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?
P.S. Welcome to all the recent subscribers! I’m Joy. I post random pieces at random times, but I promise to keep you laughing, crying, or at least thinking! If you were forwarded this from a friend but want to catch the next addition (in 6 months or 6 days from now… we never know) simply fill out that form at the top right corner. It looks like this:
Recently I tried to strike up an awkward, dating advice-laden conversation with a 15-year-old girl who was not at all interested in hearing it. Go figure! Having been that age at one long-ago point myself, I get it. It’s uncomfortable at best, preachy at worst and regardless of its truth, advice is usually unwelcome. I still have to grit my teeth if someone begins to tell me how I should be acting, thinking or feeling. I’d rather learn it all on my own, thank you.
But I also get how age begets pseudo-wisdom and I share with other old fogeys the desire to use my hard-earned knowledge to save someone from a particular pain or heartache I endured.
Though this specific 15-year-old girl needed no advice, I thought I might share with my readers what I may have said had I been given the chance. If you have a teenage girl in your life, feel free to cut and paste your favorite tip and pass it along to her as if it’s coming directly from you. If she’ll hear you, of course. If she won’t listen, just post it on her facebook wall.
- Only date guys your own age. (At least until you graduate from college.) I know that your male peers look and act horribly immature right now, and the older guys are so attractive, but stick with the same-agers. Much about dating and relationships can accidentally turn into a power struggle and a battle for control. Maintaining as equal a playing field as possible will only help you. (Yes, I know that I mostly dated older guys, but my favorite ex-boyfriends are all very close to my age!)
- A truly platonic friendship is rare and special. Treasure it if you come across it. It’s rare because it’s likely that the relationship is platonic because one of you doesn’t want to make it romantic and the other does. And I bet that you’ve each wanted it to be more at different times. If you are lucky enough to be friends first, tread carefully before allowing it to become something else. I always found it much harder to undo the damage of a break-up and get back to the business of being friends than to just experience a little unrequited crushing.
- When dressing for a date, ask yourself this one question: Could anybody accidentally mistake this dress, this skirt or these shoes for a stripper costume? If the answer is no, carry on and enjoy your night.
- Okay, this one is where the awkward part may have begun if I had been allowed to share my tips that night. During my own teenage dating years, we used the timeworn “four bases” shorthand to describe any form of sexual relations. (Yeah, I know that now it’s called “hooking up.”) First base was kissing, second base was a hand up, third base a hand down and by the time you crossed home plate for a homerun you were engaging in full intercourse. (It sounds much swifter than it was, btw.) We spoke about it so casually – “did you get to second base?” “How far did you go with him?” “Just to third base and then I stopped him.” My tips on bases: If you decide to kiss a boy, kiss him again the following week, again in the movie theater and one more time at the bus stop, this does not mean that by the fifth time you must go to second base. If you decide to kiss him when you are both alone and have loads of time on your hands and nothing else to do, this does not mean you have agreed to go to the next base, though he may try to convince you differently. If you agree to go to a base one day, this does not mean that you have automatically agreed to go to that base the following day. If you break up with a boy that you went to a base with, you do not need to feel obligated to go to that base again with your next boyfriend.
- I hope you only go to any base because of love and not for any other reason than to express that love. Someday you will know a friend who will go to bases in hopes of gaining love, acceptance or popularity, to get attention, to numb a sadness inside her or because she feels obligated. Please tell her she doesn’t need to, and bases won’t get her what she is looking for anyway. (PS. Just to be clear: notwithstanding that it’s 2013 and this will sound old-fashioned and out-of-touch, I hope you save most of those bases, and especially home plate, for the man you marry.)
- In my day we understood that emotions and feelings were attached to going to bases. Today it looks like kids pretend differently and act cavalier and nonchalant about hooking up. Take it from a sage, right now your heart is capable of profound affection and deep hurt. Don’t stuff those feelings, listen to them.
- Know that he may kiss (bases!) and tell. You should keep it quiet.
- Be kind to each boy you date. He may act tough, be hard to read or hold himself aloof, but I bet that you turn him into a nervous wreck and he can’t figure out how to impress you. Give him a break if he stutters, says the wrong thing or trips while opening a door for you. He’s learning too. (Yes, I know older guys have already mastered this stuff, but go back to tip #1!)
- If you are finished dating him, try to be as honest as possible without being cruel.
- Don’t be that girl who puts her friends down in that sarcastic jokey way when boys are around. You are beautiful. The kindness you show to your friends will make you more attractive to boys as you get older. Catty = turn off.
- If you ever feel like you are trying to make yourself smaller, less smart, less funny, or less the center of attention to help your boyfriend or date feel better, bigger or smarter, move on from that boy right away.
- Your gut instinct is your friend. If you get creeped-out at the thought of being alone with him, listen to that. (It doesn’t matter if he is the captain of the lacrosse team and the boy all the girls are swooning about and he is choosing you. You don’t have to swoon unless you want to.)
- No matter how broke you are, always carry enough money to pay for your own meal and get yourself safely home. Yes, he should pay for your meal, provide transportation and hold the door for you. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean he is a jerk, but it might mean the evening is not as special to him as you had imagined it to be. Or it might mean he isn’t well trained. Listen to your gut.
- I know you’ll disregard tip #1 at some point. If you do date older boys or men, please make sure they are not your teacher or coach, your friend’s father, or anyone who is closer to my age than yours. It will be obvious why they want to be near you, but seriously… yuck.
- My final tip (for now – I reserve the right to add to this list!) comes from my dear friend who has successfully parented loads of boys and girls. Here’s what she whispered to her daughters as they were heading out the door for their first prom: “When you are dancing, be careful not to rub up against his body because it will make his wee-wee hard.” ‘Nuff said.
Go forth and have a blast in your non-stripper-costume-looking outfit. I trust your judgment and I hope you will too.
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