Born Catholic, Southern and female in the late 1950s, I was taught from an early age the art of selflessness, also known as "You be sweet now, honey."
I learned to listen carefully without making a peep; to say "yes" to whoever needed me; and to hush up the voice in my head telling me I had smart and bodacious things to say, too.
And then I became a mother, creating the ultimate backdrop for self-sacrifice.
Except by then, I had found my way to the writings of the great feminist thinkers. I found a therapist who began to revisit those early childhood lessons with me. And I found work in a South Carolina newsroom where smart, loving and bold women were helping define white-collar working motherhood.
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I was dedicated from the get-go to being the consistently excellent mother that my poor depressed and abused mother never could be. I also realized with a start somewhere along the way that teaching my children to be the best versions of themselves meant I had to be that best version of myself, too. If I wanted them to be kind and empowered in the same breath, I had to show them.
My intent didn't stop the old tapes from playing. I ate my lunch standing up at the kitchen counter so I could jump to get whatever my children needed before they needed it. Saying "no" to the PTA president, the church committee or the soccer booster club could send me into the fetal position with guilt and insecurity.
Still, for my children and for me, I continued to search for my most authentic self, even as I was also teaching them to find their own. While they learned to walk and talk, I sought to discover, and then stand up and speak for, my deeper needs. While they studied math, I looked for opportunities for self-love in the midst of motherhood and marriage.
As they grew older and moved into their greater personal power, I tiptoed into some of my own dreams and fantasies: At 53, using a small inheritance after my mother died, I outfitted myself in professional camera equipment like I'd dreamed my whole life of having. And I began to photograph the people, places and things opening up to me, and to make money doing it.
And then one day, like the flitting winter birds I photograph outside my window, my children, my greatest students and teachers, began to leave, on their way to finding new lessons of their own.
By then, of course, I was hooked. The lifelong journey of self-reflection, study and seeking that I'd developed with my offspring was part of me now. And it was calling me to something new every day.
Which is why I can't relate to women my age who see these next years of our lives as lackluster, slowing-down years. And why I can relate to those women of the Me, Too movement who took years to make their own discoveries of truth.
Which is why it is I who is grateful to my children.
Even as the last of them prepares to take their leave, even as I have dreaded this moment, I find they are leaving me with more than just memories.
They are leaving me with a better version of me.
From the time I was a little girl, all the way into my later adult years, the words, "I just want to go home" used to play inside my head when I felt scared or sad.
I was never sure where home was, what home I was referring to, whether it was some sanitized version of my troubled childhood home, or my adult home now, I couldn't figure it out.
I realize now the home I was longing for was a more fully realized me.
It is not a linear path.
Sometimes, waking in the middle of the night after a dream about one of my children, I curl into that familiar fetal position, missing them.
Other times, I readily remember what is possible.
I pad into the quiet kitchen where the moonlight streams in through the back French doors. I find my camera on the table. And holding it up to the window, I point it to the stars.
(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column's Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy.)