Melissa T. Shultz, FROM MOM TO ME AGAIN

Melissa T. Shultz, FROM MOM TO ME AGAIN

Zibby Owens: I’m excited to be interviewing Melissa T. Schultz today who’s a writer and the acquisitions editor for Jim Donovan Literary, an agency that represents book authors. She’s written about health and parenting for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Reader’s Digest, AARP’s The Girlfriend,, and many other publications. Her memoir self-help book, From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life, was published by Sourcebook in 2016 and named one of the three inspiring reads by Melissa recently cofounded Card Sisters, a new line of greeting cards for women. The tagline is “Women friends are sisters at heart.”

Welcome, Melissa. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Melissa T. Schultz: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what From Mom to Me Again is about? What inspired you to write this amazing book?

Melissa: The book is written for moms with kids in junior high and up. It’s really about the process of letting go and learning to move forward. There’s lots of storytelling from me and other moms. There’s interviews with professionals like therapists, researchers, and job counselors. It’s part memoir and part self-help. I talk a lot in the book about the ups and downs that are part of the journey and the areas of life that the journey touches on like friendships, marriage, careers. I wrote it because although I found lots of books that talked about life after the kids leave, I couldn’t find any to help prepare me before they left. I turned to books as a resource. I had done that throughout my kids’ life so I could make better choices, more informed choice to understand their needs beyond what may come naturally to me.

The big thing was this. As long as I’ve been a parent, even with my work, even as a daughter, as a sister, as a wife, I considered myself a mom first and foremost. With my kids moving out and up, I needed to rethink that whole view. I created this blog, a weekly blog, to explore it all called The Pre-Empt Chronicles. I pitched it to the Huffington Post. Luckily, they said yes. I wrote the blog for about a year before my youngest left for school. Then the book evolved from there. As it turned out, it really was the beginning of a new chapter for me. Writing the blog and eventually the book, it allowed me to step back from all the emotion of the change and the transition and tap into my inner Spock. I was able to explore lots of the parts of life that the transition impacts and then share what I was learning with other moms to keep them ahead of the curve and hopefully to validate their feelings as well.

Zibby: You said that this book is for junior high and up, but I disagree. I think this is for any age parent. This is really about how to savor the time you have and strategies for doing that. It’s also about the things that happened in your life, as happen in various ways in other people’s lives along the way, and how you bounce back from that. I think you’re selling yourself a little short by limiting the mom audience. That’s just my two cents.

Melissa: Thank you. There are a lot of essays, as you read, that talk about when they’re younger, really from the time that we meet them, so to speak, right through when they’re off and out to school or wherever they’re going to. Yes, in that sense I would totally agree.

Zibby: You have a really great moment when your sons had both left for college. You wrote, “Though my heart was full, after all they were both on their way to achieving their dreams, it was also broken. I’d been demoted from the best, most fulfilling, most challenging, round-the-clock job I’d ever had to a lesser, still-undefined role in my children’s lives. It’s not as if I didn’t know it was coming. I just never imagined I could feel this wonderful and horrible at the same time.” Tell me a little more about that moment.

Melissa: It’s actually hard for me to even hear that again. Time was different for me. Children have a way of having these schedules and this life. Three o’clock meant something to me that it didn’t mean to me in my twenties. Five o’clock meant something to me that it didn’t mean to me in my twenties. When they left, I couldn’t get over how differently time worked. Initially, it was this giant rush. You eat a piece of chocolate. It’s fantastic. You say, isn’t this great? Then all at once at the same time, it was this, oh, snap, I’m not going to be part of the small, sweet, magical moments that add up and were ours as a family. It was those little moments that taught me about love in a way I’d never known before. It felt sad.

