the middle years

Now that my kids are mostly grown and halfway flown, I’ve been wondering: what’s the point of anything? 

barn window time capsule

For the last twenty-plus years, everything I did — all the cooking and baking, gardening, writing, homeschooling, projects, trips, books — revolved around either: 1) taking care of my family, or 2) escaping my family. I thrived on being needed, the pressure and excitement, the chaos and relationships, the freedom to do what I wanted within specific parameters. And I still do! This is who I am. But now that my family is disintegrating (not to be dramatic or anything but: FACT), the activities I love are no longer necessary.

Example One: I enjoy big-batch cooking and making my own staples and freezing garden produce, but absent a pressing need, what’s the point? It’s certainly a whole lot easier to just pick up a jug of milk at the store.

Example Two: I used to crave uninterrupted solitude but now there are long stretches of time when I’m home all day by myself, free to write and read and do whatever I want. Without the need to escape, the thrill of solitude is diminished. So again, what’s the point?

newly licensed

These five acres where we live were the stage upon which we built our children’s childhoods. This land, and the animals and house, gave us something to work on and bond over, together

But now that the kids are peeling away, my husband and I have to decide how much of this lifestyle we want to maintain. Neither of us are farmers or gardeners — we do these things because we value them, not because they’re our passion.

Maybe this matters, and maybe it doesn’t. Either way, it’s something we have to figure out.

off to PA for a week with friends

The house feels so big now. It’s not huge huge — only 1800 square feet — but it’s plenty. More than plenty, really. What to do with all the space? How to use it in a way that feels meaningful? 

“Can’t it just be our home?” my husband asks. “Can’t that be enough?” 

Which is reasonable enough. But I can’t seem to stop wanting it to be more. Wanting more.

leaving for a week of camp orientation and training (kitchen staff)

Is my urge to burn everything down — leave everything I know and move to another country — a side effect of approaching fifty? Of climate change? Of perimenopause? Of empty-nesting?

Absent my normal rammy exuberance, I move gingerly. No sudden movements, I tell myself. One foot, then another. Eventually things will sort themselves.

heading north for a couple weeks

Recently, I’ve started thinking about adulthood as three, twenty-year chunks. In the first 20 years we made a home and raised a family — my husband and I had our kids right in the beginning and all in a rush precisely because we wanted to parent while we were young and then be done with it — and in the third set of twenty years, I hope to be available to support our children, however they might need us. (I have a hunch that grandkids, if and when they come, will bring a renewed sense of purpose to our home. My parents’ place is a second home to the grandkids — they go there for meals, lessons, stories, ice cream, sleepovers, fort-building, advice — and I want our home, and us, to be similarly available when the time comes.)

But this second set of twenty is all ours. We are still relatively young. We have energy and good health. And we are free! We can sell our house, go back to school, volunteer, hike the Appalachian trail, travel. 

What are our goals? I keep asking. What’s our focus? What’s our purpose? What do we want to accomplish in these next five years, ten years, twenty? What do we want to experience? Is there an unidentified dream lurking just beneath the surface? Some task, or some people, that needs us?

I don’t want to wake up one day when I’m sixty and realized I just frittered this time away. I only have one life, after all.

(There is a chance I may be overthinking this.)

Recently, when I unloaded all this on a girlfriend, she asked if I was depressed. (And then another friend asked me the same thing. I have good friends.)

I don’t think so, I said. I wake up excited, in a mellow sort of way, for the day ahead. I smile and laugh. Mostly, I’m pretty much okay. Just, there’s an emptiness, a not-knowing.

It’s unsettling.

I never wanted to be the sort of mother who lost herself in her children so all along I was intentional about both investing in my children and doing the things I wanted to do, like writing and acting and baking. I was fiercely, selfishly protective of my time and energy, and proud of it. 

So it’s caught me off-guard, this unmoored feeling. I mean, I expected empty-nesting wasn’t going to be easy, but I thought my drive for newness and adventure, coupled with my independent streak, would be enough to power me through, unscathed. 

The other day I had an epiphany: it’s like I’ve been fired.

For the last 20 years, mothering was my job — heck, I made it into a freakin’ career what with homeschooling and gardening and fostering and volunteering in other countries (and I am so glad I did) — so the fact that I’m at loose ends doesn’t mean that I somehow lost myself to my children. Rather, I lost my job, that’s all. Of course I’m adrift. This is normal.

When I told my husband about my epiphany, he was quick to correct me. “You didn’t get fired, Jen. You just got your hours reduced.” (I think he was worried I might do something drastic.) 

