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Video: Coping with an empty nest

TODAY
updated 8/17/2007 12:10:36 PM ET 2007-08-17T16:10:36


In "Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After... After the Kids Leave Home, " author Carin Rubenstein profiles the millions of mothers about to enter the challenging but potentially enriching stage of life — post-motherhood. Here's an excerpt:

Babies spend about two-thirds of their time snoozing, so most won’t notice or even care where they’re napping, at least for the first year or so. But you will. Even if you plan to have the baby sleep in your room in the early months, or simply put a used crib in a corner of the guest room, it’s likely you’ll do an about-face once you start flipping through catalogs or wandering through stores.

Iwrote this book to convince myself that my life wasn’t over after my children left home. Here’s what I discovered: most of us will learn not only to live with our children’s absence but to love it.

As I began this book, I was living through the very early stages of adjustment to my newly empty, newly child-free house. Even with my husband around, it felt very empty, very quiet, and very, very clean. In fact, it felt completely unnatural, like an unhaunted house on Halloween, an undecorated home on the holidays. It was disorienting and upsetting, but also strangely wonderful.

I was living my life feeling a mysterious mixture of both loss and gratification, a stage of life that has no real name. Indeed, “empty nest” hardly describes the magnitude of the changes I was undergoing and seems inadequate to explain what this stage of life is about. A close friend told me recently that she doesn’t like the phrase “because it sounds too much like ‘emptiness.’ ”

And, pardon me, but the nest is far from empty just because the kids are gone. After all, my husband and I are still here, and we’re the ones who started the nest, built and feathered it, and paid to fix the water heater and the boiler and everything else in the nest. So to call it empty is grossly inaccurate.

I’m still here, so please don’t call my nest empty. My wallet is certainly empty, but not my house! Still, during the first few weeks after my son left home, I felt a sense of loss as I looked at both of my children’s empty bedrooms. I missed them, I missed their physical presence, I missed their “being-hereness.”

I grieved for their absence, but also for the loss of my role as a fulltime mother. A friend says that since her three children moved out, she feels a kind of phantom-limb pain, a persistent ache at their absence. She can’t get over the realization that she made career decisions based on the fact that she was a mother and wanted to be available for her children. But, it turns out, her situation wasn’t permanent, she says. “I thought this was for keeps, but no, this is a rental,” she explains, referring to her children’s presence in her life.

That expresses the problem, exactly. At the time it was happening, we felt as if it would last forever, but everyday motherhood does not last. Our time with our children is borrowed, leased, rented out to us, and there comes a point at which we have to realize that it’s mostly over. And, as a sociologist pointed out to me recently, mothers will know their children for much longer as independent adults than they will have known them as dependent children.

Think about that. Your child is a child for barely eighteen years; but your grown child is an adult for decades. So we have to prepare ourselves to be mothers of adult children for the rest of our lives. This is the reason that the children’s departure signals a new stage in life for moms, a transition from the intensive-mothering stage to the occasional-mothering stage. It’s the official end of the mommy years.

But while it signals a conclusion of one stage, it’s the beginning of another very important one. It’s the beginning of a time of life that is not about the children; it’s about us. It is about facing life as more than mother, as after mother, as beyond mother. It’s about what we do with ourselves and the next part of our lives, the emancipated stage of motherhood, the third adulthood.

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First there was adult life with no children, which began on our eighteenth or twenty-first birthday. Next came parenthood. Finally, once again, there is life with no children at home. It’s déjà vu all over again. Only this time, we’re not the ones doing the leaving—we’re the ones being left. But make no mistake, watching our children leave home is one of the most important turning points in our life. It is also the fulcrum on which the remainder of our life rests.

Some of us may look back with longing to the good old days of being in college or of day-to-day motherhood. But others will face the future as women with decades of a new and different kind of life ahead of us. It’s a life that includes our growing and grown children, but one that also goes beyond motherhood. This is a life starring us, written by us, and directed by us. If our lives were a movie, it would be called Mom, Emancipated. Or maybe Motherhood, Unplugged.

This new postmommyhood life is a luxury endowed to baby-boom women because we’ve had fewer children and will live longer than mothers have ever lived before, so we have more good years left after our children leave for college or jobs. There are millions of us, and our numbers are growing each year, as more and more of the youngest children of baby-boom parents leave home. Census figures indicate that about seventy-seven million Americans are baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964. Of them, at least thirty million no longer have children younger than eighteen.

