Parenting 7 minutes to read

A few months ago, I received an interesting text from my youngest daughter, Emma:

“Hey, Mom—Does the Easter Bunny come to Florida?”

This followed a week later, during a phone conversation with my oldest daughter, Hazel:

“My friend and I are placing bets on which one of us will get an Easter Basket mailed to us. She said she’s pretty sure she won’t get one, but I told her I’m pretty sure I will.”

Mind you, my daughters are now 21 and 23, respectively, and living their best lives outside of our nest in Gresham, Oregon. Emma is in Orlando, interning at Walt Disney World (I’m only a little jealous), and Hazel is studying for her Master’s Degree in Counseling, following in her dad’s footsteps, while living in Southern Oregon.

And yet they still want a visit from the Easter Bunny.

I think back on those early years of parenting, and I really don’t know how we did it. Actually, I don’t know how anyone does it!

Six years into our marriage, we decided to start a family. We planned things very carefully—and I do mean, very carefully. I’m a teacher, so we decided our children should be born close to Spring Break. This way, I could take off the rest of the school year and summer with the newborn baby and go back to work in the fall.

The girls almost cooperated with our plan—they were both born in April, not March—which kind of reflects how parenting tends to go: things almost go as planned.

Those early years are a blur of family, church, school, and social activities. During those years, Tyler and I took charge of everything in our daughter’s lives: who their friends were, where they went to school, what activities they were involved in, what they ate, what they watched on TV, when they took baths, when they went to bed, and when they got up in the morning. We both worked full time, and Tyler also finished his Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy in there somewhere. It’s exhausting to even think about now but, looking back, it was an amazingly fun adventure.

For the young moms just beginning this incredible journey—hold on tight! The days are long, but the years are short. You, like me, will be facing the empty nest before you know it.

I’ve heard people say that the goal of parenting is to work yourself out of a job—the idea being that if you do a good job parenting, your kids will grow up, leave your nest, and won’t need you anymore. I have to disagree. I think it’s more about allowing our parenting role to evolve through the seasons of parenting, and choosing to stay engaged in each other’s world as we navigate the transitions of life.

And, let me tell you, the transitions aren’t easy!

One of my favorite movies is Disney/Pixar’s Inside Out. If you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s an amazing depiction of how the brain works and the importance of acknowledging and honoring our emotions—all of our emotions, even the ones we may not like.

Inside Out introduces us to five main emotions—Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust, and Sadness—who live and work at “Headquarters” inside the brain of an 11-year-old girl named Riley. Headquarters is, arguably, the limbic system, literally coloring Riley’s experiences with emotions, downloading core memories into Personality Islands, and inputting emotions and memories into the control panel that dictates how Riley reacts.

Joy is the first emotion we meet, and—we get the impression—the most important emotion: she feels it’s important to keep Riley happy at all times. As Joy introduces the other emotions, she states their purpose: Fear keeps Riley safe, Disgust keeps her from being poisoned “physically and socially,” Anger cares about things being fair.

But when it comes to Sadness, Joy is “not actually sure what she does.”

Nobody understand Sadness. In fact, our culture makes us feel that we should always be happy. My mom used to tell me, “Life’s too short to be sad.” And, truth be told, I never saw her cry. The thing is, though, I never really saw her full of joy either.

Could it be that we’re misinterpreting what joy really is?

Okay, I hear you: “Shari, what does this have to do with this Empty Nest thing?”

Well, here it is: I’ve been pretty closely connected with Sadness over these last several months, since our daughters flew from our nest. Sadness seems to touch me most often, and most unexpectedly, when a joyful core memory is touched.

  • When I see a young mother cuddling her newborn, and I’m reminded of that soft little blanket-enclosed bundle I once held.
  • When I see toddlers exploring their world as their mom stay close, and I think about those summer days in our backyard, playing on the play structure we called “Hazel and Emma’s Castle.”
  • When I see children learning new things, accepting mom’s guidance and marveling at her knowledge, remembering the books we read together, and the time Hazel read her first word. Her eyes got big, she covered her mouth with her hands, and said, “I’m so proud!”
  • When I see teenagers exerting their independence, yet still needing mom to be there—whether they admit it or not—and I recall taking Emma to her first Disney Character performer audition, and how I shared in her roller-coaster of emotions that day: the heartache when she was cut from the audition, then the extreme joy when she was accepted to a different role at Disney.

I don’t want to keep my children dependent upon me. I don’t want to raise my children to become adult children. And I know I will always be my kids’ mom—I know that will never change.

But watching them leave me behind is hard.

We call it an “empty nest” but is it really empty? I don’t think so.

My nest is filled with our family history, with the memories I have and the memories we share. The good times and the challenging times all come together to weave the fabric of this nest—the nest they now leave behind. Even though they leave, the nest is still filled with those memories, fleeting glimpses of things now past. And I have faith they will revisit this nest from time to time.

At this stage of parenting, what I’m feeling can best be called “bittersweet.” A difficult fact to face is how some of the happiest times you will have as a mom will someday be wrapped in this blue glow of sadness. I am learning that, ironically, experiencing this sadness is one of the many things that makes being a mom great. After all, if my memories weren’t so joyful, I wouldn’t feel sad that they are now only memories. So, I’m learning to embrace the sadness that touches my joyful memories, and to be thankful for the bittersweet feelings because they reinforce the fact that what we had, and what have now, is good.

I look now at these two accomplished, beautiful, intelligent young women who are beginning to feather their own nests. I am so blessed to be able to share in their lives as they each continue to grow to be the woman God is calling them to be. I have the opportunity now to develop a new kind of relationship with my daughters. Yes, I’ll always be their mom. But now, I can also be something I couldn’t be when they were little: their friend.  

Today, I am thankful for texting, Snapchat, FaceTime and Google Duo, and I’m thankful the girls actually want to stay connected to us. I look forward to our daily text conversations, sharing pictures, inside jokes, or—when asked—advice. The calls from across the state of Oregon that allow us to share in the successes and challenges of Hazel’s Graduate Program, and the FaceTime calls from across the country that allow us to hear about the “Magical Moments” Emma is making, reinforce the fact that our Family Island is still strong, still well-connected, still intact.

I now share my little nest with just my husband, which definitely has its perks! He and I are now experiencing a new stage in our relationship, a time when we can also dream new dreams, make new plans, and create deeper connections.

So, what about that Easter Bunny?

Thanks to USPS Priority Shipping Boxes, the Easter Bunny made it to Florida and to Southern Oregon—and he brought a little something extra for Hazel’s friend, too, just in case her Easter Bunny didn’t make the trip.

The times when we four are together are rare now, and when we again part there are tears all around. During our last parting, Hazel choked back her own Sadness and asked, “Is it ALWAYS going to be this way?”

You know what? I sure hope so.