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Life after the kids have gone: It's a scary thought


READERS OFTEN ask what in goodness' name I will write about after my children leave home, and I respond by pointing out that Erma Bombeck was teasing her children in print long after they were parents in their own right. If memory serves me the way it did Erma, I might be able to get away with that, too.

But I find myself thinking these days more about what I will do when they leave home than what I will write.

My children are teen-agers now and my oldest has entered high school. Everywhere there are mothers just ahead of me in the life cycle whose babies are leaving home at a pace unimagined when we were all commiserating over how to handle temper tantrums in public.

The nest of one poor woman will empty with the sudden swiftness of a storm drain after a cloud burst. She is the mother of quadruplets, and her brood could actually leave home on the same weekend.

Another friend has twin daughters who will leave for college in the fall. They are her youngest, too. And still another friend will send off the last of her three sons in September, something she has been weeping about since the first one entered high school nine years ago.

I see the mix of pride, relief and profound sadness in the faces of these women, and I know what awaits me.

I have a little less than six years left in this game, and I find myself wondering if I will make it; and then wondering what I will do with myself if I should.

I am no spring chicken, and adolescence -- theirs -- is not for sissies. The physical demands of caring for kids this age are significant, and I often fear that I don't have the stamina for it. I don't know whether I or my van have enough miles left in us to do this job.

But just when I fear most that I will lose the edge and the energy I need to care for these growing, changing creatures, I think about what it will be like when they no longer need me to drive, cook, wash, hand over money and say "no," and I am sad.

What will it be like when visitors can make their way from my front door to my kitchen without tripping over backpacks, musical instruments, coats, tennis shoes and sports equipment?

And who will visit when there are no children to make my friends for me?

What will it be like when grocery shopping ceases to take most of a weekend afternoon and my kitchen is no longer littered with the detritus of constantly grazing children and their friends?

I think of my husband and me sitting silently across from each other during an early-bird special, and I shudder.

The term "mountains of laundry" was coined by the mother of teen-agers, but I remember how my heart constricted when I saw that my widowed mother's weekly wash consisted of little more than a bath towel and a couple of cotton tops.

The phone does nothing but ring these days. How will I feel when I am waiting for my children to call me? I can't wait until stuff stays where I put it. But will my house then echo with the silence of a museum?

I banish thoughts like these with renewed determination to dig in and enjoy these years, crazy as they are.

What is the joke? "When you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember that your purpose is to drain the swamp."

I guess that when you are up to your neck in kids, it is hard to remember that your purpose is to enjoy them.

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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