Ten Good Things About An Empty Nest

We all know the downsides of the empty nest syndrome:  missing our children, the house feeling too quiet, we have to do our own yard work, etc.  But there are some good things about it as well:

1)  More closet space, and more drawer space.  You may even get a whole room to make over as an office, home gym, craft room, etc.

2)  Cheaper grocery bills.  If you have a son, MUCH cheaper grocery bills.

3)  Guest bathrooms that stay clean for days.

4)  You can go out to eat whenever you want to, and not worry about getting a sitter or a bunch of teenagers descending on your home while you are gone.  And if you have the rest of your meal boxed up to bring home, it actually stays in the refrigerator until you eat it.

5)  A good night’s sleep.  No more late nights waiting for your teenagers or young adults to get home safely.  They’re still out late, but you don’t know it.

6)  Much less laundry.  Sometimes you can go a whole week without doing a load.

7)  Your computer is almost always free, whenever you want to use it.

8)  You can wear what you want to wear, because there’s no one to tell you those are “Mom jeans,” or to say, “That’s what you’re wearing?  Seriously?”  Your husband is the only one who’s going to see your outfit before you leave the house, and he knows better than to criticize.

9)  The only music playing in your house is music you actually like.  No more rap.  Ever.

10)  You get to know your husband again, and if you’re lucky, remember why you fell in love with him in the first place.

Middle Age: The Perfect Excuse

Whenever I can’t lift something heavy or move as quickly as I used to, I blame my middle-aged body, and that’s probably accurate.  But when I trip on the stairs, knock over my water glass as I’m reaching for the salt shaker or take ten swings to sink a putt on a miniature golf course, I can’t honestly blame middle age.  The truth of the matter is, I’ve always been a bit of an un-athletic klutz.

While I was never the last kid picked when we were choosing teams at recess, I was also never one of the first kids selected.  I was usually added to a team when about half the kids had already been chosen, and that was mostly when I happened to be friends with the child doing the choosing.  The only time I excelled in gym class was when we were tumbling, and asked to do something the gym teacher called “knee walking,” which is exactly what it sounds like.  We knelt down, reached behind us to grab our feet and walked across the mat on our knees, putting all of our body weight directly on our kneecaps.  I stood out from the rest of the class because I was able, and willing, to knee walk right off the mat and across the entire wooden floor of the gym and back.  Obviously, I wasn’t the brightest kid in class, but I was definitely the one with the toughest knees.

In high school, I played volleyball my senior year only because it was a brand new sport at our school that very few other girls wanted to play, so they were desperate enough to ask me.  I steered well clear of track and basketball, and the thought of trying out for the pom-pom or cheerleading squads never even entered my mind.  I was just proud of myself for taking gym class all four years and never once flunking out.  In my twenties, I did have a short stint on a church-sponsored co-ed softball team, where I spent the entire season in right field, literally praying that no one hit the ball to me.  Although I did catch a fly ball, once.

But now that I’m middle aged, I’ve realized that I don’t have to admit to being a klutz anymore.  Never mind that I have never been athletic or coordinated:  I’m middle aged, and THAT’S the reason for any and all of my physical deficiencies.  It’s taken me over half my life, but I have finally come up with a believable excuse!  I just have to make sure I avoid everyone who knew me before I turned fifty…..

“With A Little Help From My Friends…”

First of all, I need to say that I’ve been lucky enough to have found some very good friends in recent years.  I’m not talking about casual friends, I’m talking about true friends:  people I can count on when I need help, people who let me express exactly what I am thinking and feeling without judging, and people who encourage me to be the best person I can be.  Their friendship is an incredible gift, and I never doubt how lucky I am to have them in my life.

But one of the advantages of aging is the gift of life-long friends, those “old” friends I have known for most, if not all, of my life.  The awkward teenage years,  the nervous new-mom years, all the way to the “how will I ever survive menopause?” years, these are the friends who have seen it all, or at least most of it.  There’s nothing quite like spending time with people you have known for decades.  They’ve been a constant in my life, and when I say, “remember when?” they always do. Often they add memories that I have forgotten until they bring it up, and then I have a new memory to savor.  There’s something deeply comforting and affirming in those kinds of friendships.

“Old” friends don’t feel the need to impress each other, which means you can talk openly and honestly about almost everything.  They know your strengths, and encourage you to use them.  This blog would not have been started without the almost constant encouragement (okay, nagging, but in a good way) of a friend I met in sixth grade, and I am beyond grateful to her for that.  Old friends also know your weaknesses, which just means they know exactly when to step in and offer a helping hand.