As members of a huge cohort, the giant generation known as the baby boom, we’re moving toward this turning point with a lot of company. Right now, around half of married-couple families do not include any children. And every year for the next decade that proportion will continue to rise.

As more mothers join the no-children-at-home brigade, we will also be reinventing ourselves. We are a generation with a unique mind-set, one that values honesty and independence, one that endorses feminism and shared parenting. We would never say that a woman’s place is only in the home—to be a wife, to stay at home, to defer to her mate. Instead, we embrace the notion that women have choices. It’s acceptable for women to marry or not, to have children or not, to be highly educated or not, to work full-time or not. We love the idea of giving ourselves choices as we make our way through life. We question authority, we are irreverent, we are idealists, and we are obsessed with youth, even as we ourselves grow older.

All of us in the baby boom are traversing the same path through this half of adult life. Some of us are already there; others will be there soon enough. But eventually we all will be in the same postmommyhood boat together.

The question is this: will we chart a new course for ourselves and our new lives, or will we paddle around in circles, never getting anywhere we haven’t already been? The answer is the subject of this book.

My focus here is mostly on the intense five- or ten-year period when all of these changes take place. I’ll offer women examples of how to be thrivers and survivors, rather than stuck and out of luck. Thrivers and survivors embrace life’s many changes, not just biological ones, like menopause, but those that are psychological, like giving up the fulltime mother role and replacing it with something equally exciting and rewarding.

Perhaps most important, however, this book is not about how children change as they are launched. And it is not about fathers, either. It is about the mothers who are initiating the launch countdown. It is about the women who emerge on the other side of motherhood, while also propelling themselves into motherhood’s second half. The feeling is remarkably similar to breaking from our own parents, only now it’s the mirror image. It is a time of intense self-reflection, selfexamination, and a new setting of priorities. It is a time for undoing regrets, for exploring all possible selves, for finding hidden identities that have been squelched under the enormous pressure of Being Mom.

Fathers deal with their own sense of loss when their children leave home, but theirs is a different story, and one that I am not going to touch upon here. Quite frankly, the issue often matters more to mothers, and they are more likely to experience some anguish and soul-searching about what happens next. I would guess, however, that much of what I say here will apply to fathers, especially those who had primary responsibility for child rearing.

For most women, the MotherLaunch stage is triggered when children leave home. That’s when the mother mode is in the “off ” position, and the “me” mode is turned back on. Millions of baby-boom mothers have devoted enormous energy and affection and attention to their children for at least eighteen years. And, although it shouldn’t come as a surprise to them, many are completely unprepared for what comes next, for defining themselves as someone who is other than mother.

How will mothers adjust to having no children at home? How will we fill our time, and our hearts? How will we manage to have adult children who are, nevertheless, still dependent? How will we cope with having adult children who sometimes disappoint or hurt or irritate us?

These are questions for all empty-nest mothers, and they are also my own. But just because our children are gone doesn’t mean we’ve vanished from our parenting lives in a puff of smoke. Actually, many of us are stealth parents, because we are in disguise. We still live in the childcentric neighborhoods and towns in which we raised our children, only our children aren’t home anymore. We look pretty much like everybody else, maybe a little worn around the edges, but we certainly haven’t turned into graying grannies rocking on our front porches. Actually, we could probably pass as mothers of school-age children, because so many other boomers postponed having children into their thirties and forties.

And even after our children leave home, they tend to come back, usually several times. Mine, for instance, have returned temporarily. They were gone while I wrote most of this book, but now they’re home again, and I’m juggling the needs of two almost-adult children.

Both of my children are in college, but it’s summer now, so they are both back home. My son returned from his freshman year in May, and it took him almost four weeks to find a job. Finally, he was hired as a busboy at a snooty country club a few towns away. He was working six days a week, for low wages and to the point of exhaustion. But five weeks later, he was fired. So he’s home again.

My daughter has been studying in the Dominican Republic and Argentina for a year, but now she’s back home for a few weeks, trying to catch up on a year’s worth of sleep deprivation. At the end of the summer, she will need a ride back to school, three hundred miles south, to move into an unfurnished apartment in Washington, D.C. The same week, my son will need a ride back to school, three hundred miles north, to Boston.

Finally, in September, my husband and I will be on our own again, along with our dog, Kippy. In case you haven’t noticed, the process of emptying the nest of children takes years. In fact, it’s like a five- or seven-year labor and delivery period. The children leave and return, leave and return, many times over. Eventually, the yo-yoing of the empty nest, full nest, empty nest, full nest will be over, but there’s no way of knowing in advance how long that process will take.

