accomplishment.

My mother was proud of this one accomplishment in her life, although it was easy to sense that she knew she was not entirely responsible for it. The pride of the moment was far more complex than she probably even knew herself. Though all she had done was to manage to survive, she had survived an exceptionally long life, very little of it of her own choosing. She had made the best of it and that truly was a feat. She survived and survived fairly well. Her kids grown and more or less happily married, her husband exceptionally cared for until the day she buried him, her house clean, her cookies baked, she could rest on her laurels long enough to be proud of her age.

It was not hard to see that beneath all of this false bravado was a woman who had done very few of the things she could have done, and had the times been different, would have done. Although I could not quite understand or name her actions at the time, now, three years after her death, I understand completely.  I face my own advancing age and I am much more bothered by what I have not done than what I have.  My mother’s restlessness was incomprehensible to me at the time when I could have made a difference and yet, I feel quite certain that she was locked too tightly within society’s boundaries to have broken free even with assistance.

I continue to wrestle with my family’s choices about her end of life care. She had no health problems that would have prevented her from making it to one hundred. I believed then, and I believe now, that she could have and would have if things had been different. But we chose her end of life care because she would not choose her own and as a result she was unhappy (on the inside), tragically, deeply, beneath the surface unhappy, much as she had been and tried to deny throughout her life.  Sequestered in a “retirement community” she felt cut off from her family, not because we didn’t “visit” but because we were “visitors” and in some sense no longer family. Her apartment was not “home” despite her valiant efforts to make it so. Surrounded by the feeble, the sick and the dying, sequestered within the walls of a commercially designed and decorated building, she felt deeply cut off ~ as much from the earth as the family. Nature had sustained her when nothing else did.

She did not have it within her vocabulary to ask for, or if necessary demand, what she wanted, alas needed,  to end her life properly. She had spent a lifetime denying her needs, how could her dying have been any different?  She chose to relinquish her preferred choice and take the path of least resistance. She chose to die instead and give up on reaching her goal of making it to one hundred. After all, did she really have a choice?

Would it have made any difference to anyone if she had lived another three years? Would her days have counted for more? I don’t know for sure, but I believe that to her it might have been among her greatest achievements, to have lived to be one hundred and to receive a letter from the President, recognition for a race well run, she might have died in peace. I know it would have made a difference to me.

Get What You Really Want

Get What You Really Want

The only way to get what you really want is to let go of what you don’t want. ~ Iyanla Vanzant

Getting what we want in life not only seems possible when we are young, but inevitable. Even in my darkest moments I believed with utter fervor and commitment that if I worked hard enough, did the right things, and followed the right path, I would have a fulfilling and meaningful life. I knew it would not be perfect, but it would be good enough.

Little did I know that I would be trapped by a mindset, passed down for generations, that would keep me bound and guided by forces that I could not see. Driven by a combination of habit, ego, and an immature idea of love and caring, I plowed through the first half of my life as if my days on earth were endless. Though that may sound extreme, it is crystal-clear to me (now that I have really “come of age”), that life is not what it seems when we are young!

When I woke up from a life, that upon reflection seems like a bad dream, I was nearly paralyzed by the awareness that in spite of the fifty years of effort and determination I was no nearer my original destination than I had been thirty years earlier. I felt as though I had wasted my life and that I had given it all away, keeping very little for myself.

My immediate response was to announce to myself and to anyone who would listen, “I’m done doing for everyone else. I’m done living my life for my children, my parents, my husband, my friends, my animals, my job! It’s time for me!” Those who bothered to listen undoubtedly heard the panic in my voice, and heard what I was really saying, “I’m running out of time! I need to pick up the pace!”

It has been almost ten years since my “mid-life crisis”. I still battle some of the same false beliefs that had pre-programmed my life, but the battle is fought with a little more wisdom…and compassion. One of  my most important lessons can be summed up by the quote by Lyanla Vanzant. “The only way to get what you really want is to let go of what you don’t want”.  We cling tenaciously to so many things in life, many of which have no real meaning or purpose in the overall scheme of things. These “things” keep us trapped, bound, and unhappy, whether they are material possessions, jobs, ideas or concepts.

