Last year, a friend’s comment pierced me. I was regaling him with stories of my day, which had been full of outlandish examples of helping other people. Honestly, I was expecting him to say, “What a crazy day! You must be wiped out!” Instead he smirked and said, “Joy needs to be needed.”
I felt as if he’d slapped me. After an exhausting day of laborious physical care for someone in need, it felt like I’d been ridiculed. To make matters worse, that same friend had benefited from my help earlier in the year when I’d been a last-minute call for child care and was nearby after a surgery to provide ice changes and meals. It was fine to need me then, but now he’s making fun of me? I was indignant. I don’t need to be needed. I notice needs and try to help! Isn’t that a good thing? I stewed all night about it; in the morning, I confronted him. My friendship with him runs deep so I knew he had my best at heart and he’d appreciate my honesty. Naturally, he was horrified that he’d hurt my feelings and he affirmed his gratitude about the times I’d helped him, but he didn’t back down. “You shine brighter when you are helping others,” he said. “It’s just your nature.”
I know myself well enough to know that when my heart stings, there is truth to be discovered. Like, maybe a comment struck just a little too close to home. Not exactly bull’s eye, but if I dig around and self-examine, I’ll likely find the place where it connected beneath the surface. For months I’ve pondered why his comment cut so deep. What’s so bad about feeling good when I help others? I guess on the extreme we call this co-dependent behavior, and to a lesser degree, people pleasing. I’ve certainly danced my way through both of those danger zones, but at this point in my life, I rest comfortably in a healthy place on the giving continuum. At least, I think I do.
Louis, my youngest, graduates from high school in two weeks. Today, I decided to read all the college essays he submitted months ago. Buried in the middle of a fabulous essay, I found this:
My mom likes to say that there are two kinds of people in the world: givers and takers. It’s how we view the world, how we treat others, how we look at our place in the universe…. For takers, the world is full of opportunities for them to snatch. They live in a fantasy land of wealth and options—life is within their grasp. They eat all the bananas, they never buy groceries, they always take the first serving at meals.
Givers, like my parents, are the opposite. They look at the world as empty, and they are the only ones who can fill it up. They give their time, their energy, and their sanity. My father flew from Chicago to Houston to help my sister’s ex-boyfriend move into college because his parents couldn’t leave Singapore. If I’m ever sad, or anxious, or worried, my mother gives me whatever time I need to help me through, time she could spend doing any number of other things, like making money.
I try hard to be a giver… But it doesn’t always work out; it doesn’t come naturally to me. I don’t understand how my parents put up with it all … But I do try. I try my hardest to give what I can—my time, my input, my energy—to those around me. Because that’s who I am. That’s who my parents have raised me to be.
This giving, this “needs to be needed”… it’s a thing. If my boy is writing to potential colleges about it, I must have managed to make it a core family value, a thing to be passed on. Why doesn’t it sit well with me? Why did I resist when my friend pointed it out?
I’m closer to understanding it, but here’s some of why it hurt: No one actually needs me right now.
Soon, Louis will graduate and fly off to a summer working on a farm, on his own. After that, he’ll move to a new city and begin a life without me. I fully expect he will never live at home again. I’ve been warned about the empty nest. Sure, I’ll be waving and smiling as my last child crosses that stage to get his handshake and diploma, but inside will be utter heartbreak. As a feeling of nostalgia floods me, I’ll stare blankly at my husband and wonder what in the world we’ll talk about for the next 25 or 40 years. Women who’ve gone before me have whispered to me about it. “It’s a new chapter, is all.” “Parenting just looks different; it doesn’t end.” “You’ll need to invest in your marriage in a new way.” “You’ll finally get to do all the things you’ve wanted to do.” “It can be exciting if you let it be.”
No one spoke about the loss of not being needed any longer, and that’s where I feel empty. I feel like I have so much more to give. I always knew I had enough mothering to give four children, but I only had two. I’ve had to intentionally ration this nurturing love so that I didn’t overwhelm my two. Sometimes I think of my business as my 3rd child who will never fly the coop. The more smother-mothering I give that one, the faux kid, the more she blossoms. But not the first two, my real children. I have to hold back.
My dirty little secret, the one I can’t share with everybody, is this: I’ve loved being a mother. I mean, I’ve really, really loved it. It feels dirty because I’ve always felt like society needed me to be more. It needed me to really, really love my career, really, really love politics, really, really love non-profit work and volunteering, or even really, really love my husband. (Remember that pot-stirrer?) But for me, mothering is what lit my fire. It’s made me shine brighter. Sure, days were long and hard, it was a thankless job for the most part and it wasn’t always fun. I recall one particular night my husband emailed me from a posh restaurant where he’d just enjoyed a delicious dinner in London on a business trip. I read his note while eating the leftover Kraft macaroni and cheese that was still on the kids’ plates hours after dinner. Part of clean up routine – after bath, books, songs, one more potty, one more hug, one more banana-because-I-am-still-hungry, and a can-I-sleep-in-your-bed and will-you-lie-with me…sigh – was that I finally got to eat dinner alone. But dinner was usually whatever was left on their cold plates. So, was mothering, glam? No. But satisfying? Deeply. Like, deeeeeeeeply. An ex-boyfriend wrote me after I had my first baby, ostensibly to offer congratulations, but then asked why I’d stopped working. “I always thought you’d do more with your life, “ he casually said. Nope. “More” was right in front of me and I fully stepped into it. “More” was raising these two:
“More” filled me up.