I got through it in a couple of ways. Writing certainly was one of them. I was able to sort things out by writing and by speaking to other moms about the book. There were a lot of universal themes that came up. Hearing those, it was thoroughly human. It was very healing. Then knowing that I might be able to share some of my experiences, again ahead of the curve for them, it was my pay it forward. It helped me get through it. I also tried setting goals for trying new things. We do get set in a routine. Our lives are focused around our children. I thought, this is my chance to try some things I said I’d always wanted to try. I did some research about it. It turns out if we challenge ourselves and we acquire new skills, our brains really do rewire themselves and rebuild themselves. I took that to heart. I also realized more than ever — I’ve always been a very physical person. I like to get up and move and go for walks and exercise. I realized that if I dwelled too much on what I might be missing, then I’m not moving forward. It can make you stuck. I wanted to unstick myself. Whether it was work related, whether it had to do with friendships, whether it had to do with my marriage, whether it had to do with my house, I knew I needed to make plans and change things.

Some things were easier than others. That kitchen drawer everybody has that’s filled with weird things that you go, “I don’t know where to put that, so it’s going in that drawer. I’m just going to close that drawer,” I tackled that. That was my first big goal. That was actually a little thing, but it meant a lot to me. It made me laugh because some really weird stuff came out of that drawer. I eventually moved my way up and got to sorting through my children’s rooms and making them more adult. That was fun. I texted my kids all along the way — they were away — and said, “Do you want this? Do you want this?” We had fun with that. I found a lot of macaroni necklaces and pictures they’d drawn of my husband and me. It brought back some really nice memories for all of us. We also made plans to move, my husband and I, or I did, after our youngest graduated. We still have not moved. As it turned out, that was more my goal than my husband’s goal. We are just now starting that process. With couples, from all the people that I’ve spoken to, and myself included, you go through this transition in a different way. Everybody processes it differently. I know my husband processed it differently than I did. He wasn’t ready to move from that environment where all these memories lived. I thought we should absolutely move. We need to start fresh so we have new memories. There’s something in between there for everybody.

Zibby: I’m going to jump around a little. You had this one piece of advice in the book. Speaking as a mom whose kids — well, I have a child in boarding school, but my kids are all home. I’m not at that stage yet. I’m trying to take your advice and live it in the moment. One thing you said is, “Stop spending so much time worrying because virtually none of the things I focused on actually occurred. And as it turns out, there’s a fine line between being cautious and being a worrywart.” Obviously, I know this intellectually. It’s not good to waste time worrying. I feel like it’s the nature of the beast in a way, that you’re constantly worrying about your kids and what-ifs and whatever else. I’m not saying I’m pathologically worrying, but how do you actually put that into practice, if you had to go back in time and talk to yourself about it?

Melissa: I do think some of us are primed to worry more than others. Sometimes it’s because bad things have actually happened. Sometimes it’s just our makeup. Sometimes, as in my case, I didn’t feel protected as a kid. I never wanted my kids to feel that way. I’ve discovered that worry sometimes comes not just from the desire to protect our kids. Every parent has that in spades. I think the need to feel a sense of control is what it’s all about. If we can control, we can prevent. As my kids love to text me, ha, ha, ha. Life definitely plays by its own rules. My best advice is just do what you need to do to feel prepared. When I would prepare for things, it felt like the concept of insurance. You do your research. You buy insurance. Then you need to just go live your life. I told myself that if I could plan enough so that I take care of the what-ifs that I can control and realize there’s a whole bunch of them that I can’t, that the insurance isn’t going to cover, then I just need to go ahead and live my life. I had to remind myself that I’m resourceful. I’m a mom. Moms develop these crazy, mad skills. We’re resourceful. I will be capable of figuring things out if they happen. I’d also recruit a couple of women friends or women relatives in particular that are your posse who will be there for you through thick and thin. Then when things happen, you’ve got some people to turn to. That’s the rest of your insurance policy.

Zibby: You definitely had a lot of things happen, which you talk about in the book, not just that your kids were leaving for school. Your son Nick went through this horrific year-long illness where the whole medical community essentially failed you. You said you had to stay, after that experience, on low-level alert as a night watchman of sorts. Can you tell us a little about that experience with your son? Do you think that made it even harder for him to leave? Talk to me a little bit about that because it was so moving in the book, reading about what happened.

