Surviving Empty Nest Syndrome

Parenting presents a crossroad every time you turn around.  Becoming an Empty Nester is one of the bittersweet ones.

In August 2018 my husband and I dropped off our youngest, a daughter, at college.  Now we are officially Empty Nesters. 

I cannot think of a more poignant crossroads for me at this time. 

Over 21 years ago, when we welcomed our first, a son, I was at the other end of that crossroads.  I know it isn’t over yet.  Is parenting ever over?  Texts, emails and phone calls would certainly suggest it’s not!

But for the first time in over 21 years, my husband and I will not be considering what one of our children might need that day, or contemplating calendars, carpools, school events, school projects, college applications, laundry loads, unfinished chores lists (and effective nagging strategies to promote completion of said chore list) or what to cook for dinner or who might actually be there. 

After successfully depositing our daughter at a university in Los Angeles, we headed to Disneyland.  So cliché, I know.  “You just dropped your youngest child off at college! Now what?  ‘We’re going to Disneyland!’”  But we had a few days to kill before heading to a family event with my in-laws, so we headed to the “Happiest Place on Earth” to dry our tears of joy, exhaustion, fear and heart heaviness. 

It backfired.

All I could think about was the last time we were there with our two kids.

We were not a yearly Disney family.  In 21 years we went probably 4 times.  But I recalled each visit.  In Disney Vista Vision!!  Fantasyland with our daughter for her 3rd birthday.  She loved the rides but did not love the characters.  My son, who couldn’t get enough of them.  Tarzan’s Tree House where both were a bit frightened when the leopard roared.  Indiana Jones ride, where my son, traumatized after his first ride at age 6 declared, “I hate that ride!”  The Silhouette Studio on Main Street that chronicled the changing shape and character of my children over the years.  So many memories. 

And we were witness to so many families making new memories.  It was beautiful.  It was overwhelming.  I choked up.  I cried.  I laughed.  And eventually, it worked. 

We rode the rides together again.  Just the two of us.  No need to figure out who needed to be with whom.  Who liked rollercoasters, who didn’t?  Who liked water rides, who didn’t?  Who throws up on the Teacups, and who doesn’t. 

No Teacups for either of us, this time, thank you!

Obviously both of us will carve out a new normal.  We’ll have time and space to figure out new endeavors; rediscover old interests and new passions.  So in a sense, our proverbial “crossroad” looks more like the webbing of the Los Angeles interchanges we passed over and through on our way from Los Angeles to Anaheim.  Like those interchanges, it is about how we move through, move on and move forward.

Movement is good.  I’m excited for the challenge.  I know I’ll go through a whole new experience when I get back to our house and it is quieter and calmer, and when I have to go back to cleaning the kid’s bathroom, emptying the dishwasher, feeding the dog, picking up the dog poop, folding laundry, dusting…

The crossroads just keep coming.

When you find yourself approaching an Empty-Nest, or in the new-ness of being an Empty Nester, consider these strategies:

