Confessions of an (Almost) Empty Nester and Why 40-Something is a Beautiful Age to Be

My oldest daughter leaves for college on Saturday. I knew this day was coming. In pre-K, the teachers took a photo of her wearing a much-too-big t-shirt that read, "Class of 2018," so obviously her graduation and subsequent acceptance to college did not come as a surprise.

I am in my 40s (a decade that unfortunately did take me by surprise). It's a tumultuous age when women get a bad rap for trying to act young even though the world says they are decidedly "old."  You see these women in their sunglasses and scarves, dying their hair and botoxing their foreheads, suddenly playing defense in a world gone topsy turvy, flipping back and forth between the youth they remember and the maturity that beckons with nary a warning nor an apology.

It’s cliché to say it seems like yesterday that I brought my tiny firstborn home from the hospital, but that was 1999, and I was only 25. My 20s were filled with so many firsts—college graduation, a wedding, my first real job, two babies, and home ownership. All those big things slowed down time and made me pine for a day when I could get my real life back—exercise, books, friends, and work.

I did not wish away my children’s childhoods, but I too fell into the trap of dreaming of all the things I’d do “one day.”  What I didn’t realize, though, is that when "one day" came I would no longer be the twenty-something or thirty-something I was when they were little. I thought I wanted more time. “For me,” I said. “I need a break,” I said. “I will travel. I will read. I will learn a new language,” I said.

Sure. Those things are good and noble. Travel. Books. Language. Who wouldn't want more of that? Maybe I will actually follow through on the promises I made to myself back then, but have you ever been around anyone—anyone—who is over 40 and doesn’t complain of their failing eyesight or their bad back or their weak stomach or their poor memory?

And they’re all always so tired. So very tired.

It’s discouraging, to say the least.

Don’t wait until you’re old to do the things you want to do when you’re young.

You can say that age is just a number, but does anyone really believe that? I find myself covering my gray and covering my wrinkles and covering the things that pooch in weird places even though I work out now more than I ever have in my life. The veins on my hands are also becoming more pronounced, a change I lament watching unfold even as my eyesight wanes. Yet I don’t want to spend these years hiding under cover, when there is so much still to be revealed—if only I would summon it.

You will spend a minimum of two decades raising your kids, maybe more depending on how many kids you have and how many years there are between them. You will be a different person when it is over than you were when you began. I say that with both wonder and gratitude. How much we learn from our children! I’ve discovered truths about myself, and them, and the world—all these things because four kids grew up in our home and we were tasked with the responsibility of raising them into productive, contributing members of society.  

I know it’s hard to have young kids, what with the constant vigilance and getting up in the middle of the night and addressing the tantrums and imparting wisdom and all. We like to pretend we don’t notice that everyone grows up eventually and so we end up saying ridiculous things like “Where did the time go?” and “How do we have kids that are going to college?” Honey, you know where it went. You were just trying to keep up back then—taking them to dance and soccer and arguing about homework and chores. But you were doing it. You were modeling what it means to be human. You were shaping the future—literally.

Please don’t give up.

Parenthood suits the young, but it teaches us how to be old.  

Figure out a way to embrace the life you have, wherever you are, whether you are young or old.

For now is all you have. It’s all any of us have.

I welcome this season of wonder—a daughter on the edge of adulthood, our family coming full circle as we celebrate the life we’ve built. She will take her first steps into an unknown world, figuratively cutting her teeth on every new experience that awaits. She will be nourished in ways beyond what we could have ever given her. She will explore the world anew.

The 40-somethings shouldn't be known for their crazy, off-balance shenanigans, women trying to act young while teetering on the brink of old. We can welcome this new season even as we curse it. It's a season fraught with the unknown, but it's also an adventure, a time to do all the things we said we’d do “one day” and no excuse for why we can’t.

If you are on the brink of a new season, I invite you to welcome it with me. Embrace the imperfections that accompany graceful aging. Find the beauty in the transition, for even as we find ourselves shifting within our own skin, we are witnesses to the life we built within the children we spawned. That love is a miracle in itself, a cycle of growth and regeneration that brings joy in the midst of grief that goes with letting go.

A beautiful truth: The most wonderful thing about parenthood is that while you will eventually let go of your child’s hand, your hearts will always be firmly, decidedly, resolutely connected--forever.

And the young at heart have always been my very favorite people of all.