“Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”–Elizabeth Stone
My mother-in-law gave me a piece of advice when I was a newlywed that I have never forgotten. She said that every woman wants three things: a good marriage, happy children, and a successful career. Of the three, we must pick two. She knew this from personal experience. I took it to heart, recognizing quickly that juggling a marriage and a career that I loved was hard enough without trying to add children into the mix. So, for a few years, I focused on those two things. When I had my first child, I chose to quit my job, retiring from teaching in an Atlanta public school at twenty-six so I could spend my energy and time raising happy, healthy humans and supporting my husband so he could work hard to provide for us.
And then motherhood swallowed me whole—and I’m not just talking about pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, diapers, and sleepless nights. It was the giving of my whole self to another human being: body, mind, and soul. And then giving everything to several more, spreading myself even thinner. In typical all-or-nothing fashion, I gave up my personal ambitions (for a time) to become a Supermom to four kids under six. And then we decided to homeschool…on a boat, while traveling. And then we had a boat baby. Without some very firm boundaries—an inviolable morning quiet time, date night with my husband (even if it was just sunset drinks on deck), strict bedtimes, solo kayaking, and individual time-outs to pursue other interests, I might have found it nearly impossible to relocate my identity once my kids began to be more independent.
I have begun to feel the effects of what is called “empty nest syndrome,” when a mother has done her job satisfactorily and her grown children begin to leave home. My oldest is off the boat, the second has one foot out the door, and the third is almost done with a simultaneous high school diploma and associates degree. It is at once encouraging and heartbreaking to see your children spread their wings and take flight. Though I’ve still got two kids left to nurture, I’ve already invested twenty years in this second career and I’m beginning to think about what comes next.
I began volunteering recently with my youngest daughter at the Crane Point Wild Bird Center that takes in birds from around the Florida Keys to rehabilitate and release them when possible, and to care for them long-term when a return to the wild is not possible. There is a small community of pelicans and cormorants housed in a large enclosure with their own pond, nesting areas, and places to perch.
Living on the water, I have seen thousands of these birds in different habitats, but I had never gotten such a close look until I went into the enclosure to clean up bird poo. Cormorants, for example, have the most beautiful blue eyes. And pelicans will take sticks, if offered them, to build a nest. They also like to buzz right over your head as a punishment for entering their enclosure to clean and feed them.
Some of the resident cormorants are too injured to be released, but not so injured that they cannot form mating pairs and lay eggs. This presents an uncomfortable dilemma for Kelly, who has been caring for these birds for more than twenty years. She explained that if they allow the birds to sit on the eggs, the hatchlings will be born in captivity and require care for the rest of their lives, filling up the sanctuary with healthy birds who don’t need to be there. But if they release the baby birds into the wild without the important training from their parents to be able to provide food for themselves, they quickly die of starvation, a fact she once learned the hard way.
Furthermore, if the eggs are simply removed from the nest and destroyed, which is probably the most humane outcome, the mama birds will grieve and mourn the loss. What to do?! Kelly told me that they have discovered a creative solution: smooth, round river rocks of about the right size and shape, painted blue, and warmed. Someone distracts the birds, while someone else does a quick swap, replacing eggs with warm rocks. The mama bird doesn’t seem to notice the difference, continuing to sit on the “eggs” for a while, eventually giving them up as duds, and moving on with her life.
This seems like a stroke of pure genius. A warm rock. This discovery strikes me as particularly timely for my season of life. As my kids begin to pack their cars with all their earthly belongings and drive away from our boat life, this is the question I must ask: with what will I replace the demanding full-time role of raising children when they fly the coop? I have been reflecting again recently on the advice Jay’s mom gave me about choosing carefully. I think in one sense, she was right. It’s very hard to juggle all the worthwhile goals we have for our lives; something always gets dropped when we try to do it all. But in another sense, we can have all three things—marriage, kids, career—just not all at the same time. If we view life seasonally—as in, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), then we can find fulfillment in the best gifts life has to offer, one or two at a time.
For me, my writing has become my warm rock. I spent several years keeping my writing skills simmering on the back burner, writing for our blog, and dreaming of a time when I could write for a living. As my kids have gotten older, I’ve begun to find myself again—my voice, my goals, my value as its defined by my skills and not my relationships. At the same time, I have begun to feel pulled in multiple directions, as early success with my first book has temporarily shifted my focus from my husband and children. I’ve realized that although I’m glad I wrote Leaving the Safe Harbor and hope that I set an example of dreaming big for my own children, I am not ready to be a full-time author. In just a few short years, the children will be grown, Jay and I will be enjoying a second honeymoon, and I will have lots of stories to tell. Until then, I will sit on this warm rock and keep writing whenever I can, plugging away at projects without losing myself in them.