Empty Nesting

Well, friends, it has been quite a few weeks. We dropped our baby off at college and are settling into a new normal of empty nesting. I remember when we lost our beloved dog of nearly 15 years, I would find myself going to feed her, only to be jolted into the reality that she was no longer with us. I would then tear up and sometimes just weep from the loss. Eerily similar, I get home from work and am about to call up the stairs to tell my daughter I’m home, only to remember she’s not in her room. She’s not in the house. And she won’t be coming home for awhile. But I don’t find myself tearing up, most of the time that is. I find myself feeling grateful for who she is and where she is.

Raising a child these days is no easy task. What they face, what they know, what they see, what they deal with is a lot. Helping a child navigate childhood into adulthood can be overwhelming and hard. Neither do I take for granted the young woman I left at her new college dorm nor all the people it took to help us get her there. I didn’t raise perfect children and I didn’t raise them perfectly. In fact I made lots of mistakes. But I feel proud of the job I did. And I feel proud of the adults my children have become.

In reflecting upon how we got to this place, I have been thinking about what I think I did well, and not so well in my parenting. The efforts I put into being a better parent has made me a better person. There are many things I could share, but I thought I’d focus on just a few.

First, what I think most often got in the way of my being a good parent was my impatience. It was easier just to do something myself. It was easier to pretend I didn’t hear the 15th question. It was easier to redirect for the sake of getting to the point rather than allow them to meander through their thoughts and ideas. I cringe at some of the moments I can recall. Sometimes I would catch my impatience, stop, apologize, and do better. Sometimes I would realize after the fact, go back and apologize. And far too many times I’m sure, I moved on without realizing what I had done and how my impatience must have felt sharp and judgmental. Both of my children are very gracious when I share my regrets and offer an apology. I have definitely improved my patience, but have a looooooooonnng way to go.

What seemed to come naturally for me was to love my kids unconditionally. It has been the most natural relationship I have experienced. And loving them has helped me to love others better. So I can take no credit for this in my parenting. I have heard of others struggling to love their kids unconditionally, often because they have never experienced that kind of love themselves. I am thankful that I could love them unconditionally, meaning it was never their job to love me or care for me. Correction was given for the sake of their learning to be better people, not because they owed me anything or needed to do anything to keep my love. I believe we all need to be loved unconditionally, and the sooner that can be felt, the better.

I think what I did well was decide from very early on that I would know my kids. I don’t just mean superficially. Or know what I want to know or think I know. It has taken time and effort. It requires hearing sometimes what I don’t want to hear or know. It is both humbling and at times frustrating. But this is what allowed me to see them as individuals from the very beginning. Not an extension of me or my husband. Not someone to do what I wish I had done. Not someone who would live into my expectation. Rather to see them as their own entities with their own ideas, dreams, flaws, and needs. This has enabled me to allow them to follow their own paths, and to make their own mistakes.

And it is what has made our empty nesting feel so right. Don’t get me wrong. I miss my kids. When my son came home for my daughter’s graduation, my heart felt like it might burst from joy. I miss my daughter, and I have teared up several times. But my children were never mine to keep. They were mine to raise and then share with the world.

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A Letter To My Kids

Dear I & L,

As 2017 comes to an end, I thought I would write to the two of you for my year-end reflecting. While my role as your mom continues to evolve, my love for you deepens as it shapes me. And so my letter to you today is an effort to explore some of the convergence of my life with lessons learned as your mom.

For the last ten years or so, I have spent time observing others of all ages to see how they live life. Some questions I ask myself: Are they happy? Are their relationships strong? Do they know who they are? Do they know what they want? Do they have the strength to endure life’s difficulties? Do they have the wisdom to make good decisions? Do they know how to have fun? Do they laugh often? Do they cry? What are they afraid of? What are they avoiding? Can they express how they feel? Do they love well?

In my search, I also looked within myself to answer these same questions. My search brought me to counseling for understanding and healing. It led me to seminary, chaplaincy training, and the work I currently do. I let some relationships go while I worked hard to strengthen others. I have found myself in places and situations that scared the hell out of me, yet I got through them and learned so much. I laugh harder and I cry more than I used to. You two know that I make mistakes often. But the point isn’t being perfect. This work is leading me to a deep and fulfilling place of contentment. And that right there is the big “aha” moment. Did you miss it? Many do.

Your work, and yours alone, is to find your contentment. No one can give it to you just as you cannot give someone else theirs. I don’t think it is meant to be found in your teen years or your twenties, or even your thirties. These are the years for you to be bold and dream big. A little discontentment is good if it enables you to have the audacity to believe that anything is possible.  But remember that at some point discontentment becomes an illness. Over time it fosters emptiness and loneliness in ways that leaves its owner increasingly hopeless and burdensome to others.