Melissa: I’ve always likened the role of a mom to a watchman or a watchperson, especially at night. When you think about it, it’s when so many things happen. They’re not always bad things. It’s often the stuff that keeps us up at night and the kids up at night too, fevers, dreams, worries, anticipation. As my sons got older, I realized that most of our best conversations came out of those nights. I left the light on in my office. I chose to write at night like I was a Motel 6. I left the light on. They would slowly creep in with a blanket wrapped around them and lay down on the floor and curl up with the dog. Often, they didn’t say anything at first. I knew something was coming. If I could just be there, I think it gave them permission to talk. When Nick was sick, I went into this full investigative mode. I learned, and was disappointed to learn, that at the time our health system wasn’t set up to unravel health mysteries at more than a snail’s pace. You go from doctor to doctor. It can take months to get appointments. They don’t talk to each other in real time. When you talk to them, they have seven minutes to give you. They love to hand out medications. I think I got at least one year of my medical degree in that year. Many of the doctors sent us home and would say, “Nick’s not well enough to go to school. Come back and see us in a month.” Months would pass. I found that doctors in the same community wouldn’t want to disagree with the previous doctor. We were just going in circles.

We did get really lucky in one regard. The school system sent a teacher to him to work with him when he was not well. That was her job. She worked with families and with children who were too sick to go to school. She came over twice a week. He’d lay on the couch because he was so dizzy all the time. She gave him what he needed to do to keep learning and to give him hope. She was also there for us after he went back to school part time, and then eventually full time, and really gave us advice right up until the time he went off to college. She was the one who encouraged me to research getting him into the Mayo Clinic. They really turned his life around. Their style of medicine was so very different. They spoke in real time. They didn’t let you leave until they had all the answers. They made Nick better. That made us better. I ended up writing an article for Newsweek. They had a section at the time that was about medical odysseys. That piece, I got so much mail from and so many stories from desperate parents. There was one girl in particular. She had symptoms that were so similar to Nick’s. We kept in touch for years after that.

Zibby: Wow. You also had breast cancer, which you talk about in the book. This part has been literally on repeat ever since I read this passage from your book. “I do wonder if the stress of my particular personality, being the pleaser, the responsible one, uber tuned into everyone’s feelings didn’t contribute somehow to my breast cancer having the opportunity to grow.” Talk to me about this. Is it the stress? Is it the people pleasing? Is it the stress causing the inflammation? Tell me about this and how, if you have this personality type, can you avoid having this personality type?

Melissa: You’re kind of stuck with it. It’s not a bad thing. Your antenna’s out. You’re much more tuned into you, your children, your whole family, and your friends. You’re going to be that person that people go to. You’ll identify things. Just for the record, and I wrote an article about this, about what not to say to say to someone with cancer, I don’t think anyone should ever tell somebody or imply to someone who has cancer that they gave it to themselves. It’s blaming the victim. It’s very hurtful. It’s not true. That said, looking back as you often do when you have a diagnosis and you have time on your hands that you didn’t expect to have, I do think if we wear ourselves down — moms tend to be the great multitaskers. We often don’t get enough sleep. We take on more and more. We basically don’t take time for what lots of people call self-care. Something’s got to give. Our immune systems often pay the price. When they pay the price, I think it does provide that opportunity for things to happen.

In the case of my breast cancer, I was told when I was diagnosed, “This has probably been growing for eight years,” it takes, quietly doing its thing. That was a lot of time that I wish I could take back and perhaps learn to find ways to quiet myself and have time just for myself and find that balance. I always found that difficult, to be the mom I wanted to be and not be available all the time. I did at some point realize that I’m a better mom if I can take some time for myself. I don’t mean disappearing for huge chunks of time from my kids’ life, but just finding those moments. Sometimes twenty minutes is all you need. I didn’t do enough of that. I’d recommend that every mom take an honest look at their life right now and the way you live. Is there room for improvement in terms of finding that time? Can you draw more boundaries between work and home? If you work at home, can you keep that door closed for a little bit longer? Also eating chocolate, that does wonders for me.