In a world where we are so used to having to “put our best foot forward” and hide our faults, it’s no small gift to spend time with people who accept us just they way we are.  I often joke that I would never use any of my life-long friends as a job reference, simply because they know way too much about me!  But that is fine, as I have plenty of people who know only the public, “surface” me (several have told me how calm I am, which couldn’t be further from the truth) who I can list as a reference if I ever need one.  But those aren’t the people I turn to in times of need, or when something wonderful has happened and I want to share it.

True, life-long friends are the ones who keep us grounded, keep us going when times get rough and are a constant reminder that we are never really alone.  They make the problems of middle age seem so much easier to bear.  And the nicest thing about making new friends is that, twenty years from now, I’ll have even more old, long-term friends.  It almost makes me look forward to my senior years…..

Waiting for things to be “right”

I have far too many bad habits to list in this blog (I would have to change the blog’s name to “Stupid Things I Do On A Regular Basis” and who would want to read that?), but I think my worst habit is my tendency to wait to enjoy myself until whatever current crisis I am dealing with is over, and my life is flowing smoothly.  I’ve been on this earth for over 56 years, and my life has never been without some problem or another.  Yet for some silly reason, sometimes I think that I have to wait for everything to be perfect before I can be happy.

When my children were very young, I remember thinking that life was going to be just fine once they were potty trained, able to sleep through the night, and weaned off the bottle.  They accomplished all that, and yet our family life was still very chaotic as they grew older and we juggled school schedules, sports activities, church activities, etc.  And through it all, I waited for that magic moment when things would “calm down” and life would be the way I thought it was supposed to be.

As an aspiring author, I thought that I would finally feel successful just as soon as I published something.  Then I sold my first article to a neighborhood newspaper (called, I kid you not, “The Zip-0-Nine News”) and I realized that didn’t quite cut it.  So I slogged away, selling articles to other, more professional, regional newspapers and magazines, and finally to a national magazine, followed by the sale of a short book to an educational publisher.  It wasn’t much, but I still wish I had been wise enough to take more joy in those accomplishments rather than always focusing on the next sale, which I was quite sure would finally launch my real writing career.

Between my family, my husband’s job, my writing, my friends, and just plain old life in general, there is always going to be some problem that needs to be solved, some crisis that needs to be dealt with and some event that needs to be planned.  And finally, in my middle age, I am starting to figure out that this is how my life is always going to be.  I’m never going to cross that final item off my “to-do list,” or feel as if I have finally “succeeded.”

It may sound corny, but life really is a journey, and learning to enjoy it through all the mess and imperfections is absolutely essential.  I’m not sure why I had the horrible habit of waiting for things to be perfect, or why I still find myself slipping into that mindset every once in a while.  But I do know that it is a habit I need to break if I want to really appreciate the gifts I have in my life.  The road on my particular journey may not always be smooth, but I’m finally realizing that doesn’t mean it can’t be good, right now, even with all the bumps and potholes.  I just have to be smart enough to know it.

Five Things I Learned After I Turned 50

1) I’m not doing myself or anyone else a favor by taking on more than I can do.  I do like to help people, and it does make me feel good to agree to contribute my time to a good cause.  But when I over commit to too many activities, I end up being so stressed and crabby that I don’t do any of it well.  And no matter how good my original intentions were, that doesn’t help anyone.

2) I don’t need a lot of friends, but I do need a few good friends.  They don’t even have to live nearby (one of the benefits of technology is how easily you can stay in touch with long-distance friends these days).  They just have to be the sort of people who know exactly what my faults are and yet manage to like me anyway.  Which is, of course, exactly the way I feel about them!

3) True beauty comes from within.   The only advantage to all the wrinkles, sags, and bags I’ve grown with middle age is the realization that my youthful looks really weren’t that big a part of who I am.  I have figured out that if I want others to see me as attractive, it will have to be as a result of my behavior.  Because it’s our words and actions that make us beautiful.  Really.

4) My children will always be my children, no matter how grown up they are.  They may be stronger, bigger, and probably smarter than me, and I often have to ask their help to move heavy furniture and set up my new electronic gadgets.  But at a very basic level, they will always be my babies.   All it takes is for one of them to be sick or upset for me to switch right back into my “momma mode.”  If you have kids, you know exactly what I mean.

5) I will never, ever be too old to try new things.  And that’s good, because trying new things is what keeps me feeling young, even in my middle years.

A Merry Middle-Aged Christmas

I wasn’t really looking forward to Christmas this year.  I’m not sure why, but it may have been that I didn’t feel prepared.  Thanksgiving was late and I was sick a lot in early December.  Or it may have been the civil unrest St. Louis has been experiencing lately.  But for whatever reason, I just wasn’t looking forward to Christmas as much as I usually do.

