Spring-cleaning, like morning sickness, can be a bit of a misnomer. Sometimes these urges follow an agenda of their own, oblivious to the hour or season.
Charles and I went on a housecleaning rampage recently after a winter more of the spirit than of the calendar. The long, dark season of discontent struck unexpectedly. Life seemed to be going smoothly.
“Face it,” our couples therapist snarked at the end of a session, several months in. “The relationship as you’ve known it is over.” I’m guessing they didn’t teach hand-holding in his psych school, or he failed that class. I’d swear I actually saw him make a tiny gesture of a cross, as if administering last rites.
But it wasn’t the marriage whose death he was anointing. It was this chapter of our lives whose passage he saw us resisting: our salad years of starting a family, making a home, shaping our careers.
And what a lush and verdant phase it was, magical years of creation and re-creation: having a child, saving clips from his first haircut, buying a tiny house that we expanded and adapted, practicing spelling words with him, beaming through music recitals, raising chickens and snakes, shaping our boy’s youth while healing wounds from our own.
“Empty nest” and “midlife crisis” are tired clichés, until they ring true. When we have a small family, as so many of us now do, the family-centered years can end abruptly. We also tend to live longer than previous generations. This calls on us to create new chapters of our lives if we’re not to grow stale, or grow apart.
Neither of my grandmothers was conversant with empty nesting. Both married in their teens and had a houseful of children by the time they turned 20. My father’s mother had her last child after Dad moved out at 19, and by the time her last children were on their own she was already a grandmother. My mother’s mother had several grandchildren by the time she was my age. These women lived their entire adult lives in relation to children.
Charles and I had our one child when we were 30. That little bird fledged early, first on a high-school study-abroad program, then to college, a year in Spain and a year in Germany. Even now that he has flown back to New Mexico, we just see him for occasional weekends and celebrations. “Grand-birds” aren’t part of the conversation yet.
I thought we had adjusted by now to this extra space in the nest, but Charles and I went through this transition — much like the transition into parenthood 25 years ago — on a different timeframe. Motherhood began changing me as soon as my body experienced the first signs of pregnancy. Fatherhood transformed Charles utterly but more gradually, since he didn’t carry and feed a child with his own body.
Likewise this period of unwinding from the day-to-day intensity of childrearing hit us differently. Ariel’s departure to college several years ago left me dopey and unmoored, even as I began enjoying the emotional space opened up by his departure. Empty nest hit Charles in slow motion, ultimately colliding with that other too-real cliché: midlife crisis. He took an unscheduled (and unannounced) hiatus from work. We swung from raging tempests to icy silences. We entered therapy. We slogged. We slogged. We slogged.
And so we found ourselves one Sunday morning, unexpectedly, on a spring-cleaning bender. I can’t say what made it strike that particular day, that morning. Perhaps all the internal de-cluttering we’d done in therapy and our journals created an urge for external order. Who knows? But it was the beginning of the thaw.
Ground zero was the laundry room, the geographic center of our house, a little room that over the years became the dumping ground not just for dirty laundry but stacks of all manner of things acquired and forgotten, things unused, outdated, broken or that no longer fit. (We could put quotes around any word in this paragraph and talk about it in therapy.)
Out went mismatched candleholders, partial sets of dishes, past-dated vitamins, dried-up markers, skirts I’ll never get around to shortening, appliances someone else may actually use. Out went memorabilia no longer attached to actual memories. By the time we finished the room had somehow disgorged more than half its contents but didn’t feel barren. It felt spacious. It felt clean, open, ready for a new chapter, new possibilities.
Most of you reading this are probably deep in the phase of shaping your family life, and I urge you to savor it, as I’m sure you do. You will find much in this issue to keep your family engaged this summer.
Outdoor-educator Griet Laga suggests ways to develop a sense of love, wonder and delight for nature (page 12 in English; 18 en español).
Santa Fe County Fair is coming in August, and you’ll meet a family that is showing chickens, rabbits, sheep, horses and goats, the culmination of a yearlong effort through their local 4-H Club (page 10).
Expand your appreciation for the technologies and tools that enable discovery and imagination, at any of several museums in Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Albuquerque on a journey of “Techno-Tourism” (page 14).
If you’re new to town or want a refresher on summer hot spots, see our guide to Pools, Parks, Preserves & More (page 20).
Our Summer Calendar of Family Events and Directory of Summer Camps and Programs are fatter than ever, a sign of the robust strength of Santa Fe organizations for children and families.
Keep Tumbleweeds with you in this chapter of your family’s life, and keep in touch!