And he’s right, but the job-loss analogy has still been helpful. And because this particular sort of job loss is gradual, there’s no abrupt endpoint from which to pivot, it’s all the more complicated.

And that’s okay.

To be clear, I’m not pining over the early years when my house rocked with little ones. Not at all. I very much want my kids to grow up and move out. I love being with my husband, just the two of us. (That we have been having more fun than ever has been a huge surprise. I had no idea our enjoyment of each other could ramp up so much!) I’m just . . . I don’t know . . . idling.

It’s like I’ve been kicked out of gear and now I’m stuck in neutral and can’t figure out how to work the clutch.

In every crisis, there’s an opportunity. This isn’t a crisis — not by a long shot — but it’s definitely an opportunity. 

The trick is just figuring out what, exactly, the opportunity is….

somewhere in upstate New York

Wish me luck! xo

This same time, years previous: family road trip: Framingham, cherry picking, Korean beef, the quotidian (6.22.15), three things, weigh in, please, beets, half-mast, a number of things.

15 Comments

  • suburbancorrespondent

    I totally get all of this. I feel very unmoored, as if there is nothing to anchor my life around, missing a sense of purpose, etc. It’s very confusing, yet I know I will find something and things will resolve. I just don’t like this in-between period, is all!

  • Becky R.

    Like most women, you are a natural caretaker of others. The lack of others’ needs to plan your day around does make one feel unmoored when it has been your life for a long time. I understand your sense of loss, but you do really need to see this as an opportunity. I speak from experience, I am much older than you and have gone through this myself. You now have the opportunity to focus on what you would like to do. It’s a new way of thinking, for sure. And you need to be patient with yourself, revel in your accomplishments with your children, and see how this plays out. It’s a loss, and it is natural to grieve over it. Don’t make any drastic changes for about a year. See how you feel then, after you have let things evolve. In the meantime, work on that to-do list and stay busy. Surely you have one? If not, I can send you mine – LOL. It never ends.

  • laurielasalatuttle

    I also had a hard time when my grown kids moved out, and many women DO feel this way. Do you still work at the bakery, and if so, would you like to increase your hours there?

  • Mountaineer

    Geesh! Not so fast–you’re still not done with the primary parenting! (But it is good to plan/contemplate what will come next, so as to transition smoothly when the time comes.)

  • Michelle

    I so understand this. I’m about 20 years ahead of you, and I still feel this from time to time. You nailed it so well you made me cry. Parenting is the best job I ever did. It’s the only job where if you do a good job they leave and you’ve worked yourself right out of a job. They grow up and out and it’s sometimes hard to find purpose again. What could ever compare to the fulfillment of being a mother? I still don’t know. To be honest, one of the reasons I have followed you for so many years is because your column comforts me and reminds me of so many of my own memories when I was raising mine. And no you’re not depressed but facing change, and new challenges is always unsettling. And grandparenting really is a whole new kind of fun and fulfillment. Something to really look forward to.

  • Hummingbird

    You are experiencing classic “Empty Nest Syndrome”. We all go through some sort of it when our kids fly the coop. You will come out the other side happy and content. Don’t rush into big changes because you feel adrift. Give yourself time to adjust. I know many couples who rushed to downsize and later regretted it.

  • Pauline in Upstate NY

    A big second to Michelle’s comment. As I was reading this post, I thought, “No, you didn’t LOSE your job; you FINISHED your job,” and “Well done, you and HH! You’ve raised four awesome human beings!” I, too, am closer to your parents’ age than yours and have the luxury of looking back. Yes, there is a freedom to be embraced at this point and also the wonderful knowing that, if needed, you two are able to jump in to assist these young adults over bumps in their own lives, but I love the idea, too, of taking a year just to debrief, to rest and contemplate. A path may well call to you. Let your mind declutter and be open to whatever comes. Thanks so much for sharing your journey with all of us!

  • Kim from Philadelphia

    Jennifer, I get this. Totally.

    You are a thinker. You are moving into a new stage of life, and you are trying to wrap your head around what that means for you.

    My son is 16, and he is doing the typical teen “pull away from mom”, and I have to admit I’ve been struggling with this.

    You have so many interests and talents. I bet you are better set up for the next phase than many others. Others who put no time or effort into doing things they enjoy while their kids were little.

    We will figure it out!

  • Jennifer G

    I am retiring after 40+ years as secretary at our church. To say this is a HUGE change is an understatement as the job hasn’t just been work but a lifestyle. Praying, a lot, for God’s peace & wisdom as I move onto the next stage in life. It is very hard to move from the life that has defined you into the unknown but exciting too for the opportunities that will be presented if we are willing to wait and trust.

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