Looking forward, not back, can help parents redefine themselves during emotional time
Although I knew it was coming, it still felt like it had crept up on me. I found myself standing in a dorm room, watching as a key focus of my life for the past 18 years lugged boxes into a cramped space that would be his for the next nine months. A space that wasn’t my home. I soldiered on, making a bunk bed, stashing clothes in closets and drawers, trying to smile. But when it was time for goodbye, I was taken aback by how tightly he returned my hug ̶ more tightly than he had since he was 2 ̶ and by the sadness that washed over me. I didn’t want to let go. When I finally did, I raced for the car, trying to hide a stream of tears that had started to flow.
Some moms go home and cry for days, or even weeks or months, after sending their child forward into a life of adulthood. Other mothers take a more positive approach: Woohoo! I did it! Time to focus on me! Both reactions are normal, say Susan Heitler, a clinical psychologist with Rose Medical Center, and Barbara Becker, licensed professional counselor and clinical manager of Child & Family Services with the Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network. This time in a parent’s life represents a major transition, right up there with watching your little one, tucked in a line of tentative 5-year-olds, file through a kindergarten door, or your grown child take a partner’s hand and walk down the aisle.
Below, Becker and Heitler offer insight on some of the main issues that arise when facing the so-called empty-nest years. While they focus on women, both acknowledge that men, particularly in this age of more shared child-rearing, go through some of the same issues. For me, their comforting words and pearls of wisdom took the sting out of the unexpected painful slap of emotions and helped direct me toward life’s next path. Whether you are facing an empty nest now, or will in the future, I hope their advice helps you, too.
Is this normal?
Although most parents know the time will be emotional, the depth and array of feelings can be overwhelming. Grief, depression and loneliness are all normal, and how deeply they are felt and how long they last varies with a number of factors, such as: identifying yourself largely by your parent role, being susceptible to depression, having a particularly close relationship with your child, or lacking a support network.
“There’s a sense of loss,” Heitler says. “Not only are they losing the immediate connection of someone who has been in their home for 18 years; they are also losing a set of roles that go with being mom.” But instead of dwelling on that past, women should pat themselves on the back for a job well done raising a child ̶ “one of the greatest tasks of all time” ̶ and move forward with redefining themselves, Becker says. Just like the re-adjusting and skill-learning that comes with having kids, the “un-nesting” takes time, too.
Eventually, most women (nine out of 10) work through the transition on their own, often quickly, now that so many of them hold careers, Heitler says. “They open their eyes to a new day: extra hours in their schedule, fewer responsibilities, a newfound freedom to do activities they have been long postponing. And they move forward to the next station on the track.”
Wedded bliss or bane?
Focusing on other relationships helps women deal with their changing connection with their child, and a top priority should be the relationship with their spouse. “Our society has seen divorce rates going down over the past half dozen years in all age groups except empty-nesters,” says Heitler, author of The Power of Two: Secrets of a Strong and Loving Marriage. “That group is at increased risk for marriage difficulties. But that’s only if they were too narrowly focused on the shared project of raising a successful child, or if they were pushing marital problems under the rug for the sake of the kids,” she says.
For couples who can communicate ̶ or re-invest in learning how to communicate with books or counselors if necessary ̶ the empty-nest years can be the best years of their lives. “It’s like a rebirth of the relationship,” Heitler says. “Most marriages, I think, get stronger,” Becker agrees. “You can be spontaneous; you can go out on dates; you can take classes together.”
Empty nest now? Really?
Women often face this life-altering transition at an inopportune time. For most, pre-menopause or menopause symptoms are striking, along with the stress of other later-in-life challenges, such as the financial tension of paying for college while saving for retirement, or the need to care more for elderly parents. And emotions can be significantly intensified by both menopause and stress, Heitler says.
But again, try looking at the positive side, Becker says. “You may have aging parents, but all of the sudden, you have more time to spend with them. You’re not going to soccer games, etc.” Also, lean on your support system and coping mechanisms: exercise, try new hobbies, walk with friends in the same situation. “Usually, our friends have children the same age, so they are sort of a built-in support group,” says Becker, a mother who has sent all of her kids off to college. “It’s such an opportunity to get back to ourselves.”
OMG! A curse or blessing?
New empty-nesters also have access to technology today that can ease their loneliness, from cell phones and texting to computers and Skyping. “In the days when I went to college, I would call home once a week on Sundays, whereas when my kids left, I got a text from them pretty regularly,” Becker says. “Part of that is just good communication with your kids: I won’t bother you every day, but you need to acknowledge that I’m someone who worries who wants to hear how you are doing.”
But technology also opens the doors to over-parenting at this crucial time of independence-building for these “kids,” who are now young adults. “My sister teaches at Dartmouth, and she says she is absolutely astounded by the number of parents who call her,” Heitler say. “If you are going to talk with your child about college issues, encourage them to address the issues themselves.” Heitler also advises parents not to share their sorrows and transitioning difficulties with their kids, making them feel like therapists. “That’s not their job. That undercuts their ability to be where they need to be.”
Becker notes that kids are going through transition, too, and some might be struggling with their own loneliness. “I think that it’s important to allow them to be independent, but that doesn’t mean that you never text them. You just don’t want to be doing it constantly.” All kids are different, so questions like: how often should I call; or, if they are in-state, how often should they come home? are all individual. “Certainly you need to rely on your own instincts in terms of that,” Becker says. “You know when you are enabling them, when they really do need to have that transition time.”
Knock, knock: Who’s there?
Today, tough economic times have led to so many “kids” returning home after college to save money or look for sparse jobs that they’ve been given a name: Generation Boomerang. Parents mourning the loss of their child need to remember: They aren’t gone. Not only are they still with you, just in a different role; they do come back, Becker says. In her opinion, as long as parents clearly define how the situation will work, it’s OK to let them be at home, Becker says. “But that relationship has to be re-defined, and you have to learn to live with each other as adults.” And there’s a bonus, she says. “That second time they leave, it’s a lot easier. It’s like: See you later!”
Parents should know that empty-nest emotions come and go, and that part of coping involves letting go and trusting that they raised their children to make good life decisions, Becker says. “They may make decisions that are not in their best interest briefly, but they won’t on an ongoing basis. If you laid the foundation, they are going to come back to that foundation.”
When you need helpIf your grief has gone on more than a few months and affects your day-to-day life, seek professional help. Typical signs of depression can serve as red flags, such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, significant changes in energy, and lack of interest in doing things you used to enjoy. Call Arapahoe/Douglas Mental Health Network at 303-730-8858 or Susan Heitler’s Rose Medical Center office at 303-388-4211.
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