  1. Be gentle with yourself.  You might feel a wave of relief and glee, but then again, you might just feel some grief.  This is normal and natural.  While some of this grief may feel like depression, most studies suggest it is not, but rather a transitional phase – one that will pass along with time.  Look – it took some time to adjust to that child being there in the first place, right?  Give yourself and your partner or spouse time.  However, if crying (and crying is normal!) persists for a long period of time, or other symptoms of depression such as changes in sleeping, eating, hygiene or ability to take part in normal activities such as working persists, see a doctor or mental health professional.
  • Don’t rush to take over a child’s bedroom!  Before you redecorate the kid’s room, wait at least a month, if not more.  For one thing, your child will likely visit again, and it could be quite a shock, and a painful one at that, to come home to a completely changed room.  Consider instead, moving some of that kiddo’s things from other rooms into boxes to store elsewhere, or to store in a closet or under a bed.  You will eventually get the room back, but changing so quickly can bring up more adjustment glitches than you might be aware of initially.
  • Hold back on contacting your child.  I would highly recommend when you see your son or daughter off – to college, armed services, new job elsewhere, new living arrangement – that you expressly request that THEY make the first call, text or connection.  This is likely hard for them, too, but give your child time to adjust and make the first contact.  This is as much about their process as yours so give them space.
  • Celebrate and mark the occasion with a spouse, partner or friend.  If you are in marriage or relationship, make plans to mark the occasion somehow with something special.  It could be a night out at a restaurant never tried or an old favorite.  It could be a quick trip away.  It could be buying one new item for your house or garden – some sort of transitional object commemorating a new phase. This is a big deal, and it is good to acknowledge and mark it.
  • Find old friends or make new ones. This is a great time to reconnect with old friends.  However, it often happens that couples find their friend groups are really centered around their children – the other parents of the school, of the sport team, etc.  If this is the case, this is a good time to engage in some discovery.  One way is through community groups, or even Meetup groups, Eventbrite, or other social organizing sites that alert you to events in your area.  Think about a new skill or hobby your want to revisit or learn.  There is likely to be a class in a local park and recreation center or a Meetup or Eventbrite groups.  Many are free.
  • Create a morning or daily routine.  Having daily or morning routine can help you reconnect with yourself.  It is also a fundamental part of living with intention – mindful living that serves to keep you grounded and focused.  There has been a lot written about morning routines over the last few years, and most successful people point to a morning routine as a practice that keeps them sane and successful. Now with your child or children out of the home and time to do mornings, your way – experiment!  Try meditation, prayer, reading, yoga, essential oils, or exercise – maybe lovingly prepared tea or coffee.  Aim for a 30 to 60 minute routine that starts your day with the intentions you find in your heart.  Keep a journal – track how your practice impacts your life.

Put yourself first.  It will be a new practice, but one that will benefit not only you, but all those you encounter.  And remember strategy number one:  Be gentle with yourself!

Christy

The Hard Work of Being a Butterfly

It’s excrutiating to witness the pain of someone you love.  Whether that pain is physical, emotional or spiritual, it is almost overwhelming to witness knowing there is little you can do to really alleviate the pain. 

Sure, with physical pain you might be able to make the other person more comfortable.  You could give them pain meds if they have been prescribed.  You can adjust the environment as best you can – turn down the lights, quiet noises, maybe turn up some white noise, set the temperature to an ideal level, add scents or eliminate scents.  Whatever they need.

But with internal, emotional pain or spiritual pain there is little you can do but offer empathy, and sometimes empathy is just holding a hand and not saying anything.

Sometimes the best you can do is to not say or do anything. 

But inside, you hurt.  And this type of hurt is almost harder to bear.  You want to take it away.  You want to say just the right thing to give comfort.  You might even be ready to face their foes and drive them away.  In your body, you can feel your own ability to take on the pain!  “I’m strong enough!”  “I’ve been through this.”  “I can do this for you.”

But you can’t.

And even if you could fight their foes, should you? 

Every parent has dwelt in this sort of pain at one time or another.  It seems different at various stages.  When my kids were little, time passed quickly, and the internal foes were smaller, more manageable.  I am blessed that my children did not face the enormous traumas others have faced.  So I’m not speaking to abuse, neglect, loss and grief of significant proportions.  I’m talking about those little growing pains.

But even witnessing your child’s friend group and social milieu problems – lunchtime seating, recess play groups, birthday parties, theater or performance activities – every child faces little and big hurts here and there.  Rejection.  The yo-yo’s of  “In group – Out group” dynamics.

How much do you intervene?

We hear a lot about helicopter parenting these days.  It is a real issue.  I’ve seen it as a parent and as a school psychologist.  Doing too much for your kids can harm them.  You can’t fully learn how to find your voice if someone else is always speaking for you.

I’ve often shared the worm to chrysalis to butterfly analogy with other parents.  You watch a caterpillar turn into a chrysalis and then watch it struggle to break out of the shell.  If you interrupt or try to “help”, you actually harm the soon to be butterfly.  The process of breaking free is essential to the evolution of the butterfly.  They need that hard work to fly. So even though you just want to edge it out a bit, fold back one little, thin, wispy part…you can kill the butterfly, or at least impair its ability to ever fly.  And what is a butterfly that can’t fly?