Zibby: That’s my main coping strategy, basically. I’m like, wait, you’re supposed to have a boundary between work and home? What? No?

Melissa: I grew up that way. My father was a very dynamic man. He was always working. He worked a lot from home. There were no boundaries. To me, that was normal. Then I met other people who had the opposite life. I thought, oh, this is how other people live. Your father doesn’t work at eleven o’clock at night? In those days, he had a separate phone line that was literally a red phone. The red phone was ringing, and somebody really important must be calling. He did an all-night radio talk show. Our house, it was 24/7. I think there’s a way to find balance that he would’ve appreciated today.

Zibby: I don’t know. When you find balance, you let me know. I want to read one last quote. I know I keep quoting, but some books you just have to quote from a lot. Your relationship with your dad, which you were just touching on, you wrote about it. You said, “Sometimes after we grow up, we figure out that the people who were charged with taking care of us were not necessarily ready for the role,” which I think says a lot about parenting. Some people aren’t ready. Some people aren’t — let me let you talk about it, not me.

Melissa: When I was an adult, and this is the way it often works, we get to know our parents better. He died when I was younger. I wish I had figured out more about his life when I was younger to give it more perspective. As an adult, I learned to understand some of the reasons that maybe he parented the way he did. His parents were not very involved. They weren’t very loving, at least not in the way our generation has come to know. The effect of that can often make us want to parent differently. He had emotional issues, I think, that were genetic as well as his upbringing. Those issues were enabled by the people around him, people who I think could’ve made a difference in his life and ultimately mine. Again, times were different. People didn’t talk as much about feelings. I think he suffered. As a result, I suffered. He could be wildly funny. He was brilliant in many ways. He was charming. It was confusing. Our house was chaotic. There were no routines. We had constant company. I actually wanted someone to say — I know how much kids hate this — “Where are you going?” and to pay attention to the answer. He was very self-focused. Our lives revolved around him and his moods. I thought all dads were like that. When I became a parent, I ended up parenting really differently. I learned during interviews for my book that that actually had a name. It was called revisionist parenting. I wanted to parent differently. I wanted my kids to feel protected, to feel valued, and most importantly, to feel wanted. Everybody deserves that. He deserved that. I wish as a family it had been addressed. With the right diagnosis and treatment, I believe our lives would’ve been very different growing up.

Zibby: What is that? Hindsight’s 20/20? I know. It’s hard. Finding forgiveness for something in your parents’ parenting can often take a lifetime.

Melissa: It can. I think that lifetime is because you go through your own stages with your children and how many times I’m sure you’ve had this experience where all of a sudden you’re in a scene with them and you think, wow, I just understood something about my mother or my father or my grandparents that I didn’t get forever. I was having an emotion similar to something that I remember one of them having, a frustration or a joy. They could’ve explained it to me fifty different ways. I wouldn’t have gotten it until I lived a version of it and interpreted it myself.

Zibby: Tell me now more about your new venture, which is very exciting, the Card Sisters. By the way when I went online, because I was researching you and trying to see what your new company was and all that, I ordered a card. Then you were so nice. You sent me a whole bunch of cards and a mug, which I’m using every day to heat up my kid’s milk and everything. That was super sweet of you. Tell me about this new venture of yours. What brought this on?

Melissa: I’d been taking photographs for most of my life. It’s been a long-time dream of mine to create greeting cards. When my kids were little, I had an opportunity to do it. At that point, I had a big job and my children. I was commuting long distance. I thought, oh, my god. I can’t do all this unless I stay up twenty-four hours, so I’ll do it soon. The years passed, and the years passed. Here I am. I thought, this is soon. It’s now or never. I asked a friend of mine who was also going through a transition with her kids heading out if she would do this with me, if she’d partner with me. Her name is Lisa Miller. I’m so glad she said yes. We’re a woman-owned business. We’re using a woman-owner printer in Austin, Texas. Our tagline is “Women friends are sisters at heart.” It’s been three years in the making. We’ve literally taught ourselves each step along the way. We’ve had steps forward and steps back. It’s been a wonderful growth experience. We just launched online. We’re hoping to go into stores soon. Actually, we have an offer for your listeners. If they go to our site, they can get twenty percent off if they say “CardSistersAtHeart20,” if they type that in.