To. The. Brim
I got lucky with the two kids I got and they got lucky with me. We were three peas in a pod. I was good at my job and I was happy in my job, but I have no job now. Except my actual job, which I will keep plugging away at. But my soul’s work, it has finished.
My friend worked for a bank for many years and the bank closed the division she’d run. It was a management decision and had nothing to do with her work. In fact, they hired her back to oversee the downsizing of the department and she was great at it. It was methodical and important work. But, she told me that as much as she found the downsizing work satisfactory, she’d rather have done it for a different company, one she hadn’t worked so hard to build. As she chipped away pieces of the funds, investors, clients and human resources, she was cutting down the very thing she’d brought to life.
Yep. As successful as I was at mothering, these last few years have been just like that: intentionally stripping away my control, my influence, my involvement, my voice in their ear. Stepping back, so they step forward. Creating a hole in me, so they could feel full.
And now I am empty.
I’m in the final stretch of this job. My last day is known; it’s two weeks from tomorrow. There will be no retirement party. Like my friend, if I’ve done my job well, there will be nothing left. The boy will take it all with him. Parenting is a one way street. All the love and care is supposed to flow from me to them and then they keep walking down that street away from me, headed to their own destiny. This is how it is supposed to work, Joy.
One of my BFFs messaged me last week.
Her: How are YOU??
Me: I am good, sister. All things under control and doing a good job mothering my last final weeks of having any kid live with me. 😦
Her: When does he leave?
Me: Graduates June 6. Flies June 10th never to live with me again!!!!
And then she proved her worth as one of my best friends by asking me this:
Her: Give me three words to describe how you’re feeling.
Me: loss, unknown, free
Her: That makes perfect sense
Me: you are the bestest of friends to ask me that sweetie
This weekend we had our final family Sunday night dinner. This is a big deal, guys. A really big deal. The Sunday night family dinner is the cornerstone of our week. As far back as my kids can remember it was our special time. They could invite friends, or they could be surprised by who we invited. It could be us four or twelve more; week to week we never knew. But Brad always cooked on Sunday nights. On this our final-final, Brad pulled a huge slab of beef from the fridge and smoked it for hours and hours on our grill. I set the table with care. I asked Louis if he wanted to invite anyone and even suggested a few people. “I think they’d be fun to have, but it’d be more fun for it to be just the three of us.” So, I only put out three plates. It took me six months to stop accidentally setting the table for four when Emma, his older sister, went to college, but I’ve finally switched gears to three. Soon, I’ll set for two.
Today, when I finally caught up with Louis’s essays, months after he’d turned them in, I found this:
What will you miss the most about your current community when you leave for college?
Schedules are sacred. They’re the only things that never change. Sunday: Wake up. Go to church. Get lunch. Chug a coffee. Do homework. Then, the Gordon family dinner.
It’s a little tradition we have, a part of the schedule that—come hell or high water—will not change. Every Sunday, the members of the household convene to share and laugh about the week over food. No matter who’s at our table, from best friends to half-strangers to the various ne’er-do-wells of Singapore, we always have Sunday dinners. It’s more than a meal. It’s my communion. It’s my safe place. It’s my childhood.
Soon, I’ll have my last sacrosanct Sunday dinner before I head off to university. But I know that someday, I’ll manage to find a new group of tablemates. Even if my family is halfway around the world.
Louis, it looks like I’ll need to do the same thing. I need to find new tablemates. My heartbeats will be halfway around the world and my table is still big, but now empty.
There is loss: I’ve worked my way out of a job.
There is unknown: Who am I after this? What if that was my life’s work? What if I am never this passionate about anything else?
But, there is also freedom. I’ve done this job well. I can turn off the lights and walk out, walk into a new world.
It’s time for me to find other places to give, because, well, it turns out my friend was right: Joy needs to be needed.
I am so happy he does not need me as much anymore.
One of his essays touched me so deeply. I’ve been blowing my nose ever since reading it. If you have time, and can take some geek-talk, you can read it here: Louis’s magic essay . During the time in his life that he writes about, I quietly asked a close friend, “Am I warping him by making myself his best friend?” She put her arms around me and said, “Joy, you are saving him.” You were right, NBF. This picture is Lou and me, just last week at one of the many ceremonies meant to bring me to tears. We’re still the dynamic duo. Through thick or thin he can always count on that.
That won’t ever change, Lou!❤️
Do you have a child moving on to a new phase? Into the crowded hallways of the scary public school you’ve been giving the stink eye for a few years? Walking away from college to pursue his own thing? Into boarding school? Is your girl getting married? Leave a comment below and tell us about the transitions you are facing in motherhood and how you are dealing with it. Wise ones ahead of us, what helped make it easier for you?
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