Beyond Diapers and Diplomas: Empty-Nesters, You're Still Parenting. And What You're Teaching Your Kids Is How to Age

I turned 45 this year. I have two small children. I talk a lot to other parents, including my own, about how to most effectively turn my little people into kind, creative, healthy, self-sufficient grown-ups.
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I turned 45 this year. I have two small children. I talk a lot to other parents, including my own, about how to most effectively turn my little people into kind, creative, healthy, self-sufficient grown-ups.

Whole milk? Montessori? Allowance? Advanced academic placement? Sleepovers?

The conversations and articles on these topics are endless, and I'm an attentive audience.

But frankly, at this distinctly middle stage in life, I find myself paying equally close attention to my aging parents and the messages they are conveying about growing older.

Because after all, God-willing, my kids will be middle-aged someday, too. It's kind of daunting to think about that as someone whose kid just was visited by the Tooth Fairy for the first time.

But what they say is true: Your babies never stop being your babies. They may not be under your roof. They may not be on your health plan. But even at 45, they're watching.

I'm watching.

I learned from my parents how to parent--how to tuck in at night, make tea cakes at Christmas, and struggle through math homework.

But these days, I'm learning something else. I'm learning about aging gracefully, about honoring friendships later in life, and about taking care of my people when I'm no longer here.

I would argue that when it comes to parenting, this stuff matters just as much as milk and Montessori.

My brother and I are lucky: Our parents both are living. Despite suffering various illnesses, they are healthy. They are well educated and deeply rooted in their Christian faith. They are married to one another, 50 years plus. They have saved carefully and invested wisely.

For many people, the golden years are much more difficult, for a variety of reasons, and that matters in the context of this discussion. Health problems can be paralyzing. Depression is common among the elderly. So is financial anxiety.

But through my own lens, I see two people who:

* actively seek help from experts, whenever possible. They find health-care professionals, financial advisors, and spiritual support networks they trust, and they use them. This makes aging for them more palatable, pleasant, and less nerve-wracking for them and for us.

* are busy. They volunteer a lot. They participate in multiple social groups. They spend a lot of time with the grandkids. They garden. They travel. They host dinner parties. They go to a movie every Saturday night and church every Sunday morning.

* are figuring out their stuff. They get rid of junk (so that, frankly, we won't have to) and label things of import so that their children know what's valuable. They are always determining which household maintenance projects should be tackled next, and lining up long-term care solutions to complicated needs.

* honor friendships. For years I have witnessed my mother sit with and support dying friends. Whenever possible she attends funerals, for church members or friends' relatives, even people she doesn't know. She bears witness to their lives. This is honorable. As we age, people we know and love will die. Our people's people will die. How we sit with them and respect them matters, both as individuals and as a society.

I don't know what my life will look like 30 years from now. I pray I have as much going for me, physically and otherwise, as my parents do.

But I also believe that some of their good fortune is directly related to the choices they have made. They have aged with deliberateness, just as 35 years ago they made me math flash cards with deliberateness.

I know for a fact that my own life will be made easier because of it. I know for a fact that I'm less afraid of getting older because of it.

I hope my own kids can say the same someday.