But holding back is hard.

It continues to be difficult even when your children are grown and moving into adulthood.

In some ways it seems even harder because the there might actually be some traumas at this point, or at least the dramas seem quite a bit more intense, more significant.

Maybe because we are adults, too, these young adult growing pains feel more intense for us to witness.  Time seems to go a bit slower when witnessing your child heal from a broken heart.  Maybe that’s fresh for us, too, a bit too close to our own path through a broken heart from the past, maybe one that never fully healed.

I often encourage parents of Kindergartners to let their children carry their own backpacks.  If the backpack is too heavy, check to see what’s weighing it down.  Is everything in there necessary?  I can’t tell you how many parents have had to remove a favorite rock, large book from home, heavy toy or pair of favorite dress up shoes from a backpack.  “How did that get in there?” I often hear.

Clean out the backpack every evening and take a peek in the morning on the way out of the home.  You never know.  But allow a child to carry their own backpack.  This is one of the first steps in growing up.  It’s a strengthening step.  Building muscles for life.  “I can handle my stuff.”  It’s part of the chrysalis phase.

By the time each of our kids were about 4 and 6, when we took trips or went out and about, my husband and I would tell them they had to be responsible for what they brought along.  We weren’t going back for lost things.

But like all kids, mine were smart enough to know I carried a purse or small backpack.  Somewhere along the way I would get the question – “Can you put this in your purse?”

At some point I told them both I was not their Sherpa!

“What’s a Sherpa?”

“We’ll Google it when we get home so you can see, but it’s important that you carry your own stuff.”

But now that they are young adults I sometimes fantasize about being their emotional Sherpa.  I want to carry the pain.  I want to fight their foes. I know the right moves, the correct steps, the best lines, the secret path.

I want to open up that delicate chrysalis and peek inside to tell them it will all be okay.  They will only be stronger and they will be beautiful butterflies.  

But I can’t.

So I focus on taking care of me.  Because that I can do.  I can take care of me so that I am too busy to open the chrysalis.  I can take care of me so that I don’t become the Sherpa.  I focus on me so I can take the rocks out of my own backpack.  Out of my own purse.

And I try to fall back on listening.  Holding a hand.  Adjusting the emotional temperature as best I can.

Giving the Best Gift Ever

 

I wrote a brief article for my husband’s newsletter just in time for the 2018 Christmas Holidays. The concept is great for caregivers and those in the “Sandwich Generation” every day of the year.  Here it is, for the good of the cause!

The Best Gift Ever

Holiday time again! Rushing about, getting the house ready, decorating, cooking, attending work parties, holiday cards to buy, create and send out, neighborhood parties, buying gifts, wrapping gifts. And if your house has elves… Well, you know what that means. Time seems to fly and stress seems to soar to exponential heights. And as the stress piles up, the “Joy of Season” seems to dissipate like the helium out of a balloon that snagged on a sharp edge.

And there we are, flat on the ground.

Many of us run around at top speed trying to do it all a great deal of the time. During the holidays, though, it really feels compounded. There are quite a few expectations and quite a few triggers.

Our bodies, though, likely don’t know it is a special time that will soon pass. Our bodies just keep taking the hit. For me it is the neck area. I know I am feeling extra stress when my shoulders seem to be touching my ear lobes. Sometimes getting a full breath is a chore. And my eyes are tired from lack of good sleep. But like a lot of folks, I have always kept up the pace. Kept pushing along to get it all done.

Not a great way to show up in the world, is it?
Continue reading “Giving the Best Gift Ever”

What to do About Jesus?

 

Trigger Warning! I refer to a picture of Jesus as” Jesus”. I mean no disrespect to any faith. This is not a religious post.

As long as I remember, my parents had a gilt-framed portrait of Jesus hanging in their bedroom. He came with them from Ohio to California in retirement, and moved with them to two different Assisted Living residences.

When they died, I inherited Jesus.

But this is not about faith, or religion or even about Jesus. It is about the crossroads we face with the clutter in our own lives and the clutter we inherit.

