Marking a Milestone

by Jennifer Lee

            My forty-ninth birthday is coming up, one shy of the big half century mark. It falls on the second day of the school year, and instead of going out for a fancy dinner I will be telling parents about the middle school math curriculum, because my birthday happens to coincide with back-to-school-night. That’s okay; I’m saving the party hats and confetti for next year.

            Milestones come in many forms, not just birthdays. This past year I reached a big one—the advent of the empty nest. Last September, just as I was turning forty-eight, my youngest child left for college. People’s feelings about the empty nest vary widely: some mourn the departure of children, fearing a diminished life, while others revel in the freedom the empty nest brings, eager for the adventures to come in the next stage of life.

            My response to my daughters’ growing up has been on the celebratory side. I raised them to be independent, to leave home, and the fact that they have grown into healthy, engaged adults eager to get out on their own does not feel like rejection. It feels like success.

            So far, the empty nest hasn’t changed my life much. Honestly, my girls have been pretty independent for a while. But our relationship is changing. What I have to look forward to are holiday dinners, catching up by phone, out of town visits that involve me sleeping on the sofa. There will be family travel and, I hope, in the not too near future, grandchildren.

            As my daughters become full-fledged adults, I will become increasingly peripheral in their lives. While there is a poignancy to letting them go, the emergence of my children into adulthood is something I am proud of. I chose to honor this milestone in my life by getting a tattoo.

            Living in Baltimore, tiny tattoos buried beneath clothing don’t really count. We’re a pretty tatted-up town, and if you want to say something with your ink you’ve got to make it visible from half way down the street. Not long after my baby left for college I knew exactly what I wanted and where it would go.

            When they were infants I painted murals in their rooms, copying images from the Santorini Frescoes. We were living in Greece then, and while we moved to the U.S. in 2001, my children’s Greek identity is an important part of who they are. The swallows I have tattooed on my arm are ones I painted on the walls when they were babies.  Two daughters, two birds, each flying in a different direction, going her own way. And swallows are special too, because these birds, while they leave the nest, always come back.

            I tell people who ask why I did this (and yes, quite a few people are curious why an un-inked middle aged woman went off and got such a prominent tattoo), that I wanted to mark, both literally and figuratively, a major milestone in my life. I have had this tattoo for three months now, and I have no regrets. Not about the ink, or about the empty nest.