It’s the word that keeps coming to mind. Adrift. Rudderless. Alone. Confused. Mired in the moment.
I’m struggling. And I knew I would be. And even though I tried to imagine what it would be like once both of my kids were off to college, I couldn’t quite capture it. And now I know why. This feeling is too unfamiliar.
I’ve been planning for this day for the past five years. Seriously. When I turned 50, the world looked different overnight, as strange as that might seem. And it’s not that at 50 I suddenly felt old. I didn’t. I have always felt very young, and still do. Most people miss my actual age when guessing by quite a few years. But it is hard to turn 50 without some sort of self-reflection. A looking back and a looking forward.
Up to that point, I had not thought much about my life and where it was headed. My life had been centered around my children. It wasn’t my intention to lose myself. But it happened. I did have my career – I was a college professor. And teaching has been something that I have absolutely loved doing. My years in the classroom have been enlightening, educational, and inspiring.
I specifically went into teaching so that I could have summers off with my kids, pick them up after school, and attend their baseball or volleyball games. And I did all of those things. But looking back, I can see how the focus on my children allowed me to forget to plan long-term when it came to my career. But it wasn’t always that way.
In my early years teaching, when first faced with the ugly politics of colleges and universities, I was determined to make a difference, to stand up against corruption, and to fight the increasing victim mentality. I was ready to make a name for myself, writing articles, giving speeches, and doing talk radio. But I quickly learned that I could only fight so many battles and still be available as a mom.
I got divorced when my daughter was 6 and my son was 3. Once I secured the divorce, my ex campaigned to ruin me and to ruin the kids in an effort to prove how horrible I was for divorcing him. I was numb, and all I could think about was protecting my kids. And protecting them meant giving them as normal and as secure a life as I possibly could. It meant creating a home that was stable and a mom who was steadfast. Any long-term career plans were hardly front of mind. And certainly I had nothing left to fight the wave of dishonesty and deception spreading across my campus.
So I kept to myself. And I kept quiet. I had little ones at home who were my top priority. I was not interested in “wasting” my time making small talk with colleagues at lunch or flying off to junket conferences on the taxpayer dollar, which I knew were more often a chance to let loose by escaping regular life than anything else. I didn’t need to escape anything at this point. I just wanted to get home to my babies.
I never considered applying for any federal grants as so many professors do, and I took fewer and fewer leadership positions, which would have eaten into my time at home. I stuck to the classroom.
One of the benefits of teaching is the autonomy. My classrooms are my domain, to structure as I see fit. The downside to that autonomy is that no other faculty member or administrator really has any idea about what goes on in your classroom or how effective you really are. But I was good at what I did. Very good, in fact. Student evaluations continuously surpassed my most ambitious expectations. And I got results. It was unbelievably rewarding. However, being a good teacher or bad teacher has little impact on your career trajectory and no effect on your pay.
When I turned 50, many of my teaching peers were now deans or vice-presidents, principals or education consultants. I was still a classroom teacher.
But what else could I expect? Again, looking back, I can now see just how damaged I was from my relationship with my ex. I didn’t see it at the time. I thought I just needed to get divorced and my problems would be solved. I thought I had walked off the battlefield. But he saw my retreat as a declaration of war. He wanted total annihilation. I defended myself from the direct attacks and did my best to keep my children from becoming collateral damage. I holed up with my kids as he threw bombs and laughed at the explosions and their aftermath. He campaigned to turn people against me and spread his propaganda to anyone who would listen, and even to those who wouldn’t. He was a master: dehumanize the enemy, paint them as a monster, repeat until it becomes truth. He was so good at this that even people who knew me well were left with questions. He used these techniques on family and friends, but most horrifically, on my young children.
Whenever a grenade landed at my feet, I was repeatedly shell-shocked. I had trouble understanding that I was still, even after so many years, under attack. So recovery each time was painfully slow.