When we meet others from a place of contentment, we are able to offer love without condition and receive love in ways we never could have imagined. But contentment needs to be learned. As I sought to parent well, a paradox emerged: my heart had to become both fragile and strong. Holding the paradox rather than choosing one over the other was difficult. As you have grown and become increasingly independent, more space exists between you and me, and rightly so. To not allow for that space or encourage it would be to your detriment. I have had to consciously step back at times despite my desire to move towards you to protect you or hold you. But I knew that my goal, my job has always been to help equip you to live your life, and to live it well. And so I have always meant to work myself out of a job. This, you see, is bittersweet. It requires both fragility and strength.

Perhaps hold onto this idea of contentment somewhere close, like a token kept in your pocket. Periodically you will come across it, more often by accident. Take time to look at it, consider it, before returning it to your pocket. And remember that it requires both fragility and strength. Then I believe it will grow with you as you grow in knowledge and wisdom and experience. This will enable you to learn to love well and grow in kindness, generosity, patience and joy.

As I think of you both, my heart aches for the overwhelming love I feel, and flies because of the gratitude for you two. May 2018 be a year filled with adventure, love, gratitude, and learning, with a seed of contentment planted.

I love you,

Mom

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Outdoor Challenge Accepted

After my hike this past June and the realization of its benefits to my mind, body and soul, I decided that I want to be outside more. I don’t just mean in my backyard. I want to experience the elements: wrestle with them, enjoy them, care for them and be nurtured by them. But wanting that and doing that are two very different things. I have a long list of great ideas that slowly (or quickly) sank and thus disappeared in the quicksand called “everyday life”.  I knew that just wanting to do this wouldn’t create change. I had to come up with a goal and get some accountability. My friend who had taken me on that fateful hike was in the middle of a goal she had set for herself.  In 2017, she and her husband determined that they would spend one night outside each month for the entire year. While we hiked, she talked about how the first half of the year had gone. These weren’t just a series of six overnights thus far, but an unfolding story that was taking a year to tell.

Within a week following that hike, I decided I want to do the same, only with my daughter who was going to begin her senior year of high school. I had the summer to plan. If we started in September, we would get 12 overnights in before she left for college. One year, 12 overnights, her last year at home – this could be good for us as individuals, and as mother and daughter. I thought the idea was both brilliant and ambitious. I was excited and I was nervous. I texted my daughter.

Me: “What do you think of doing one overnight, outdoor excursion each month starting in Sept, including winter months? It will be tough but I think it will be a great experience for both of us. We would be able to get 12 in before you go off to college.”

Her: “YES!”

When she responds in all caps, she is excited. I didn’t ask her why she said yes. I think I was avoiding delving into any details that might cause either of us to change our minds. She was excited. I was excited. That was all the buy-in I needed. I began to share my plan with others, starting with my husband. He was surprised yet supportive. He was excited to participate with us on some of our trips.

I started researching equipment, locations, and backpacking know-how. People were supportive, enthusiastic, and even awed by what we were taking on. And it didn’t take me long to think perhaps I had bit more than I could chew. But I kept coming back to this idea of having one year left with my daughter before she leaves home. I have been through this with my oldest child. While his dependency didn’t end the day he left for school, starting college changed things and rightly so. I know that her departure will be a big deal. In feeling overwhelmed by both how quickly August will arrive and the goal I had set, I didn’t want to lose the forest for the trees. Even if we have three great outdoor adventures, that would be something worth celebrating. But neither do I want to miss the forest because of the trees. I decided I will do my best to plan and execute 12 outdoor adventures for us, from September 2017 through August 2018.

This past weekend, we did our first overnight outside. We didn’t venture far. We camped with my husband along with some friends. The planning and carrying out took time and effort. I have had many, many, many moments in this process where I thought to myself, “11 more times???” But we did it. And I think we can do it 11 more times. Some things will get easier. But even so, it will still take time and effort, which is why it probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t keep coming back to this goal. The idea of one trip per month would have become one trip every other month. Winter trips would have probably been cut out altogether. “How much would we enjoy in this cold anyway?” I would tell myself. (I have been down the road of The Best Of Intentions Blvd far too many times.) However the point isn’t weighing pros and cons and choosing the more reasonable option. The point is a year-long, unfolding experience for me to have with my nearly grown daughter; an experience that will be as good for her soul as it will be for mine as long as I remain attentive to our souls in the process.

