I was recently recalling a time when my husband and I attended a friend’s high school graduation party. As we listened to countless couples toast their child’s achievements and accomplishments, I was struck by how many mothers willingly and openly expressed personal sorrow in anticipation of their child leaving home. On one hand, these mothers were undoubtedly swollen with pride for their child. On the other, the anxiety I sensed between the numerous accolades and humorous childhood foibles was as clear as the schnoz on my gorgeous husband’s face. Some refer to this anxiety and the anticipation of loss as Empty Nest Syndrome. It is the constellation of feelings parent’s experience when a child has graduated high school and goes away to college. It is frequently marked by feelings of loss and sadness.
Many empty nesters have spent the last eighteen years caring for their children, tending to their needs, carpooling to school, attending parent/teacher meetings, organizing fundraisers, schlepping their kids to soccer games, sleepovers, tutors, etc. Much of their life’s purpose and meaning has been wrapped up in raising a family. In fact, for many, motherhood has become their identity, their reason for being. It’s no wonder they’re terrified.
Eckhart Tolle says, “When being a parent becomes an identity, when your sense of self is entirely or largely derived from it, the function easily becomes overemphasized, exaggerated and takes you over.” If you resonate with this, if motherhood has become your role in life, then it has virtually pervaded your being. Tolle further suggests that if you derive a sense of worthiness or value from being needed by your child, then you will hold tightly to the notion that you know what’s best for your child and the result will be an inauthentic relationship with him or her.
Whether or not you overly identified with being a mother, this is undoubtedly a time of transition for you and your child. However, it doesn’t mean that it has to be a long, drawn out or painful one. It simply means taking on a different role. No longer is it necessary that you be “general manager” of your child’s life. In fact, it’s neither appropriate nor very healthy. Instead, think of yourself as a “consultant” in your child’s life. Observe, suggest, and guide upon request, but never assume you know what’s in their best interest. Let them make mistakes, falter, and yes, even fail. This is their time to learn, to grow, and to evolve. Remember how you felt when your mother or father tried to tell you what to do? ... Exactly!
On to you. Imagine this period in your life as merely the next chapter in your favorite novel. You’ve just finished the first half of the most wonderful, exciting, and most memorable books you’ve ever read. The second half is blank, waiting to be written by its author, you! You get to choose the genre of the second half. Will it be a mystery? A romance? Perhaps an adventure? Will it be serious or humorous? Sad or poignant? Magnificent or lackluster? Will you allow the central character to progress or stay stuck in the past? (Hint: You are the main character.)
While you’re contemplating the genre of your novel and its direction, adopt the following steps to help you transition from the role of “motherhood” to a role rooted in your most authentic self.
1. Plan Early. The best time to prepare for your children leaving home is when they are teenagers. Prepare your children for going off to college but more importantly prepare yourself.
2. Be aware of your feelings and openly discuss them. Acknowledge your sadness or your feelings of loss and talk to your partner and other parents whose children are leaving home. Although it’s perfectly fine to tell your children that you will miss your car talks or the mother daughter manicure/pedicures, don’t burden them with statements like “what will I do when you’re not here anymore” or “call me everyday or I’ll have you dead on a street corner.” (This is my personal favorite.)
3. Create your Ideal Day. Take out a piece of paper and write out your ideal day. Imagine it’s an ordinary day in your life and it’s exactly what it should be. It may not be easy but it’s satisfying and rewarding. Describe this day from the moment you wake up until the moment you close your eyes at night. There are no rules. If you want a hot, famous hunk to be your personal chef, have at it. If you want to wake up to the sounds of ocean waves crashing, so be it. If you covet 3000 thread count sheets, they’re yours. As you write this exercise, stay out of your brain and stay in touch with your body. Describe what you see when you first wake up, the smells you inhale, and the sounds you hear. Are you alone? Do you look out the window? What’s in your closet? What type of shoes are there? Track yourself through your entire day and imagine that you are fully utilizing your strengths. Once you’ve written your “ideal day,” take one thing from your story and buy it. It can be anything from the sounds of the seashore (get a CD), to the smell of a beautiful candle burning, to those silky sheets you woke up in.
4. Write an “I’ve always wanted to …” list. This is not a “to do” list of all the things you ignored or didn’t have time to do because you were busy with the kids. This is all the things you said you wanted to do when you were reading the Sunday morning paper. For instance, check out the new art museum that just opened a year ago, organize a romantic weekend with your husband, or buy finger paints and go to town!
5. Take a Risk. Go out and try something new that feels slightly scary or challenging. Sometimes doing things we’re afraid of expands our comfort zone and gives a “boost” to our self-esteem. One client of mine went on a five-day hiking trip with some women, challenging herself both physically and mentally. If the task feels daunting, break the goal down into small, manageable steps. If, for example, you’ve always wanted to run a marathon, try running for five minutes the first few days, gradually increasing the time until you meet your goal. Then, reward yourself for taking a step in the right direction.
So, whether your kids are just graduating high school or just beginning pre-school, there will come a day when both you and I will be considered “empty nesters.” Since I love to plan ahead, I suggest heeding Eckhart Tolle’s advice and begin to create a life separate from your role of “mother.” In fact, I’m going to sign up for that sculpture class I never had time to take!