What’s missing in my empty nest life?

Awkwardly this afternoon, my neighbor’s eyes met mine on her way out of the elevator, and then darted down as she softly said “hello.” Her little girl, unaware of the uncomfortable history the two of us grown-ups share, came to a full stop directly in front of me and presented her biggest, brightest smile, one little tooth slightly askew, clearly either on its way in or on its way out. Brightened by the genuine enthusiastic smile of the little girl, I made eye contact again with her mother and sincerely asked “how are you?” and she strengthened by my attempt at being friendly, responded in kind. Her face transformed for moment into a smile as well. It was clear that at one point, before life had made her more guarded, that she had the same full of life smile as the little girl she led out the front door of our shared apartment building.

Isn’t it odd how sometimes the briefest encounter with someone will stay with you the rest of the day? It was strange, to suddenly realize how rare it is for me these days to see the sweet sincere smile of a little girl. It made me happy and sad all at the same time. For so many years, my world was chock full of small children. Years stretched on endlessly into the future as I went from diapers to kindergarten to summer camp to senior prom over and over with each child in turn. When you are in those years they are so all-consuming it is hard to picture a time when your life will be any different.

As happy as I am most days with my new-found freedom, I never realized that it would be the little things about being a mom that I would miss the most. A picture my nephew posts online of his son in full-blown baby belly laughter brings up old memories of my own son, laughing heartily at the same age, memories that pull unexpectedly at my heart! A little blond girl, all dressed up right down to her shiny black shoes, holds her Daddy’s hand on their way out of a Sunday morning service and my mind flashes back to my own little girls and their days of fancy dresses, hair ribbons and holding hands to cross the street. These are treasured memories. Today, however, for me the word “children” conjures up images of twenty-somethings, grown up children with lives of their own. These lives often contain challenges and heart aches I can no longer fix like I used to with a good tickle or a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sprinkles!

One of my favorite quotes is “No matter what happens, always keep your childhood innocence. It’s the most important thing.” (Federico Fellini). It is not, unfortunately, that childhood is without heartache. Yet children, not yet crushed by life’s disappointments and still unburdened by adult expectations, are able to hang onto the hope and enthusiasm that we so often lose as we grow up. Children forgive easier, forget easier, move on from disappointment so much more easily than those of us who are supposedly older and wiser. Children don’t hide who they really are. If they say they love you, you can believe it! Children do not feel awkward when they run into someone who used to like the same stupid boy they did. They just laugh about it and run off to play together on the swings! Children live in the moment. They don’t worry about things they can do nothing about. Ten minutes ago there might have been a bike mishap and a badly skinned knee, but now all washed up and bandaged, there is ice cream with sprinkles and life is good again.

I understand now, why older people always brighten when small children come into a room. They have so much in common both the very old and the very young, unburdened by rushing through each minute of life to some elusive dream of “success.” They each know how to experience joy in little things, with no strings attached. Both, free of the need to adhere to social expectations that often bind the rest of us, know that taking just a moment to stop and smile at a neighbor might brighten both of their days in a way that neither expected. I need to pay more attention when I spend time with friends and family who still have small children. There are clearly lessons I still need to learn from them.

When you are a kid, yesterday and tomorrow are far away, but right now, something good is going on and you just know if you aren’t careful you’ll miss it. I know what I need more of in my grown up empty nest life. I need to walk to the park and spend some time on the swings with nothing else to think about except how high I can go before I jump off. I need to smile more at my neighbors; genuine, unguarded smiles. I need to find more reasons for a good full-blown belly laugh! And when all else fails, there’s always ice cream, with sprinkles!

*This blog, a favorite and a much needed reminder, was originally posted in April, 2012.

Karen Foley

About Karen Foley

Karen Foley, has successfully been writing her blog for the BDN since May 2011. By successful, she means a few people read it, and she has not been sued, stalked or fired since starting it.