Now – how can I refer to Jesus as “clutter”? I’m not. It really is the picture of Jesus, but in our family, we came to call the picture…Jesus. It has been comforting, really. It reminds me of the faith of my parents, the faith in which they raised me, and the faith and spirituality I passed along to my children.

But back to clutter. I read an article about clutter this morning. It was very clear that clutter in our homes can lead to clutter and disorganization in our minds as well. One point was that, if we leave clutter behind, then we are leaving it for our children to handle.

This happened to me, which brings me back to Jesus. I inherited Jesus and a lot of other memorabilia, art, keepsakes, photographs, and documents. There was a ton of stuff to go through. My siblings live out of state, so they didn’t take much except valuables. And I get that!  It’s difficult and expensive to ship a box of stuff to sift through across the country.  They told me to simply throw things away.

Continue reading “What to do About Jesus?”

The Loving and Tough Choice of Hospice

One of the toughest times I recall was when I made the decision to sign papers for Hospice for my father.

He had been ill for a number of years – a slow decline at first, and then a rapid finish, it seemed to me, but my memory is blurred by love and sadness. At the time he was living in an assisted living facility with my Mom, receiving a lot of supportive services and trying desperately to keep a fair amount of time between Emergency Room visits as each one seemed to suck a chunk of time away from him.

My husband and I had taken the opportunity during summer to take some time away, just the two of us, for business and pleasure, after having spent nearly 5 years providing increasing levels of care for both of them. My siblings took time to visit from their own states and give us a reprieve. When our plane landed, I turned on my phone and the texts quickly pinged and populated my screen. I learned that both parents had made trips to the ER in the weekend before we landed back home, but that both were now back in their room, apparently safe.

The next day when I visited it was immediately clear that Dad was not all right. We made another trip to the hospital and by the end of a long day, arrangements had been made for me, as the one holding the Power of Attorney and Health Care Advocate status, had to make some decisions about Hospice.

Continue reading “The Loving and Tough Choice of Hospice”

Elder Orphans

silhouette of family with kids walk on sunset tropical beach

The other day I visited with a family friend who was having several helpers sort through a lot of old stuff – cleaning out. Her husband had died about a year ago, and she was finally ready to clean out a lot of the rooms in her home. Her daughter and a couple of grandchildren were there with her, along with some other family to help her through the process.

As I talked with several of the family members, I was struck with how worried they were about her. She now had a huge, empty house, she was getting on in years herself, and had recently made the decision to stop driving, which gave them enormous comfort, but also laid a new burden in their laps, as well.

Watching our loved ones grow old is very difficult. Often I hear people talk about how they now have to “parent” their parents. It certainly is a viable analogy, but I think it is not quite right. Is it that we become “parents” to our parents when they need us more, or are we really just morphing into another type of relationship – one that so far does not really have a name?

Continue reading “Elder Orphans”

Bright Sides and Silver Linings

The Sandwich Generation squeeze is tough. There are no two ways about it. One of the kickers is that it tends to sneak up on us. We live in a busy world when raising children, even if they are older and able to take care of most of their own needs. Combine any level of childcare or teen and young adult “management” with working, and we have busy with an extra dollop of stress on our plate. So in talking with people in the Sandwich Generation, I often hear how it went from 0 to 60 in a heartbeat. They didn’t really see it coming. Mom fell and broke her hip. Dad had a stroke. I’ve written about how I wasn’t fully in tune with how quickly my mother’s “forgetfulness” went from what I thought was anxiety to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is rather counter-intuitive that we find the signs of aging actually sneak up on us; after all, we are all aging every day. But it does. So yes, it is stressful.

But when we settle in, take care of the immediate needs, try to stabilize any crises, and finally come up for air, what do we find? Is it all doom and gloom? I am an optimistic pragmatist. I try to see the bright side in what is. Get the job done, but always look for the silver linings. In my own experience, and what I have heard from others, there are bright sides.