In our overnight this past weekend, I woke up in the middle of the night. Our tent was near a creek and I heard something cross the water. I suspect it was a deer. I smiled and thought, “This is where I want to be, need to be every now and then.” To be in the elements and part of the elements felt good and life-giving. Lying between my husband and daughter, I felt love for them and an appreciation for their willingness to be next to me in this adventure.

Maybe my goal is too ambitious or maybe it is right on target. Only time will tell. But the point isn’t the destination, of saying at the end of 12 months that we did 12 overnights. The point is the journey towards next August. The point is the journey I will be taking with my nearly grown daughter. It will be hard and it will be rewarding. I believe it just might be life-changing for both of us. Time will tell.

Home

As I headed out to run some errands, I felt an affection for my house and neighborhood. For the first time in my life, I thought “I think I’d like to grow old in this house.” I have lived in 11 states. I lost count with how many cities and homes there have been over the years. Somewhere along the way, I learned to see moving as an adventure. Home wasn’t a house or stuff. Home was where my family was. When we bought our current house back in 2000, I remember thinking its set up would be conducive for our life then and would work later too. It was big enough for our young family at that time. And with a first floor master bedroom, we could close off the upstairs when it became just the two of us. It’s not that I was planning to live here into my retirement, but that’s the way I think, exploring all options, benefits, and disadvantages.

We bought a house well within our price range. And we have rarely had the ability to do more than pay our bills, save some money, and take a vacation that most often was to visit relatives. That means that we haven’t done much with our home in the 17 years we have lived here, other than repair what breaks, periodically paint, and occasionally do an upgrade that coincided with a visit of my very handy father-in-law.

I have dreamed up many projects over the years, much to my husband’s chagrin. I enjoy doing so even though we were never in the position to be able to do them. But now that our children are almost grown, I think some of these upgrades might actually be possible. Granted, life tends to throw curveballs and we aren’t there yet. But there seems to be a real possibility of doing some of these projects. The ideas, some big and many not-so-big, now seem like projects we might be able to do in the next 17 years of our life here. Add to that the memories of raising our children and growing a lasting marriage, and this place becomes quite special.

There is no right way or wrong way to grow a home. Most of my friends have had the ability to build their dreams earlier in life. They are grateful for that and I am happy for them. Gratitude is seeing the good in one’s own circumstances regardless of those circumstances. I am now grateful for having had to wait. I am grateful that even if these projects never get done, there has been so much gained through the waiting. At the end of the day, it is just a building and we are just talking about stuff. My home will always be with those I love and the memories I treasure. But this new found sense of being settled and appreciative of my house and excited about what it might bring in years to come – I am grateful for that too.

Dear Family of Origin

Perhaps it is strange that I write to the three of you in this format. But I realized this morning that I have a few things I want to say to you collectively. Part of my chaplaincy training was spent reflecting on my family of origin: what part I played in it, what parts you each played, and how my growing up within this family prepared me to deal with conflict, pain, joy, relationships, and countless other adult-life stuff. This process was enlightening, painful, and gratifying. I thought I would share with you some of my take-aways via my blog. (You can thank me later.)

First, we each bring a unique perspective to what it means to be part of this family. Our memories are sometimes similar and sometimes very different. Interpretations, conclusions, participation, roles and needs may all differ. In other words we aren’t one single story, but rather several stories woven together. That is as it should be.

I recognize and affirm your thoughts, ideas and experiences regarding our family whether they are congruent with mine or not.

Second, beyond the four of us, no one can lay claim to being part of our family of four. That makes this group an elite one. Out of 7.5 billion people, only 4 of us make up the Peter-&-Carol-Flink-Party-of-Four. Certain situations remind me of the importance of this little family cult of ours. Neither time nor divorce nor death removes this fact for me.

I recognize and affirm the value of being part of this family.

Third, I am grateful to be loved by the three of you. You have known me longer than anyone else. Through good and bad, thick and thin, my good qualities and not-so-good qualities, you love me. Thank you for that.

I recognize and affirm the gift of being loved by each of you.

Fourth, you set the foundation for who I am today. I am keenly aware that Jennifer Potter – wife, mother, pastor, chaplain, blogger extraordinaire – originated as Jennie/Jennie Bugs/JB Flink – daughter, sister. Sometimes we try to splinter ourselves from where we came from, particularly when hurt is involved. But this seems to only result in the splintering of oneself. I am both Flink and Potter, each contributing so much richness and depth to my collective self. Exploring and appreciating that truth seems to bring together the best from each world I have lived.

I recognize and affirm the contributions you have made to my life, silly nicknames and all.

