This column began as a happy accident 15 years ago when I sent my musings to Rich Rein, editor at the WWP News. We had been in Plainsboro four years, and I was still adapting to the culture shock that came from giving up “big” jobs in San Francisco and New York and juggling suburban life with a commuting husband and three children, then 12, 9, and 4. I initially seethed at the cornfields and rows of soybean, feeling as if I had traded my exciting career to have gone out, literally, to pasture in rural central New Jersey. Was this the life I was meant to lead?
And then something somewhat miraculous happened—I started to fall in love with the rhythm of life as a suburban mom, now able to indulge in apple-picking field trips with our last child as a chaperone, something our first had been cheated out of as I trotted the streets for that all-important story. I learned that none of the stories were ever as important as the time spent with our growing children. The stories would always be there. I could always return to my career. But the children would grow up and fly.
We lined our nest. The future was distantly ahead. We became engrossed in the business of everyday life, while rewarding, honestly, at times, could be tedious in a way explained by a phrase favored by parents of newborns—the days (and nights) are long, but the years are short.
Our favorite early haunts were Chuck E. Cheese’s, Target, and Toys ‘R’ Us. It was a ritual to check in every couple of weeks to see if a new Power Ranger toy had arrived for Will. His choices were less about guns—thank goodness, given today’s horrifying developments—and more about light sticks and lasers, which, given his prowess with the lacrosse stick, proved to be a prescient choice.
Katie and Molly loved the mall and stores like Limited Too, where we paid inflated prices for the latest moonbeam fashions and glitter accessories. I was happy when Kohl’s arrived across Route 1, and the girls would emerge clutching bags larger than they. One of my favorite acronyms from that time was the FDO—that all-critical First Day Outfit—which, when worn on the first day of school, would set the tone for the rest of the year.
The kids played soccer, softball, baseball, basketball, and hockey; they played music and acted in plays; they joined the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts; they had sleepovers and campouts, they went to birthday parties, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, Sweet 16s, and proms. In every aspect of Suburban Kid life, they were involved, engaged, and happy. And sure, there were conflicts and issues as well.
This column became a place where I could share it all—the highs and the lows, the joys and frustrations of my suburban mom life. My friends and fellow moms were my lifeline as advisors and therapists. I was the trenchant observer and comedienne and my children gave me endless material.
And then the long days and longer nights no longer were long at all. We were breathless as the years seemed to accelerate. Katie was off to college, then Molly, and then, last September, Will, the last little baby bird—no longer little at all—flew off as well.
People ask what it’s like to have an empty nest. Frankly, it’s pretty anticlimactic. There is no drama, no clicking of heels or wild exhortation of “free at last, free at last.” I had given up the chauffeur portion of my life years earlier, as the kids earned their driver’s licenses. Thanks to the technology that had evolved so quickly in my children’s lifetime, we were in constant communication, no matter where in the world they might be. We had moved on to the next phase and life was good.
And then, suddenly, life as I knew it, changed, once again, very dramatically. My mother, who had been suffering from a balance disorder, took the second of two falls. The first, in August, turned out to be only a warning, with no significant consequences. However, the second, in November, resulted in more serious injuries—the worst, the start of a slow brain bleed that two months later would require emergency surgery. To compound matters, my father suffered a brain injury of his own, literally, on the same day of my mother’s procedure.
Today, my life has evolved from less suburban mom to suburban daughter and head caregiver to my parents. While they both continue their recovery at home, I have become their chauffeur, cook, and tutor. And yes, I am now a boomerang child as well.
When taking them out, I am reminded of the days when my children were small, when leaving the house meant helping them collect and put on their coats and shoes, loading up the car with their strollers—though now it means loading up walkers and then strapping them into their car seats, and in this case, their seat belts. This path feels very familiar because I’ve traveled it before.
Of course, you know that one day your children will grow up and leave. This journey with my parents, too, will be finite as well, though of course, by its very nature, not as joyful and not as defined. But it is rewarding and as difficult these days and nights have been, I am trying to cherish this found time with the two people who gave me everything and helped me become the person I am today—the very best world citizen, mother, and daughter I try to be.