The Missing Middle

The Missing Middle

"room 34 (in your absence)" by Julie Liger-Belair /

Cori Howard finds that it takes more than Marie Kondo and burning sage to transition to an empty nest.

When I arrived at my front door after moving my youngest child halfway across the world to a university in Paris, I expected a grand threshold moment. At the very least, I expected to walk in and fall to my knees bawling. It was a moment I’d imagined so many times over the years with dread. But it was nothing like I’d imagined.

On a warm September morning, I walked into a house that was clean, quiet, and dappled in sunlight—like a temple for my old life as a mother with all its energy, but none of the mess. Without unpacking, without the anticipated weight of self-pity or sadness, I burst into a frenzy of activity and got to work. I reorganized and reclaimed spaces. I Marie Kondo’d for hours, then, jet-lagged and bone-tired, I passed out.

When I awoke the next morning, it was peaceful and calm. That feeling lingered for days, and only occasionally would I drop into the well of sorrow. Usually, the grief came from a day without hearing from either of my children, or the sudden realization that after all the years of foreboding grief, my life had become stiflingly solitary. On those days, I would let myself cry. I had learned over the years to sit with sorrow and see what it had to teach me.

Mostly what I felt was an urgent need for some kind of ritual to mark this moment, but I didn’t know where to start. I half-heartedly took some sage and went room to room calling out to the four directions. Unsatisfied, I realized that burning sage didn’t feel meaningful for my particular situation, entering this new phase of life post-motherhood, single and leaning hard into another transition: menopause. What I was craving was somewhere to put my grief, some way to mark this rite of passage and honor what I had been through: a long marriage, a divorce, a major career change, and years of solo parenting and disaster dating. Some method to help me envision where I was going. But without any cultural tools, a map, or guidance, I was adrift, lost, and unsettled.

Ritual, I believed, could offer the time and space to explore and contemplate the important questions of this age and stage: What is home? What is our purpose? What do we long for? And what can we do to help mother the world now that we have moved on from mothering our own children? As the author Sharon Blackie wrote, “Our creativity as elder women isn’t about birthing others anymore—it’s about birthing our own unique wisdom, our own unique gift to the world.”

I wondered if I needed to invent a ritual, one that included others. As an introvert, that wasn’t my preference. But as author Francis Weller writes in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, there is value in bearing witness and holding space in community. Ritual, he writes, “provides something else that we deeply need: a level of witnessing that truly enables us to be seen. Attention is necessary for embodiment, for fully stepping into the world in an open and vulnerable way.”

Weller leads very popular healing retreats, and having led dozens of writing retreats myself, I understand his message about how deeply transformative it can be to be part of a talking circle, sharing vulnerable truths and stories with strangers. I wondered if a community ritual for women was the remedy I was seeking. But what I really wanted was a ritual that was already part of my culture, without my having to create or invent one. That felt like work, and I was already exhausted. Also, I knew that, although I felt supported by friends and family, this was my loss to carry, my own unique journey with grief, and, therefore, any ritual would be better performed alone.

Until we arrive at this threshold moment, very few women discuss the emotional turbulence of this new stage, the yawning abyss of years before we are truly elders. And then in hushed whispers, we look deeply and soulfully at each other and ask: Are you as lost as I am? Are you feeling this deep sorrow? What do we do now?

Granted, some mothers feel elated or liberated, or at least feel emotions much less sorrowful. And some women aren’t hugely impacted by menopause. Whatever the experience, we all arrive at this threshold with some serious unanswered questions about who we are now and what’s next.

It is an unprecedented opportunity and privilege to have the time and freedom to reinvent and reimagine our lives. Perhaps that is one reason the tide appears to be turning on a more public conversation about empty nesting and menopause. The popular American author, activist, and podcaster Glennon Doyle calls it the “messy middle.” Author and influencer Jen Hatmaker has recently been eliciting a huge public response to her posts about her own empty nest. Sharon Blackie’s new book, Hagitude, is about reimagining the second half of our lives as women. It’s either in the zeitgeist or I’m suddenly paying attention—like when you’re a new mom and you suddenly see strollers everywhere.

And yet, society has no idea what to do with us, nor even what to call us. We are not maiden, mother, nor crone. We are the missing middle. If we are struggling with menopause, we are told to get on with it; that thousands of women have been through it before us. If we are sad and mourning the empty nest, we are told we should just appreciate our new freedom and “choose happiness.” The eye-rolling judgment, the Instagram psychology, and toxic positivity hurts those of us seeking a way to cross this threshold with dignity, grace, and self-awareness. This is nothing that self-care, wine nights, or a new hobby can solve.

What if we were given a few months to recalibrate and rediscover ourselves, like a kind of funeral for our former selves? If we had a cultural ritual, would it provide the space to genuinely mourn and find the community, passion, and purpose for a new road ahead?

According to Susan Cain’s new book Bittersweet, there’s a tribe in the Amazon that requires mothers to give up something precious every year to prepare for their sons’ departure at adolescence. This multiyear ritual seems to me to acknowledge the depth of the challenge ahead for these mothers, preparing them slowly for the pain of their children leaving home. In a recent newsletter, Cain wrote, “I’m struck by how little our culture prepares us for the empty nest, and for all the moments of letting go (the bereavements, the breakups, our own mortality, etc.). As a culture, we could use some rituals for letting go… The thing is, it’s never too late for such practices.”

Without ritual, I am finding it hard to move forward, to process the magnitude of what I have lost. On good days, I appreciate the solitude and comfort of my clean, quiet space. On hard days, I fall apart and imagine jumping on a plane back to Paris where I can wander aimlessly, close to my daughter, far from home.

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Room 34 in your absence credit Julie Liger Belair

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