I’ve heard from people that relationships with parents often softened, deepened, and renewed. Strained sibling relationships often evolved and repaired to a significant extent. Spouses had opportunities to support and care for the caregiver. Children witnessed incredible acts of compassion, and themselves acted with immense love. Caregivers often report finding reserves of strength they didn’t know they had.

Often the bright sides and silver linings are small things with big impact. For me, I found a deepening relationship with my parents. My children loved times when my parents talked about their childhoods, my childhood, and so many funny stories. It became a ritual that we would ask one or both to tell a story when we were together. One time, we took a trip to where my Mother grew up and she lit up with such glee showing my kids her childhood house, her school, the church where she and my dad were married. She was completely delighted. It was wonderful to see how much long-term memory she retained, even if she couldn’t recall the conversation of 5 minutes ago.

My children often supported me, as well. Maybe because they were one generation away, and only knew my parents as older adults, they seemed to have deeper levels of patience for them. I recall one night in, particular; I had gotten crab for dinner because both of my folks loved crab. But my Dad no longer had the dexterity to crack the legs or bodies of the crab and dig for the sweet meat, a chore that had always been half the fun when I was a kid. But now I had to do it for him. He even had difficulty managing a fork, so I had to adjust to that. I became increasingly frustrated and distressed – mostly because I hated witnessing this sharp decline. Both of my kids stopped me and quietly intervened with words and actions. They provided both my father and me with compassion and support. It was these acts that later brought a flood of tears – acknowledging their maturity and gentleness. And looking at it from a distance, I could see a legacy of love from one generation to another. My children were learning more about compassion than I could have predicted.

Now, I wasn’t always great at seeing the bright sides and silver linings, but when I did, it gave me energy, insight, and enthusiasm for pushing on. Journaling about these times was especially helpful to me. I began with writing a nightly letter to God as a form of prayer. I started always with a gratitude list, then a list of special intentions for others, and then ended with asking for guidance and wisdom to see it when it showed itself to me. It helped me, too, when I asked for the best to come to those who I felt had angered or hurt me. It was easier to let them go when I wished them well, praying always for more joyful energy to show up in the world.

Coping is important for wellbeing. Coping is essential if we are to move through difficult times. And science actually shines a light on the physical and emotional benefits of coping strategies such as meditation, exercise, gratitude, and even compassion.

I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. David Hamilton (https://drdavidhamilton.com/) in 2017 at the first MindHeart Connect Conference in Gold Coast, Australia (http://www.mindheartconnect.com/). Hamilton is an organic chemist who spent four years developing drugs to combat cardiovascular disease and cancer. He was intrigued by the placebo effect and its power – and the mind’s capacity – to heal the body. He has written many books and lectures on the topic. He sees compassion as not simply good for the one cared for, but as a healing process for the caregiver as well. Hamilton notes that consistent, small acts of compassion are quite powerful. Our compassionate acts need not be grand gestures – the daily little things we do to care for others, also heals us.

Our bodies produce oxytocin, often called the “cuddle hormone,” when we engage in pleasing social situations and acts of compassion. Mothers produce oxytocin during labor and lactation. Men produce oxytocin as well and it is thought to promote social awareness. 

So we can focus on the chaos, the sadness, the added chores, or stop to consider what gifts we are given in this time. That is up to us.

This speaks to the power of intention, mindfulness, and self-awareness. It is easy to get caught up in feelings of overwhelm. But in taking a long view, pulling the lens out a bit to see the big picture, I know I have found that accepting the situation I cannot change – that caregiving for an aging parent will ultimately mean dealing with their death – helped me to focus on the quality of their lives, the quality of my life, and the quality of my children’s and spouse’s lives.

How do you care for yourself during these times of immense stress? Have you found bright sides or silver linings? Have you experienced the power of compassion?

I invite you to share. Thanks for reading!

Christy

Denial

“Christy, I think your Mom is having memory problems. Have you noticed?” my Aunt asks me. A lot of people have been asking me this one lately. No, I tell them. It’s anxiety. She is just so worried about my Dad. She worries all the time and is afraid to leave him for very long, so she cancels things she used to do. She has been cancelling book club, volunteering, various and sundry social engagements. But the question nags at me. Is it anxiety or is something else going on?