As an adult, I know I can never get as excited for Christmas as I did when I was a child.  Back then, Christmas was the most exciting day of the year, and I could hardly wait for it to arrive.  Then I had my own kids, and through them, I was able to relive some of the old joy:  baking cookies, decorating the tree, singing “Away in the Manger” at church, and waiting for Santa’s big visit is so much fun with small children.

But now my son and daughter are grown up and in serious relationships, and Christmas has become a bit more complicated.  We juggle schedules  to accommodate everyone’s family, buy grown-up presents instead of toys (and those presents are often some piece of technology that I can’t operate or even identify,) and I realize there’s no longer any need for me to make my usual eight different kinds of Christmas cookies.  Maybe I thought things had changed a little too much for Christmas to be really fun anymore.

But it was fun.  In fact, Christmas this year was great!  We invited my mom over to help decorate our tree, and enjoyed that so much it will probably be a new tradition.  And since I no longer have to bake all those cookies for our kids’ various activities, I was free to make just a few batches of the cookies I like best.  Best of all, I didn’t have to set foot in a crowded toy store or worry about anyone being sold out of the one toy my child desperately wanted this year, which made Christmas shopping pretty darned easy.

Even the schedule juggling worked out.  We were lucky enough to be together with our kids and their significant others for part of both Christmas Eve and Christmas day.  And those times when they were with other families turned out to be the perfect time for my husband and I to have some much-appreciated down time:  we walked the dogs, took naps and watched “The Christmas Story” on TV for the umpteenth time.  It’s amazing how relaxing Christmas can be when you’re able to take a little break from it now and then.

Christmas is definitely different now that I’m an adult, and my son and daughter are also adults.  But different doesn’t mean worse.  On the contrary,  I’ve discovered that a “middle-aged Christmas” can be very merry indeed!

I Can Do This

I remember the day I took my newborn daughter home from the hospital.  I was still exhausted from the labor (36 hours) and delivery, and missing an entire night’s sleep.  My husband and I couldn’t figure out how to get our new infant car seat properly installed, and had to get a kindly nurse to strap it in safely for us.  Then we drove the whole way home in very heavy traffic, and for some reason I was convinced we’d be in a car accident before we managed to get our new baby home.  In short, I was a nervous wreck.

I felt completely unprepared for the demands of taking care of a newborn:  the lack of sleep; my new, lactating body; the crying jags (usually hers, sometimes mine); and most of all the overwhelming sense of responsibility that came from knowing another human being was so completely dependent on me.  The joy of having a baby came with many moments when I was quite sure I was in way, way over my head.

But I wasn’t.  That newborn is now a 27-year old woman who is both happy and healthy.  I managed to raise both her and her younger brother (also happy and healthy)  with no major problems, no visits from the child welfare services and only a couple of trips to the emergency room.  Although I didn’t always believe it at the time, I really was up for the challenge of raising children, and it turned out to be a pretty great experience.  I found out that I was much stronger than I thought.

Which is something I need to remember now, on those days when I once again find myself thinking that my life is changing too fast, and sometimes doubting that I can handle it.  The kids have moved out (taking a big chunk of my identity with them), my eyesight is going,  my mother needs my help more each day, my job skills are useless in today’s market, and I am way behind the learning curve when it comes to keeping up with new technology.  I could go on, but you get the picture.

But…. I can do this.  My family is changing, my body is changing and the world around me is changing, and keeping up with it all is no picnic. Which, if you think about it, is very similar to the changes I faced when I first brought my daughter home all those years ago. It wasn’t easy, but I managed then, and I’ll manage now.  Once again, I’ll find strength I didn’t know I had, and I’ll have many more good days than bad as I live through this particular phase of my life.  And in the end, I’m pretty sure I’ll look back on these years and realize that, in its own way, being middle-aged isn’t so bad at all.

Some things don’t change

My husband and I went out to dinner the other night with a friend we hadn’t seen since he was in a groomsman in our wedding over thirty years ago.  We were a little nervous about it, since the friend now has a new wife we have never met, and we weren’t sure we would have anything in common with him after so many years.  But he and his wife were passing through St. Louis on their way home from Florida and wanted to meet for dinner, so of course we said yes.  After all, at one time this man was a close enough friend to be included in our wedding party, so we were willing to meet and hope that we could reconnect.

Happily, we had a great time, telling the “remember when?” stories, catching up on each other’s lives and getting to know his new wife.  (They were even nice about it when I accidentally knocked my water glass into my wine glass and the wine spilled all over my husband’s shirt…luckily, I was drinking white.) It may have been over thirty years since we’d seen each other, but it didn’t feel that way.  It was nice to realize that we still enjoyed each other’s company and that he was, essentially, the same person we’d been friends with back in our college days.

