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Leimkuhler: Motherhood morphs when kids leave the nest

Two weeks ago I wrote a column to honor my mother and reflect on how I used to celebrate Mother’s Day with her when I was a child.

But this reflection also got me thinking about how the meaning of motherhood has morphed and expanded for me over the years as I have gone from celebrating my own mother to becoming a mother myself. My oldest daughter is a senior this year, poised to leave the family nest as she heads to college and embarks on her own journey to adulthood and, probably someday, motherhood as well.

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Recently, the high school issued caps and gowns to its graduating class. When my daughter got home from school that day, she tried hers on and the sight took my breath away. This is really happening. And soon. It was a swift reality check.

Despite my own mother being a near-perfect role model of motherhood, it wasn’t something I necessarily aspired to myself. Some kids envision following in their parents’ footsteps, pursuing a similar career path or taking over the family business. My husband, for example, graduated from college with a degree in engineering, as did his dad, his brother and four of his uncles before him.

I, however, wanted to run in the opposite direction. I couldn’t fathom being a stay-at-home mom. I wanted a career! I wanted to travel, see the world, drive — at the time — a convertible BMW Z3. Possibly never have kids. And I was on the path to do just that. I was majoring in aviation and, after graduation, my roommate and I were planning to move to Florida where I would continue working as a flight instructor, gradually building enough hours to become a commercial airline pilot.

But love has a way of changing things.

My husband and I met during our senior year of college and by the end of that year he popped “the question” that made me break into a sweat — do you want to have kids someday?

Before him, that answer would likely have been a firm “no,” or at least a “probably not.” After him? I think the answer I gave was along the lines of “Maybe. I don’t know.”

But I guess it was enough for him at the time to know that I was at least willing to consider it. He definitely wanted kids. I wondered how he knew, how he could be so certain.

We got married two years later and, though I was still working as a part-time flight instructor, my career path had led me to sales. And then to publishing and event planning before circling back to aviation and sales again. I was working as a corporate co-pilot when I was offered the opportunity to interview with US Airways.

I turned it down.

The thing I had envisioned and dreamed about for so long was no longer the thing I wanted. Maybe my maternal clock had started screaming at me, or maybe motherhood was my destiny all along. But by that point in my life — nearly five years after my husband-to-be popped the kids question — when I thought about life as a commercial pilot, I thought about all the birthdays and holidays with family I would miss.

I thought about being away from home for days at a time, living out of a suitcase and sleeping in hotels. I thought it sounded lonely.

Choosing to forgo the airline interview was, essentially, choosing motherhood. The last full-time position I held was in a university alumni relations and annual giving office. Three weeks before my first daughter was born, I quit that job and never looked back.

Ultimately, motherhood provided the fulfillment and challenge that I’d been searching for all along. And it was, literally, a labor of love. Cars, and material things in generally, quickly became unimportant to me, as driving a minivan and, later, an SUV, was far more practical for my growing family that a Z3.

And I’ve also been fortunate to travel often and widely — with my husband and family, but also on my own.

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While essentially turning my back on the corporate world, I’ve cobbled together a career of sorts for myself as a writer and soon-to-be published author, as well as a freelance marketing associate and yoga instructor. I’ve done all the things I dreamed of doing and more, but motherhood has been the most rewarding, enjoyable path of all.

Now, in quick succession, my children will begin to fly from the nest and my job description will change again. I hope that my time “on the job” has been well spent, that I’ve given my kids everything they need to succeed in this world and find the happiness and fulfillment I have found.

I had no way of knowing what it was like for my mother when she experienced this transition — when I left home for college. But I’m about to find out. And while I will always be a mom first and foremost, I may no longer need that SUV.

Maybe it will be time to reconsider that Z3 after all.

Editor’s note: This column is the second in a two-part series about motherhood.

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