(7 minute read)
The kitchen is clean and the driveway is empty of cars. Just the two of us sit with our Mama Bear and Papa Bear coffee mugs reading on our tablets next to the fire, doodle dogs sprawled at our feet and cats curled up in the cat tree. We are back to our quiet empty nest after a holiday week filled with spirited conversation, the sound of laughter, and lots of food and drinks. I welcomed the chaos with open arms. All four of our children at the same place at the same time is even sweeter these days because it does not happen as often. The holiday gathering takes on new meaning as the children are now adults. They host, they bring charcuterie, they stop by the wine and liquor store, they dress themselves, and best of all they hug and catch up with one another. On Thanksgiving, there were several times in the afternoon that I observed their interaction and felt a blanket of comfort and accomplishment wash over me. It took a lot of work to get here. Years in fact.
I remember the utter chaos of our early days of parenting four young children, especially around Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and summer break. Between staving off colds, keeping peace between siblings, and coordinating clean holiday outfits, my stress level was off the charts. It did not help that we were either preparing and packing up to attend multiple celebrations, or hosting the whole feast ourselves. Those days my husband and I were outnumbered by our needy kids and overburdened with tasks we insisted on continuing. The consequences were arguments and holiday over-stimulation. Amidst all of the craziness, we found a way to create happy memories. The annual front yard Christmas card photo session and producing a magical Christmas morning were two tasks that heightened my stress level. My everyday life staying home with four children under the age of eight could also drive me mad at times. There are things I wish I knew then that I know now.
Recently, I came across a book in my research that stopped me in my tracks. It proposed the idea of communicating with one’s younger self. Think of a time when you were struggling or at a crossroad, or maybe in a cyclical pattern keeping you in a vortex. What message did you need to hear then from the person you are today? Are there words of wisdom that you learned over the years that could save your younger you prolonged trouble? The author took this proposition to a wide variety of famous women: authors, politicians, actresses, musicians, activists, CEOs, philanthropists, and royalty. It was fascinating to read how these highly successful women could think back to a painful or stressful time in their lives, long before they became famous for their accomplishments, and what words they chose to write. The book is called “What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self.” I decided to write my younger frazzled self a letter.
I am writing you this letter twenty-three years from now (1999). I hope you have time to read it. You have your hands full. You have a one month old baby who is not yet sleeping through the night, a headstrong two and a half year old, a kindergartner and a second-grader. Let me assure you that you are not crazy for having one child after another, moving across the country from family and staying home full time. You are much more adept than you give yourself credit. You can do this.
I know you long for time for yourself. Getting out of the house with all four kids is no easy task. Shoes on, coats, car seats, backpacks, diaper bags, stroller, and you’re finally out of the driveway. The other day you had the two older kids at school; so with half the load (the baby in a stroller and the toddler holding your hand) you decided to go into a coffee shop. You passed by the older lady who was drinking an open mug of steaming hot coffee, sitting there calmly solving a jigsaw puzzle by a sunny window. You wanted to be her. The baby fussed, the toddler grabbed at the expensive cookies on display, so you changed course (no latte for you) and rushed back out to the car and home. You could not shake the old peaceful puzzle solver from your mind. You wanted to be her.
Listen up! That time will come and you will miss these days. Actually the calm quiet house is not so bad, but you have quite a few years before you will be alone solving puzzles in sunny windows. So here is a bit of advice to make these tumultuous years smoother:
First, keep on enjoying the unscheduled idle times with your kids. Build Lego’s with them, watch them use their imagination in playing together, and do not miss out on being present. Also, set up the video camera in the corner on a tripod and hit record. The footage will be priceless.
Second, things will happen: you will lose your car keys, milk will spill, diapers will leak, and kids will need stitches. Try not to collapse in tears or raise your voice, it can unnerve kids to see Mommy lose it. Breathe and count to ten (you get really good at this).
Third, pay attention to your husband. This cannot be said enough. These busy parenting years can cause a couple to drift apart. With so many demands on both of you, it can be hard to prioritize each other. Find ways. Keep in mind that you are role models of marriage for your children. It might be hard for you to imagine today, but years from now when you two are empty-nesters you will be more in sync than you have been in a long time.
Fourth, and not coincidentally last, is to take care of yourself. You! Mindfulness and gratitude will be buzzwords in the new millennium (thanks to Oprah and the Calm app). Quite simply, I mean for you to give yourself grace, do not be too hard on yourself, while also taking care of yourself. Exercise, healthy eating, time outdoors and nurturing friendships will all strengthen you and restore your balance. Oh, and wear sunscreen!
Carolyn, I know this letter is being read in a messy house house strewn with toys, heaps of clean laundry to be folded, cookie tins in the sink, a diaper that needs changing, and a Disney movie in the VCR that’s about to end. Your life is busy. But be assured that the work you are putting in now will pay off. One day, years from now, you will find yourself in the kitchen (on a farm where you and your husband are empty-nesters). Your adult children will be debating and laughing as they wash the dinner dishes. You will soak up the moment. Your family time will be fleeting as they each depart for their independent lives. The house will be quiet enough for reading, writing and puzzle solving. You will miss them, their noise, and the chaos of a crowded room.
Hang in there! The days are long but the years are short!
Carolyn (of November 2022)