People watched on the sidelines, much like the famed sightseers carrying picnic baskets at the Battle of Bull Run. They claimed neutrality. I suppose it was easy to justify not standing up for me – after all, didn’t I ask for this by getting divorced? The truth is I neither asked for this nor deserved it. But the kids certainly deserved a more aggressive counter-attack. And it should be no surprise that when my ex periodically took his eye off of me that he pointed his arrows at the bystanders. The attacks did not draw them into the fight or to our defense, however. This left me vulnerable and alone to navigate my survival. Unfortunately, I was reluctant to take the fight head on lest I be seen as the aggressor. But I have come to learn that playing continuous defense, and a reactive defense at that, is not only exhausting but debilitating and damaging. It means anxiously awaiting that next attack. It means hiding. It means not drawing attention to yourself. It means walking on eggshells. It means never being at peace.
I occasionally peeked my head out and had a drink with a friend or went on a date. But the trivial nature of the conversation and the frivolousness of meeting a stranger for dinner pitted against my children, struggling with the war being waged that they were so conscious of (and more conscious of than I even knew) meant that the kids always won out.
And truth be told, I am thankful I did not meet anyone during that time. I had not truly come to an understanding of how I picked such a person to be my husband and what it said about me. So I probably would have just repeated the same mistake. At least the three of us have been spared that.
But by the time I turned 50, I knew I could not continue life as it was, holed up in my mental bunker. My kids were then 16 and 13. I had five years before they would both be gone. And I had better damn well figure things out before then. I did not want to watch my son turning his tassel at graduation before I thought to myself, “What next?”
That five years was spent with some serious introspection and self understanding. I pulled myself out of the bunker. Sure, bombs continued to fall, but they quickly became duds, impotent, useless in the fight. I had frank discussions with my children, where I learned how they had been continuously drawn into the battle every time they saw their dad. They were war-weary and exhausted from pretending they weren’t affected. As the kids because more independent, I started reaching out and nurturing friendships. I had a long distance relationship and learned it is possible for me to love, to feel again. I got my finances in order. I looked for places I might be interested in moving to. I spent time imagining what I wanted my life to look like. I am really excited about what my future holds.
But today I am struggling.
I had a fantastic trip with my kids when I dropped them both off at college, my daughter’s senior year and my son’s freshman year. But then I had to come home. To an empty house. And I feel lost.
I am forging ahead with my plans – finding a place to move to, writing a novel, working on relationships with friends. Because I know this too shall pass.
And it isn’t because I have never been alone before. I have. But I have never had people so intertwined with my life for so long and with such a strong bond before. And they have left not because of anything negative that happened but simply because they need to move on and create their own lives. They are both ready and well prepared for that.
This past year, I would sometimes go days without seeing my son, as he spent the night at one friend’s house and then another’s. And I would be home alone. But it was different. We always checked in. I checked with him before making plans with friends to see if he would be home. If he would, I would move my plans around. Every trip to the grocery store was to buy the foods that the kids wanted. Keeping the house picked up and making my bed was for their benefit – I needed to be a good role model. Their presence gave my life structure. Even in recent years when they were at friends’ more often than they may have been at home, they gave my life structure. And dare I say, purpose.
So here I am.
I have friends. Not a group of friends, but lots of friends from different areas of my life. Many of them still have a child or two at home. Most are married or are in serious relationships. I know many married couples who become empty nesters and find themselves looking at each other, wondering who the hell that is across from them. I, instead, find myself looking in the mirror and wondering who the hell that is looking back at me. And I sit like that a lot these days, struggling to find the motivation to get up. To make a phone call. To make plans. To do all the stupid crap that has to be done to keep a house running. Even to write.
I tend to be pretty optimistic. We all have our down days, but I have always been confident that those down days will be few and far between. And as a result, they always are. I know that whatever I am feeling today, that tomorrow will be better. So I am not concerned. I know this is transitory. I know that I will make it through this transition.
But I am grieving. I am mourning the end of swimming at grandma’s, tubing with friends, season tickets to Universal Studios, peewee football get-togethers at Ruby’s, little league baseball practices, helping with costumes backstage at dance recitals, Christmas Eves at our house full of too much drinking and too much eating, collecting more pets than any house should be allowed, planning birthday parties, vacations taking us to new places across the country every summer, visits to every museum and every amusement park we could find. Watching them grow up and seeing the world through their eyes.
In the end, I have been blessed with great kids. I never saw them as a burden. So I don’t feel free today. I feel sad. Adrift. But not to worry. I’ll be fine. I just need this moment.