I’m hearing this question a lot lately. Maybe it’s the time of year.
Across the country families are celebrating graduations and breathing a sigh of relief as a very unusual academic year ends. Lighthearted conversations revolve around which college was finally chosen, after the months of indecision and anguish, and which majors were selected, or not.
Then, there’s a moment; a slight pause in the conversation; a look away. A second of shade passes across the bright smiling parental face, as if a wispy cloud has moved silently across the sun in an otherwise brilliant blue sky. A second of discomfort, a swift grab for the thread of the conversation and on with talk of the coming family vacation. It's, a moment so brief, barely a heart beat. You could easily miss it; I don’t. I know it has meaning and is loaded with nuance.
What we don't say, is as telling as what we do.
I ask casually, but carefully: “So what are your plans after that?”
For parents of High School graduates this is a time of mixed emotions. As yard signs proudly display college affiliations and balloons are ordered in the right colors, unsettling thoughts interrupt the preparations:
“What will my schedule look like without all the sports fixtures and fundraisers? - What will I do with all that time?”
Overnight it seems like time itself will shift from scarce commodity to overwhelming cavernous hole.
These conflicting emotions can be challenging. The usual approach is to ignore the ones that make us feel sad or uncomfortable. The ones we think will upset us, dampen the mood for others and may, we imagine, be considered selfish. These remain unspoken and unacknowledged as we dial up the positivity and attempt to drown anything else out. And when we can’t drown them out we have a multitude of distractions to turn down the volume, at least for a while. However, having mixed emotions is a natural response to change in our lives. We are not simplistic, black and white binary beings. This is what we can celebrate: that we got this far, to this day with all our messy and colorful complexity. With our doubts, our fears, our exhaustion and our creativity, energy and enthusiasm.
If we express that we feel delight at the success of our child’s achievement and sadness that childhood is over and uncertainty about our next steps, we give permission to others to do the same. Conversation can shift from superficial to real where we stop trying to portray only the best of ourselves and offer something more genuine - all of ourselves. Most importantly we will model this for our children too, so they can admit that along with the excitement there is also nervousness and uncertainty!
There is also something interesting that happens when we say these thoughts out loud; they become a little less … like a balloon that’s lost some of its air. This is such a paradox as I often hear people say they don’t want to speak about their concerns and fears as it will make them seem more real, not less!
So, what is so challenging about the question of what’s next?
Many parents have spent almost two decades focused on every aspect of their child’s life. Being so invested in their success and happiness they long ago put their own desires on hold; channeling their time, energy and creativity into their child’s life. Now when it is time to step forward, and reclaim their lives, they find they have forgotten what they enjoyed doing just for themselves. What it was that gave them a sense of purpose and value before they had children. Or maybe the children were the ultimate goal and they never planned beyond that.
Acknowledging the uncertainty and recognizing this is a time for rethinking and making new plans is the first step towards finding that sense of purpose, reconnecting with passions and forging a new path. It’s OK not to know exactly what you want to do; there’s some thinking and reflection to do first. Embrace the uncertainty and get curious.
Start by considering what you want your life look like, how you want to be and what you want to feel.
So as your child takes their first steps on the path to their future what will you do now? Will you drift along and fill up your schedule to avoid those gaping holes of time or will you choose to sit a while with a little discomfort and think about how you really want the next phase of your life to be?
And, if someone like me asks you what’s next, you can answer : “I don’t know yet and I’m taking some time to think about it.”
Over the coming weeks I will share ideas about how to open up new possibilities in life by building awareness of unspoken thoughts and feelings, and how to use this understanding to identify and even let go of whatever is holding you back. Maybe you will discover new thoughts and beliefs that will serve you better and move you forward towards a life you enjoy more.
If something you read here helps you in anyway, make my day and let me know. If there is a topic you would like me to cover or a question you would like to ask, please post it in the comments. If you are interested in exploring these ideas further and would like to talk about how coaching could help you, please follow the link to book a free discovery call.
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