At a time in my life when so many things feel new (and often a bit scary), it’s reassuring to be reminded of all the things that haven’t changed.  During last year’s vacation, my daughter and I went on a horseback ride.  I was lucky enough to have a horse when I was a teenager and young adult, but I was nervous because I hadn’t ridden in years.  Yet as soon as I settled in the saddle, the old skills kicked back in.  I found I still knew how to guide the horse, balance my weight as we went up and down steep hills and calm the horse when she startled.  I still knew how to ride.

When my kids were home, there just wasn’t time for many of my old interests and hobbies, or keeping in touch with old friends. But the upside of being an empty-nester is having the time to do some things just because I want to.  I took piano lessons as a child, so I got a new piano and now I’m beginning to play again.  I’m writing fiction again.  I’m reconnecting with old school friends on Facebook, and sometimes in person, and I enjoy their company just as much as I ever did. I feel as if I’m discovering parts of myself that I thought were gone for good, and I love that.  By reconnecting with activities and people I used to enjoy, I’m also reconnecting with….me.   And that’s turning out to be a good thing.

The new me

I hate those magazine articles where an “aging” celebrity gushes about how happy she is to be in her fifties.  I don’t want to hear how comfortable she is with her appearance,  and I especially don’t want to hear how she thinks she has never looked better.  Call me a skeptic, but I’m pretty sure she’s lying.  And even if she’s not, I think, “Of course you’re happy with your looks!  You have a full-time personal trainer, you can afford a top plastic surgeon, a professional make up artist and a hair dresser who can work miracles!”

But what about the rest of us?  Those who see new wrinkles in the mirror, but can’t always afford to have them smoothed out surgically?  Those who don’t have a personal trainer and a gym membership, but are trying to make due with control-top panty hose instead?  It’s harder to love the aging body when you don’t have expensive, expert assistance to help you cope.

I make an honest effort to eat right and exercise regularly.  I dye my hair, use moisturizers and anti-aging creams, even give myself the occasional facial.  But I most definitely don’t think I have “never looked better.”  My eyesight may be fading, but it hasn’t gotten that bad.  I see the wrinkles; I notice the sags.  And I wonder why I was so critical of my face and body back when I was young and wrinkle-free!

So, like middle-aged women everywhere, I just do the best with what I have.   I search for a better concealer, try yoga classes and experiment with new hairstyles.  I’ve discovered that bangs and longer hair, slightly curved around my face, can hide a lot.  So can turtleneck sweaters and big, dark sunglasses.

But mostly, I try very hard to accept the way I look now and to let go of the fruitless need to try to stop time and keep the face and body I used to have.  This is the new me, flaws and all.  It’s not that I’m giving up on trying to look nice.   It’s just that I want to begin treating myself now the way I wish I had treated myself when I was in my twenties.  Which means to stop being so self-critical, focus on the positive, and give myself a break from unrealistic expectations.  And remember that the day will come when I see a photo of me at this age and think, “What was I complaining about?  I looked just fine!”

The clock is ticking

One of the worst parts about getting older is realizing that time is, literally, running out.  When I was in my twenties, I measured time in terms of accomplishments, as in:  “I can’t believe I’m twenty-five and still working at a dead-end job,” or “I’d better have my first book published by the time I’m thirty!”  Time was something I had plenty of, and my only worry was marking each milestone with the appropriate accomplishment.

But now I”m in my mid-fifties, and I feel a definite sense of urgency whenever I think of all the things I’d still like to do.  It scares me to realize that I’ll be in my mid-seventies in another twenty years!  I may not be old yet, but the “golden years” are definitely on the horizon.  And that means making life choices is getting much more complicated.

Dave and I love our old house, and have lots of great memories of our kids growing up here.  But the master bedroom is on the second floor, up a steep set of stairs, and that could be a problem when we get old.  So, do we stay here until we can’t get up the stairs anymore and are forced to move?  Or do we move now, to a house with a first-floor master bedroom and wider doorways so we don’t have to worry about moving when we’re, you know….old?  What exactly is the ideal age to buy a “geezer house?”  We have bought and sold several houses, but this is the first time the question, “will we be able to handle the stairs in ten or twenty years?” has come up.

Any way you look at it, I have already lived more than half of my life.  And that can be a depressing thought.  But in a strange way, it can also be a blessing.  I don’t have time to put off the important things any more, or carelessly count on a tomorrow that may or may not come.  I’m learning to say “no” to commitments that keep me from concentrating on what is really important to me:  my family, my friends, my writing, my work with shelter dogs, etc.

Time may be running out, but at least I finally understand that time is a precious commodity that I can no longer afford to waste.  And that’s not a bad thing at all.