One evening right before my youngest son left for college, he ganged up with his oldest brother and gave me a talking to. They told me that it was time for me to do things differently. My life had revolved around theirs for decades and thus, they implored, “You should have adventure now, Mom. You should do what you really want to do.”
I restrained myself from pointing out the obvious, that having them was an adventure like none other and it was exactly what I had wanted to do. I just hope that one day my grandchildren will make these points clear to them.
But I did hear their message. And while I think the clarion call of the empty nest is not to run off and have some big midlife adventure (which is pretty much what I am about to do), the point I think they hit upon, inadvertently, is that it is a moment to reassess. Our children’s moving out is a turning point of extraordinary proportions, one that warrants reexamining life as we know it. While it would be great if we could imagine life without our kids while they were still home, sometimes an experience speaks to us only once we are in it.
The biggest failing of in-the-moment parenting is, perhaps, that we are so steeped in daily life that trying to take an outsider’s look at our own lives can be all but impossible. Our kids very present needs easily drown out our more existential ones.
Yet, the best decisions I have made about my life involved stepping away from it and examining it from the outside. Sometimes I have done this literally. I decided to go to graduate school while living in Freetown, Sierra Leone, and sometimes it has been metaphorically, by getting rid of all the givens and realizing that there are often more options than there once seemed.
But my kids were right about one thing, their departure marked a turning point and the one thing I should not do is carry on as if only my grocery bill had changed. I am watching parents at midlife change houses and careers, start new businesses, pick up new and extreme activities (I stand in awe of anyone who can run 26 miles) and throw themselves into social and philanthropic causes. For me, the empty nest felt very much like an ending, but all around me I see people for whom it is just a beginning.
Returning to that quiet house, the home that had known so many years of chaos and love, gave me more than a moment of pause.
So I am running away from home, temporarily, and setting off to walk across Spain with one of my oldest girlfriends. I will be traversing the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a thousand-year old pilgrimage that I only heard about a month ago.
I don’t like the outdoors, hate exercise and despise routine of any sort. So a long walk through slowly changing scenery that requires regular discipline about setting off early and sticking to a path, just might not be my thing. And for that reason alone, I am going.
Interested in learning about the Camino de Santiago? Here is a great website with fabulous photography.
It you want to read more extensively, here are two amazing guidebooks:
I loved this short (inexpensive) book, Camino de Santiago – Practical Preparation and Background, because I read every word and felt I got an excellent idea of what the trek is like.
A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean Roncesvalles Santiago (Camino Guides) is the classic, day-by-day guide with more detail than can be absorbed.