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With last kid in school, mom faces empty nest

Mother says she worries about her role without kids at home. Dr. Gail Saltz offers advice in dealing with the transition.

Q: I am a stay-at-home mother of three. The youngest is about to start kindergarten. I’m scared and confused about what’s ahead. How can I cope with these feelings?

A: When a child starts kindergarten, feeling at loose ends isn’t unusual for women who have invested all their energies in the role of mother.

But even though your youngest is starting school, don’t for a moment think your mothering role is over. That role never ends!

It does evolve, however. As your kids grow, their needs change. The youngest ages are largely about physical nurturing, which your children will need less of. But emotionally they will need you more.

Still, you will now spend the hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. without a child tugging at your sleeve. How do you deal with this void?

Many mothers who really wish to continue their mothering role get very involved in their children’s activities — schools, scout groups, religious groups, sports teams.

But a preference not to devote yourself to a child-centered activity might be a source of anxiety and guilt. That’s perfectly normal — and it’s also perfectly normal to want a more separate identity. It does not mean you are a bad mother if you don’t devote every moment to your children.

Some mothers return to school themselves or re-enter the workforce in their former field of employment or do volunteer work — or even create something new, either alone or with other women in the same position.

A new business could be an at-home enterprise (such as a craft and activity you have always enjoyed), which affords flexibility and is less confining than trying to reclaim your spot in a workforce where others have never stepped out. Parents who enjoy their work are great role models for their children.

There’s another silver lining as your youngest leaves for school: Renewed energy for your love life. Many women in your position embrace their rediscovered role as intimate partner.

Dr. Gail’s Bottom Line: After you process the jarring feelings of the kindergarten rite of passage, move forward by redefining your focus — in a way that will include your children to a greater or lesser degree.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to “Today.” Her new book, “Becoming Real: Overcoming the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back,”  was recently published by Riverhead Books. For more information, you can visit her Web site, .

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist. Copyright ©2004 Dr. Gail Saltz. All rights reserved.