That’s why this time of life requires a whole new way of thinking about ourselves, as mothers, as wives, and as women. We have to unthink our sense of ourselves as full-time mothers and rethink ourselves as other than mothers, as postmothers.

This is actually much easier to do than it may first appear. I discovered this, and much more, in the original research I conducted for this book, a Web survey answered by one thousand women across the country who told me exactly how they felt when their children left home. I interviewed many by telephone, and dozens more in person. Once I overcame their compulsion to talk about their grown children instead of themselves, I found I had hit a mother lode of motherhood information. They love their children, they will always think of themselves as mothers, but now they want more. And they are discovering what that “more” is.

I also interviewed many experts by telephone—psychologists, sociologists, doctors, and economists—who are at the forefront of research on issues related to midlife. In this way, my discussions helped to expand on and enrich the statistics and conclusions in their published research papers.

The stories I tell, and the women I quote, are drawn from personal interviews and Web survey responses. They are all real, although I have changed all of their names and most of the identifying details to ensure the anonymity of my sources.

Among the hundreds of women I have interviewed, most return to a recurring theme about this stage of a woman’s life. It is this: the postmotherhood life is not only not so bad, it’s actually wonderful. If these moms had a theme song, it might be “Leave Already” or maybe “Change the Locks, I Want Some Privacy.” My research shows that the so-called empty-nest syndrome, in which mothers become miserable and maladjusted when children leave, just doesn’t exist. Our own mothers, the neighbors, and even some so-called experts expect us to fall apart when our last child leaves home.

But guess what? For many, many mothers, the postparenthood phase is simply and absolutely fabulous. That theme was reflected in my “Name This Book” contest, which I held to search for the best book title among those who answered my survey or visited my Web site, www.drcarin.com. (I continue to collect data, and I invite you to take my Web survey.) The results were sometimes humorous, often poignant, and always quite telling.

Mary, from Syracuse, New York, for example, suggested Motherhood Rocked, Now Me-Hood Rules, which is not half bad. She also offered My Journey from Motherhood to Me-Hood and It’s Okay to Be Happy They’re Gone.

Emie, from Chappaqua, New York, suggested When Mothers Spread Their Wings, which has a nice ring to it, but sounds as if it would be a primer on postdeath behavior.

Linda of Long Island, in New York, sent in a list of twelve possibilities, including, oddly, Is This the Face of a Stupid Person? I have no idea what that book would be about, but I love the sassy attitude. Sybil, a therapist in Rockville, Maryland, gave a long and not quite lucid explanation for her proposal, Song of Motherhood: The Remix.

One father even offered Cutting the Cord and Mom’s Separation Anxiety. His wife could be having issues, unless, of course, he’s projecting! A few women focused on the negative, including the one who suggested that this book should be called A Hole in My Heart, and another who threw out Life in the Lonely Lane, but they were definitely in the minority.

My sister, Joann, suggested Grown, Flown, Alone, which has a nice ring to it, and she even used Photoshop to insert the title atop a picture of a slightly ratty, vacant bird’s nest.

A few of my other favorites, in no particular order: Mothership, Stage Two, Mom in Late Bloom, M-Other, Loving Life at Fifty and After, The Nest Is Empty: Did the Egg Crack or Did I? Waves of Sorrow, Ripples of Joy, Flapping My Wings Again, and Free at Last.

The reality is that, as mothers, we have practiced for this moment for years, in saying hundreds of little good-byes to our children: when they left home to go to nursery school or kindergarten, when they left home to ride bikes or go on playdates, when they left home to drive, when they left home to spend time with friends. Once they leave for college, we can speak by cell phone, e-mail them, and instant-message them, but it’s not the same. At this point, our time with our children is brief, and the good-byes are longer and more definitive. Most of them have already left home, emotionally if not physically, and they are all too eager to grow up and away from us.

Still, happy good-byes are what most of us want for our children. We want to send them out into the world, confident and secure and joyful. We’re all in the business of parenting to work ourselves out of a job.

For more information on empty nests, visit www.drcarin.com.

Excerpted from “Beyond the Mommy Years” by Carin Rubenstein, PhD. Copyright 2007 by Carin Rubenstein, PhD. Used by arrangement with Springboard Press, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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