Every part of me knows that healthy transitions are wonderful things—if life isn’t moving forward, it’s moving backward or stopping altogether, neither of which is good. Still, next steps are scary, and sometimes, dreaded. Even the best next steps.
In a matter of weeks, I will become an empty nester, finally joining almost all my peers. I’m a very late baby boomer, born in the autumn of 1964, sneaking in under the technical end date by just a few months. Now, turning 55 and preparing to send my last baby off to college, I’ve finally reached the place that has scared me for decades.
Somewhere Along the Way, I Lost My Identity
Let me be clear. I am incredibly fortunate to be where I am. I do not lose sight of the fact that I have three wonderful children pursuing their dreams, a kind and loving husband who wants me to follow my own, four terrific parents (his and mine) who are happy and healthy and living their own next stages with grace and gratitude.
There are people I can call when I need a friend and a variety of communities in which I engage which offer me opportunities to do good work. Really, life is very, very good.
But I’m still scared.
I still want to stop the clock.
Even though that’s the wrong approach. I know that.
The problem is this. Somehow, when I wasn’t paying attention, I allowed my identity to transition from a strong, independent, curious, motivated, hardworking individual who looked to her future with bright eyes and open arms, to “Mom.”
It wasn’t that I lost those identifying traits—they remained a most important part of me, but over time, I applied them differently—not to myself, but to my children, my family, and my communities. As everyone does, I made good choices and bad ones, I learned my strengths and my weaknesses, I had moments of pride and moments of feeling like I’d failed. I was lucky to experience more happy times than sad ones.
But somewhere in the mix, in living the day-to-day moments of life, I lost something – some piece of my identity. Somewhere along the journey, I decided that looking at things through other people’s lenses was noble, and looking through my own was selfish or self-serving or somehow inappropriate.
I believe we are here in the world to form relationships and have positive impact, not primarily for personal growth and gain. But each of us is, by definition, on a journey of our own. While for many of us, our loved ones, jobs and community engagement comprise the most important parts of our lives, they don’t substitute for our own sense of self, our own purpose or mission. They can’t fully embody what we’re here to do, though they may represent, in some instances, the biggest opportunity to bring ourselves to the world.
As I’m facing the beginning of this next stage, I’m starting to see that the best way to offer myself up to the world around me still has to include me, not just those around me. If impact is what matters, coming from my own authentic place is essential.
But what might that authentic place be? Is it really possible that after 55 years of thinking existential thoughts, I’m still asking that most basic and foundational of questions, “Who am I?”
I guess I am.
So lacking a clear answer, let me ponder the question further.
I believe the question “Who am I?” is a bit more nuanced than it used to be. Today I inquire into identity from a different vantage point than I considered as a young adult, or a young parent, or a young professional, or an engaged community leader. At this new transitional stage, the question presents within a larger context, with less idealism than I used to have.
My earlier unfettered optimism has been tamed by the inevitable observations of horrors in the world. My youthful faith in the goodness of humanity has been shattered, or at least tempered, by a more mature understanding of the complexity of human nature. After half a century of wondering about identity, I now ask the even more frightening version: “Who am I, and what can I still accomplish in the time I have left?”
The best clarity I can find at this juncture seems to be a renewed dedication to moving forward with deep personal honesty, developing relationships and pursuing good work and kindness wherever possible. I’d like to discover some great insight along the way, but I know that in all likelihood, the real answers will be discovered only in hindsight.
Experience has taught me at least this much—we don’t know why we’ve traveled the road until after we’ve completed that portion of the journey. No wonder looking at the future is scary. The unknown is precisely that. Moving forward requires bravery.
But scary isn’t bad. Bravery isn’t lack of fear, it’s being afraid and moving forward anyway.
Questions of identity and passage of time aside, there is only one direction we can travel.
*This piece was originally posted at jewishsacredaging.com
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Stefanie Levine Cohen is a full-time writer, volunteer and mom to three mostly grown daughters. Her fiction and essays explore moments of transition, connection, truth and identity, and have appeared in numerous literary journals, anthologies and digital publications. Visit stefanielevinecohen.com to read more of her work creating moments of connection in story.
A life-long student of spirituality and writing, Stefanie serves on numerous boards of non-profit organizations, teaches memoir and fiction writing, and spends an inordinate amount of time talking to people about the meaning of life and drinking coffee. She received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from the University of Pennsylvania and her JD from New York University School of Law. She lives in New Jersey with her husband in their recently-emptied nest.