Fifth, as the only introvert in this group, I would like to point out how much communication I have endured and continue to endure. Seriously. You all love to call, text, and email, particularly the introvert who happens to be a damn good listener. It has taken me time to learn how to sustainably manage all of this. Thank you for understanding my decision to participate in approximately 42% of your communication. If I miss anything big in the remaining 58%, please let me know.

I recognize and affirm the ability for introverts and extroverts to healthily and peacefully co-exist.

Sixth, we as a family unit are a paradox. We are so very different from one another. We are so very much the same as one another. I am both giddy about and horrified by this truth. (You know what I’m talking about.)

I recognize and affirm our differentness and our sameness.

Seventh, we are a unit and we are individuals. This is a tricky one because the unit is so deeply engrained that acting within it is almost involuntary. I can be with one of you and the other two are somehow also in that room whether I am aware of it consciously or not. I can be in a room without any of you and am often impacted by this family unit nonetheless. This is the strength of a family of origin. It is also its curse. I am learning to be both myself, and one-fourth of this family. The first part of that learning was to make space for me as an individual. The second part has been to make space for each of you as individuals.

I recognize and affirm the space we each need to be our whole selves.

Finally, I am choosing to move forward holding this family unit with gratitude for who it was, is, and will be, warts and all. I learned that I have been carrying you with me throughout my life in so many ways. I find there is something important about consciously choosing to carry this family unit with me, in ways that are both appropriate and healthy. In doing so, I believe I take the best of what we as a family created and the important lessons learned along the way.

I recognize and affirm my gratitude for you, my family of origin.

Thank you. I love you.

With great affection,

me

On this Mother’s Day Eve…

A pattern is emerging in my journey of these last several years. I am increasingly becoming uneasy, dissatisfied, and even resistant to limited thinking and exclusionary expression. I first noticed it in my journey of faith, and write about it often. Nearly all of my posts under the “faith” category name this directly or indirectly. Religion has created a small god which continually seems to underserve the big God I encounter in my life and reading and interaction with others. While I am grateful to have started with a smaller god in order to understand, dig deep, and find my footing, I am now realizing limitations of what I know or think I know. My understanding is but one grain of sand on a beach that runs eternal. And while on some days that is frustrating, more often I am grateful that my job isn’t to know and explore that beach in its entirety but rather to be the best little grain of sand I can be as I mingle, explore, learn and interact with other grains of sand.

Two years ago, Mother’s Day was expanded in my thinking as well. You can read that marvelous post here. On this eve of Mother’s Day, I am reminded of my need to experience tomorrow in a way that is meaningful for me without doing so at the exclusion of others and their experiences. In fact, I want to not just avoid exclusion but to find ways to include more than what I bring to this Mother’s Day.

Tomorrow my grown up child will be home for a day, for which I am so grateful. I love him in ways that I cannot put into words. He is my first born, my first experience of someone part of me yet separate from me. I am immensely proud of the man he is.

My nearly-grown-up child will be with me part of the day. She is my daughter while growing into one of my dearest friends. She is my joy and my delight and probably the only person I could travel with around the world and not drive crazy.

I will have part of the day with my husband who helped make these children possible. He is my partner and my friend. He makes me laugh when I am in desperate need of it.

And I will have time with my faith community who lifts me up, loves me, supports me and believes in me – things we all need from our “moms”.

I will not have time in person with my mom. I am sorry I cannot say to her face-to-face how much I love her and how much I have learned from her and how grateful I am for her. But here is a picture of her and me from a little over a year ago:

Thank you, Mom, for, well, everything.

I won’t be able to see many women who have influenced and loved me, due to distance or time or no longer being on this planet in bodily form. And there have been many men too who have been like mothers to me in their care and nurture and life-giving ways of loving me. To all of you, thank you.

And for the ways in which I cannot fully understand or will not experience tomorrow on Mother’s Day, I seek to make space for you here. I wish to find ways to honor you so that you know you are not alone. I hope others join me too in this.

To you moms who have lost a child, I have seen your pain in a hospital room, a mother unable to put into words what she is feeling as she looks upon the body of the child she has just lost. Whether you are 25 or 95, that pain is palpable and deep. May you find comfort in this day, some how… some way. May you know that your mothering continues in so many ways.

To you who are hurting, who are angry, who feel lost, who have been let down, who have had to say goodbye, who live with regret… may you be found by others in your pain, your anger, or whatever it is that you are feeling. May you know that you are loved and you are lovable.

May we all join together in our need for a mom and in the ways we have been, are, and will be “mom” whether to our children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, pets, relatives, neighbors, friends, or even strangers. Happy Mother’s Day.