Zibby: Wow, thank you.

Melissa: It’ll say “Zibby’s listeners.” Look for “CardSistersAtHeart20.” You can shop in your jammies. They’ll come to your door the way they came to your door. They do incorporate photographs. They’re my photographs. They’re the photographs that other women have taken. They’re the photographs of my cofounder Lisa. Some of them are archival. They have all have stories in themselves. Each photograph represents a story too.

Zibby: That was an unexpected little bonus. Thanks, Melissa. That was awesome. In closing, what else is coming up for you? Are you going to write another book? Grandma, again maybe, when your kids get older? Do you want to keep doing writing? Do you want to keep pursuing photography? Tell me what’s next on the horizon aside from running a new business? which could be all which would be fine.

Melissa: Yes is my answer to all of that. Again, I feel like I’m at this point in my life where there’s so many things that I want to do. I want to take the time to do them all right and enjoy them. I’m always going to write stories about life and the pursuit of happiness, a lot of essays. I just hope there’s publications left to publish them. I’m working on a couple of children’s books. Not to sound cliché, but I told my kids so many stories when they were growing up. I always meant to write them down. Write those stories down, moms, because people like to hear them. One of them is called What Will I Do If I Miss You? It’s about a boy who is worried about starting preschool. His mom has an idea that will bring him comfort. That boy is one of my sons. It’s a true story. That’s my next goal. I’ve got a couple pieces coming out. I’ve got one coming up in AARP next month about remembering the girl in all of us. That memory will keep you young. You always want to remind yourself of that time in your life. When you’re stuck, I’ve found one of the things that’s helped me a lot is to try to engage with that girl that I was. It gives me energy. It makes me feel like there’s lots of opportunities for the future and lots of things ahead. I also —

Zibby: — Any advice — sorry, go ahead. You go.

Melissa: I was going to say I think probably what you’re going to ask about, advice for empty nesters and moving forward, is that where you were headed?

Zibby: Sure, let’s do it again. Melissa, do you have any advice for empty nesters and people going forward, and for any aspiring authors out there?

Melissa: I do. My advice for aspiring authors for nonfiction is write the book that you can’t find, the book that if you were on a dating app, it would show you’re just perfect for that person. That’s your book. As for newish or empty nesters, start early. The earlier you start thinking about things, the easier it is. It’s not that it’s going to be “Goodbye, see ya,” and everything will be fine. It does make it easier when you prepare and when you think ahead about all the parts of your life. Your career, friendships, your marriage, those are important things to talk about and think about. Make sure you’re talking to your partner. Let yourself go through the process of feeling all the feels, I call it. It’s totally natural. Don’t berate yourself for it. Then you’ve got to give yourself permission. I talk to women all the time about this. Permission is a key word here. Give yourself permission to take center stage in your own life again, or maybe for the first time. There was a hair commercial that L’Oréal did in the seventies. It always stuck with me. They had this tagline, “Because I’m worth it.” It stuck with me even before I understood what it meant.

Zibby: Because you’re worth it. Isn’t it, “Because you’re worth it”?

Melissa: It’s “Because I’m worth it.” She actually says, “Because I’m worth it.” I think eventually it morphed to become “Because I’m worth it.” That is the thing. You are worth it. I think moms often feel as if the focus is one hundred percent on the children. That’s different for everybody. In order for you to be the best mom to them, you do have to remind yourself that you’re worth it. Take the time to figure out what makes you happy. When you’re happy, they’re happy.

Zibby: I’m feeling like you have a partnership in the works now with L’Oréal. What do you think?

Melissa: I’ve got these little grays sprouting through. I may have a partnership in a different way very soon.

Zibby: Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” and for this beautiful book that you wrote that was really, really helpful for me. Thanks.

Melissa: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Melissa T. Shultz, FROM MOM TO ME AGAIN