My Mom tells me, “I’m afraid I am more like my mother than my father!” She refers to her mother who died the day before her 80th birthday, who probably had some form of dementia for years. She would walk around her home with a burning cigarette with a 5-inch ash at the end, with my grandfather following behind with an ashtray trying to keep the house from burning down. Her father lived nearly another 20 years and died at age 99. His memory was as clear as a bell, although he did tell me the decades seemed to blur together. My Mom worries a lot about my Dad, but she worries a lot about that, too. She worries about her memory. Should I worry, too?

I’m a school psychologist with a background in counseling and various other things. I’ve worked with adults and children. I’ve worked with people with mental illness. I know anxiety when I see it, I tell myself. This is anxiety. But my conscience gnaws at me. Is this denial on my part? Sometimes we are most dangerous when we think we know things.

I visit my parents and stop to check that my Dad’s pillbox is full for the week. I’ve been checking this recently because my Mom tells me Dad messes it up after she fills it. He is on a lot of medication. I look and sure enough, pills have been moved and everything is a jumble.

“Who changed everything?” I ask them both. I sound like the 3rd grade teacher my mother was for 25 years, interrogating the 9 year olds about the messy room or missing markers. This bugs the crap out of my Dad, who huffs. “She keeps messing with it,” he tattles. She is ratted out again and looks aghast and indignant. Seriously – is this what it has come to? I pull back from my frustration about having two more “children” to care for. Eventually, I fix the pills and tape a sticky note to the front, “Do not move, remove or add any pills until you call Christy first”. Yeah – that’ll work.

Continue reading “Denial”

Terrible Choices

Mom wakes, again, after nearly 30 minutes of sleep. She is groggy. She scowls, and looks at me, almost with a look of annoyance. “Where am I?’ she asks.

“Mom, you’re in the hospital,” I tell her with as much gentleness as I can manage after answering the question multiple times.

“What?! Why am I in the hospital?”

I tell her she has been having trouble breathing and that is why she has the oxygen tube in her nose. She is cranky. She jerks her head from side to side and scratches her head. “Where’s Charlie?”

There it is. Where is Charlie. The love of her life.  My Dad.  My Dad who died not 3 weeks ago.  She doesn’t remember.  I’ve had to tell her now too many times.  How do I keep breaking her heart? Am I doing the right thing in telling her?  I’ve been asking myself that one too many times, as well.

“Mom…” She can tell by my voice, I think because she looks at me with sad eyes. “He’s dead?” She asks in a whisper. “He’s dead,” she says again with knowing despair. She weeps silently; hangs her head.

We are in the hospital because she has pleural effusion. Fluid has built up in the space between the lung tissue and the chest cavity. It functions a lot like pneumonia, which we all thought she had developed somehow because that would have been easier. That could have been solved, cured. She is easily out of breath. She can’t do those things she loves the most like taking a nice walk, going to church with my family.

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A New Journey

Watch out! I am up to something. I’m taking the plunge and doing something I have always wanted to do. I am writing a book -taking a year’s leave of absence from my school psych position and diving into unknown spaces.

I went on a long journey not long ago. Many of you have been on the same journey, or will eventually take the same journey. It is not an easy one by any means. It is a journey of self-discovery, pain and joy, and oftentimes, one of immeasurable grace. It is sometimes long and sometimes short. No one’s journey is the same because there is no clearly marked path. No guidebook. It is the journey of time spent in the Sandwich Generation.

Sandwich Generation. I am not particularly fond of that label, but it fits. People of the Sandwich Generation are those folks who have children living in their home (even adult children) and aging parents that require some sort of ongoing care. The name evokes poor analogies – am I the Cheese or the Meat? Mustard or Mayo? Pickles or Onions? It’s a silly name and yet quite apt. I know I often felt like a smooshed piece of cheese at times. Or too little mayo to spread across two large slices of bread is perhaps a better analogy. I know I felt squeezed for time, energy, emotional stamina, and thin on competence for the tasks before me. But until I can coin a better term, I’ll run with this one.  Continue reading “A New Journey”