At forty-eight years old, I have forged through a number of life stages – at times willingly and at times fitfully. There are basically two responses to dealing with the inevitable onslaught of the next stage of life: accepting it gracefully, or raging against it. Having done both, I can say that the former opens one to the grand possibilities of life and the latter leads to stultifying frustration. What choice do we have anyway? You cannot stand still, and you certainly cannot go back. Perennial protesting is pointless.

My advice? Let yourself grieve what is lost. Acknowledge your fear, your reticence, your dismay. And then march into the future boldly: feel it, own it, embrace it.

Irish poet and priest, John O’Donahue, said it best, “I want to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.” Precisely! This is the definition of grace amid change.

Every lifetime is a lesson in adjustment. Once I was a carefree preschooler; my greatest challenges were deciding what color of finger paint to use and having to take an afternoon nap. But kindergarten beckoned – the big yellow bus, tying my shoes, and learning the alphabet. From there, I became an elementary student – reading, writing, and arithmetic. I slowly learned to accept the fact that I would never be a member of The Brady Bunch.

Eventually, I was confronted with puberty and Junior High: pimples, body fat, boys, and mean girls.  Suddenly and awkwardly a high school student, exploring who I was and what I believed. Then I had to move into the role of paid laborer, voting citizen, and college student. Career choices weighed on me. What would I be? What was I good at and how could I best contribute? Soon I was a married woman, professional worker, and then a mother.

None of these new roles and stages – career, marriage, motherhood – quite matched my naively inflated expectations. What? This isn’t how it was supposed to be! But honestly accepting the disappointment of the unrealized ideal actually helped invite an attitude of joy and gratitude. Pleasure emerged.

This was especially true in raising my two children. Childrearing has presented an array of stages, from diapers to dormitories. Every age they enter has had its bane and its blessing. Age four was the toughest for them both. (For a time my former cherubs became Surly Boy and Snotty Girl). But kindergarten came along and voilá; along with it, a new equilibrium.

Just when I thought I could no longer take the madness of a particular developmental childhood trait, before I knew it, we were on to the next thing … and then the next … and the next. It was never ending and never permanent. The surprising bends, unexpected turns, and frolicking rapids were exhilarating and jolting interspersed with the occasionally serene and calm.

What helped me avoid feeling trapped in any one state of being was to recognize that it was all temporary. Nothing was fixed. My little ones were always emerging, growing, and becoming. Indeed, I was as well! In the mix, there were some topsy turvy times. My husband and I have had the blessed gift of navigating that whitewater river with them, knowing we are in God’s care, even though the ride is rough at times. Our faith in God is our sacred life vest.

And these curious creatures I birthed continue to morph into new and more complex versions of themselves. The future fills me with anticipation, and at times, concern. I could worry. But I have learned: this too shall pass. They are clay and God is the potter … spinning and shaping them. The cruel world, not knowing their baptismal destiny, threatens to thwart God’s design for them. But I claim the promise, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”

I am now an empty nester – proud, eager, and yes, a little nervous about my children’s fate. This is a stage that can throw the most balanced of mothers into a tailspin. Relax in … relax out.

The questions abound: What will become of my children when they are not under our roof? Will they make it? Did we teach them enough? Are they equipped for the real world? And what about me? Who am I, if not providing for their daily care? What will my future bring?

I must grapple with all of these questions and their associated feelings. A book I read in college called Passages, by Gail Sheehy*, was a bestseller, and groundbreaking in mapping out predictable life stages and ways people thrive in each. She emphasized a productive and deep “second adulthood” in middle life characterized by continual growth.

“Stop and recalculate,” Sheehy writes. “Imagine the day you turn forty-five as the infancy of another life … Instead of declining, men and women who embrace a Second Adulthood are progressing through entirely new passages into lives of deeper meaning, renewed playfulness, and creativity.”

With that mindset, it is exciting to approach my new stage of life. I am determined to stay balanced through such liminal times. I use a multitude of coping skills. This is essential.

I was glad to see our daughter Grace has learned this as well. After being home for a month she was faced with intense, sad feelings about returning to school, missing her friends and family, and facing the pressure of her challenging courses. At first there was a bit of raging at how hard it all is. However, after some tears, laments, and hugs, she decided to make a list of all the things she is looking forward to when she returns to Seattle. Smart girl! She moved through her struggle, and found her strength to courageously do the next thing.

As for me – when Grace left for college last year – I found that one way to manage my feelings was through writing. Sitting with my husband at a pub, The Back Abbey, contemplating my new stage of life, I took out my journal. I asked myself, “What am I feeling right now?” Then I wrote a little haiku:

 

Empty Nest at the Abbey 

We lounge – long at ease

Northwest winds call

Last tall bird flies free

Old lovers we smile

 

Grieve your losses, but don’t get stuck in protest. Enjoy the surprise of your own unfolding. Be well and stay well my friend.

 Crystal Cove

 

*Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life by Gail Sheehey, Bantam Books, 1976.  Also, an updated version is New Passages: Mapping Your Life Across Time, Ballantine Books, 1996.

8 Comments

  1. Awesome Lisa! It was perfect for me to read right now! It was tough sending Brooke to college a few weeks ago even though she is close and has been home once already. It is a grieving process and you do have to get to the acceptance stage fast. It will be a process the next few years as they all start to leave.

  2. Debbie Cassettari

    Wonderful, Lisa! My feelings exactly. So hard to let go – yet so important. Onward and upward we go.

  3. I love you poems Lisa!

    • Thanks. I love you paintings Les! ( and our shared humor).

      • Very nice Lisa. Such thoughtful writing. I am anticipating a new “passage ” and I must say with some trepidation and wonder. My retirement years are not far off. I am currently in the question of this next step of my life. Thank you for such depth of sharing. Theresa

        • Thanks for your thoughtful input Teresa. I believe you will transition beautifully into your new stage. You are strong and wise.

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