One of the hands-down hardest things for me in the “young empty nesting” journey is that I am not actually “young”. Compared to those who hit empty nesting and retirement in roughly the same life stage, yes I am. But compared to the demographic I keep running into in my day to day life, I’m the older generation.
Why does this matter?
Because so much of what I want to do, so much of what I’m trying to accomplish, is simultaneously being attempted by 20-somethings who are just starting out. And I envy them. I envy them their freedom, their ability to make mistakes and shrug them off as life lessons, the forgiveness society and family and friends seem to have for the various failings and flailings of a person trying out something new and not making a very good job of it.
And in the search to start out in a new place, a new career, a new phase of life – it seems like my companions are either 60-somethings with their lives figured out, or 20-somethings with their lives completely ahead of them. And I fall in the middle.
Some of life I’ve figured out. I’m happy with my body. I’m pretty sure I know what my major strengths and weaknesses are. I know what my life values are, at least the major ones, and I can look back over the decades and see how they’ve played out consistently in my choices and my successes and failures. I have made enough mistakes to have generated a list of the things I know I no longer want to spend my life doing. I have found places I need to improve and have invested years, sometimes decades, in trying to improve those areas. I’ve seen progress, I’ve seen backsliding and I’ve come to terms with quite a bit of negative/unfairness/ and also know that there have been times (many times!) I’ve been given chances I didn’t deserve. Bonuses I hadn’t earned yet. Experiences I hadn’t worked as hard for as others who were sharing those experiences with me.
In some ways I feel a little wisdom has crept into my life over the years.
But other areas in my life have not been given the same amount of consideration and growth and room for experience. I’ve been a mother since I was a college student. I went from a teenager hoping to get into college to a college student hoping to land a job with benefits to cover my prenatal OB visits. I went from thinking I should maybe sell all my furniture and do some world traveling after graduation to buying baby books and a stroller. I was never a carefree, world-wandering, finding-myself 20-something. I was a young mother, instead. A hard worker. A grad student juggling a part time job and a kindergartener.
Any thoughts of “who am I, and where do I fit in the world?” that would have been completely appropriate for a 22 year old to have, I stuffed down inside of me while my child ran past me with a pack of other little kids in our back yard and I sat there feeling like… if I let myself wonder that, if I really asked myself that question, I might find that I felt regret or sadness or hopelessness at what turned out to be my destiny of single motherhood. That in truth, where I fit in the world might not be in a back yard in a college town, watching my child run past me with a pack of neighborhood kids. And I felt, at the time, that if I thought those things, it would mean that I didn’t love my child. That I would be tempting fate to wish for a different life. That it would make me a bad mother, or that it would mean I regretted Ky’s presence in the world.
Now, with Ky in college and my motherly love well established to myself, in myself, over the years, I realize that those thoughts would have been okay to have. I could have felt simultaneous love for my child, and regret that I wasn’t a footloose 20-something in a maxi skirt and tank top taking a train through east Africa and living in hostels. (somehow, this is how I always pictured “traveling the world” – always in the long skirt and tank top, always on a train, usually reading a book as the scenery flew past, the book coming in to the fantasy to show that I’d traveled long enough and with the expectation that I would still be traveling a long enough time in the future to allow myself not to look at every passing mile. More miles would come. More scenery would happen. That was the feel I always had, and stuffed down so I wouldn’t look too closely at it…)
Anyway, what it comes down to is this. I’ve read that if you miss a life stage at any point, you feel compelled to live that life stage out in some form, even when it’s age inappropriate behavior. And I keep that in mind when I acknowledge that my burning desire right now is to be that woman on the train, leaning on my backpack, reading a book… but in this version of my fantasy, I’m now 40 and I know that I should look up more often. No future miles and sights can be reliably expected, and that acacia tree really has its own beauty, its own story, that might be different than the 100 I saw in the past several miles.
I wonder if it’s possible to live out a life stage I missed, as a 40-something year old woman, that is normally lived through my the 20-something year old me who happened to be following a different path back then, and couldn’t quite make the trip – but more importantly to live that stage in a 40-something year old way? Can I still take the train? Should I let those dreams go? Can I still make mistakes, and be forgiven for them? Should I even worry about forgiveness? Can I use my own strengths to do what I’d dreamed of doing, but do them in a wiser way?
Can I redefine the 20-something year old experience of finding my way in a new career, and through new places, as a 40-something year old woman?