The “letting go” is not always simple, or easy, and it isn’t a once and done kind of thing. In order to find a life of joy and meaning we must let go, over and over again. It is the only way to keep moving forward toward the life we were meant to live. The minute we begin to cling to something that does not bring joy and meaning to our lives, we can be certain that we are going away from our true selves instead of toward them. What drives us then is not passion but fear or insecurity. As we cling tenaciously to what we are doing, we use up the emotional and practical space we need available for something better. Sometimes we heap another layer on top trying to kill the pain and discomfort of living our wrong choices, by dousing ourselves in alcohol, material things, vacations, a new romance and a myriad of other escape tools. By filling our days with placebos, from the hedonistic to quasi-spiritual, we simply muffle our fear and accomplish only temporary escape from a life of true joy and inner peace.

Gradually, day by day, we can let go, one by one of those things that do not make us happy and then fill the space with something that does.  If you do not know what to put in the empty space, consider embracing the silence. Sit with the discomfort until you discover the exciting possibilities that exist just beyond your current awareness, they are ready and waiting and will truly fill the void.

Wishing You Peace in the New Year

Wishing You Peace in the New Year

Most of us have items that we treasure, some we have carried with us for many years. One of mine is a copy of Desiderata. Some time back in the sixties when I was in college I discovered this poem and the words quickly found their way into my heart and soul. They speak melodically of some of life’s universal truths.  Offering direction and encouragement without dogma or judgment the author is able to circumvent most belief systems rendering his message relevant and digestible to almost everyone, regardless of where we are in our spiritual journey. Fifty years later they still speak to me and I would like to share them here for you to read again or for the very first time. May they speak to your heart and help usher in a peaceful New Year. Thanks for being a part of the Aging Abundantly community.

Poem by American writer Max Ehrmann (1872-1945)

A Gift for Mom

A Gift for Mom

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield

My mother lived to be ninety-seven years old. Born in 1911 she saw the world undergo enormous changes. She lived a life that was not without its problems, but always seemed to find a way to give to those in need. When she and my father sold the family home and moved into a retirement community it was an enormous change for her. She didn’t know what to make of apartment living after tending to her own home and gardens most of her life. She struggled to make it “home” and for the most part, she succeeded. When my Dad died a few years later, she was adrift. Disabled from a stroke in his mid-sixties, she had hovered over him and cared for him for twenty years. She was a caregiver by nature and I learned, first hand, most of the tricks of the trade.

For the next eight years, my mother struggled to make sense of her life, to understand what it was she was supposed to do with her time while she waited to die. At first she rallied the necessary support from her children to fulfill her bucket list. Then she turned her attentions toward her neighbors in need. She baked cookies, washed laundry, fetched mail and looked in on sick and dying friends. There came a day, however, when she could do this no longer. One by one she gave up her caretaking activities. It was her turn to be cared for, but it was a completely unfamiliar role and she fought it every step of the way. This made it difficult for her children.

As we age we are asked to change our idea of ourselves and our purpose, sometimes multiple times before we die. As our physical and mental capacities diminish placing limits on our accustomed activities, we must find new ways of understanding who and what we are. For many it is difficult to live without a purpose, or for those like my mother who played more or less the same role her entire life, impossible. Trying to comfort my mother by distracting her was the only thing we knew to do. It may have been the only thing we could do. After all, each of us must make peace with our own lives, no one else can do it for us. This is the job of the elderly. This is the purpose of the last years in life.

It is hard for the living to understand the dying process. It is almost impossible to plan in advance how we will respond. Watching from a loving distance, as our parents pass through this difficult life process is their last real and valuable gift to us. We have much to learn from them even or especially when they are dying. What we witness will inform how we will handle our own last days. It may inform how we live from that day forward. Walking with them, loving them, and allowing them to do whatever thrashing about they need to do as they wrestle with their living and their dying is our last gift to them.