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Post travel blues, back to reality, and another step closer in envisioning an empty-nested life.
My college kid comes home today for the summer. “Time flies so fast” is the evergreen mantra of life these days, but even we are spinning from the fact that the first year of college is already over. Having them back for three months will once again be a change in our home dynamics in what has been a revolving door all year of being a family of three vs. four. I look forward to this change because I need something to jolt me back to reality. I may be finally kicking jet lag, though I’m in shock at how groggy I still seem to be (I had to take a nap again today). Everything just feels off and I’m struggling with my circadian clock not cooperating and wanting to sleep at odd hours, even a week later.
I spent the first four days upon my return from Korea without leaving the house, not even once. I’m not even ashamed to admit it. It was almost like I was afraid to break the bubble that I enjoyed during my travels, and facing Brooklyn noise, Brooklyn sights on the other side of these walls was the culture shock that I was not ready to return to. I finally burst the bubble four days later by going to a plant nursery in Red Hook surrounded by the possibilities for this year’s balcony garden. We brought the plants home, mostly herbs and starters for cooking, and I spent Sunday digging up weeds and the roots of last year’s perennials that did not come back from winter’s hibernation. The next day, we took a long walk to Trader Joes. The weather was warm and Brooklyn was full of that summer energy that brings everyone outside to bask in the sun. This time I was ready for it.
One thing that I vowed not to do upon my return is slip back into time wasting habits, one of which is doom scrolling on the internet and spiraling in a rabbit hole of theories of where we’re all headed as a society. It’s not productive nor healthy, yet it’s hard not to worry about the future. There is nothing that snaps you back to reality faster than coming home to news of a mass shooting on the heels of yet another mass shooting in a never-ending cycle of shootings in this country, especially one that appears to be rooted in white supremacist ideology. It was luxurious not to have to think about American politics, American gun violence, college applications, the economy, career ambivalence, my kids’ near future employment prospects, and whether or not we’ll all be replaced by AI.
I did not read the news for an entire three weeks, though I did see brief reportings about a mass shooting incident in the U.S. through the lens of non-American news anchors when I happened to turn on the TV in my hotel room for a few minutes. I turned it off immediately. America was literally thousands of miles away and I allowed myself the luxury of living under a rock. I relished in the feeling that I felt safe walking around by myself, even at night. I haven’t felt this at ease in quite some time. Since the pandemic, and particularly when I felt like a target, I’ve always nursed this anxiety and feeling of being on edge every time I rode the subway or walked alone after the sun went down. It was a relief to not feel so guarded all the time.
Having never been away from my family like this, I wondered how it would feel to be on my own for so long. The answer is…everything was just fine without me. My 16 year old told me about her own epiphany while I was gone. Her recent change in perspective about leaving for college in a year—something that she was previously dreading with so much anticipated anxiety, was that it was no longer something she was afraid of. Living on her own even seemed like it could be fun, she said. I’m not sure what transpired in the few weeks I was gone, but I was starting to suspect that my youngest and I had developed a codependent relationship during the pandemic. It’s been sweet and I’m relishing every minute of it, but something needed to happen to loosen that codependency so that we can begin the process of decoupling in preparation for her eventual departure to college in 15 months. This is both for her and me. It seems as if this trip served multiple purposes. I think we were able to envision a life without each other in our daily lives—something that was hard to imagine even a month ago.
I’ve noticed that I’ve come to think of this very weird empty nesting phase as “decoupling” from my children (not to be confused with “conscious uncoupling”). I say this in the most positive and supportive way, of course. I think when my oldest was approaching 18 it hit me that I was pretty much done raising my kids, in the sense that they had become fully formed people at that point with their own opinions and values and it was time to let them go and figure things out for themselves. You don’t really ever stop parenting, of course, but it becomes a different kind of parenting, from afar and one step removed. Simultaneously, we as empty nesters start the process of rediscovering or reinventing who we are. We go through our own decoupling of our identity as parents.
For the first time in forever I floated around a new-ish to me country without identifying as anything other than just myself, a human. Not a mom, a wife, a designer, a New Yorker, or even really a foreigner. Most people in Korea did not assume I was American, which surprised me considering everything about me screamed American on my only trip back when I was 10. But it wasn’t only me who had changed since my last visit—Korea had changed. The only time I was spoken to in English, which was rarely, was in very tourist-heavy stores where the cashiers spoke English more often than not. My crappy Korean was apparently proficient enough in the most basic transactional conversations that I wasn’t setting off any flags that I was not a native. That is, until the vocabulary got more difficult and I couldn’t carry the conversation any longer (which, admittedly didn’t take that long). It was only then that I confessed that I didn’t understand.
I was so certain that I would feel like a foreigner in Korea given all the years I endured judgement and shame here in the States for not speaking the language that I was shocked to discover how comfortable I felt. It didn’t quite feel like home, but I felt like I belonged. That was the most surprising thing of all. When my trip came to a close, I wasn’t ready to leave. I needed more time, and if you had told me that I had to stay—that I couldn’t come back to the States, I think I would have been ok with it. I know that Korea has its own problems, particularly in regards to women’s rights (although things seem to be sliding backwards for women here and everywhere, let’s be honest) and young people would argue that things are far from great. But the elusive pursuits of home ownership, equity, finding a partner, and job prospects that are huge issues for many of that generation are no longer concerns of mine. I think I finally can see the upsides of mid-life, having moved past these milestones. Have I finally grown up?? My view of the country, therefore, is not through the lens of trying to survive to build a viable life, but rather just to be and take it all in.
I know some of this is vacation talk. I come back with rose colored glasses and I fully expect the glow to dim with time. It always does.
But you know a trip is transformative when it sets off a different trajectory in your life path. I kind of found some answers that I was looking for; I can now envision a version of my life without my children. I started wondering about an alternate life of living in Korea for a few months out of the year every so often when we get older and no longer have the responsibilities that come from being sandwiched in between two generations. In the past year I’ve floated this idea to Mark and gently encouraged him to start learning the language.
Last night, I heard the sounds of the Korean alphabet coming from the other room. A plan, however vague, has been set in motion.
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