If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On Empty Nesting

I've been struggling with understanding the issues around this phase of motherhood. When I struggle with something on both a personal and an intellectual level I usually try to find answers in literature. However I have had very little success for this subject. I haven't found any relevant social science or pop culture or even a good self-help book that really explains for me what is going on. The research literature is also fairly silent when it comes to transitioning out of active mothering.

I have not found many blogs that address this end of the mommy spectrum, perhaps because blogging brings in a younger crowd and most mothers who blog still have very small children at home. It seems there is no empty nest community. Sometimes I think I'm over-reacting; that I am somehow pathologizing this experience; maybe it is just me who is making this a major transition in my life. Its not a horrible one (well at times it is) but it feels pretty damned significant. Other times I think about all the other experiences and transitions women have lived through that were never discussed (think menopause, date rape, and breast cancer). Lack of community doesn't necessarily make an event less real or less universal. Yet the studies I have found in the scientific literature tell me that most women, contrary to folklore, experience few negative emotions and many look forward and enjoy this time. So maybe it is just me.

The entry into motherhood is well represented. You can find support (and it is needed) in a variety of places and you can find information--some of it good, loads of it poor--on various aspect of this important transitional stage. However everything that I've found on "the empty nest" syndrome sounds placating and insufficient. I'm supposed to feel "blue" and "have the weepies" for a few weeks and then I'll be magically over it. I've also noticed that women who are actively mothering are not comfortable discussing it. I believe it is painful to even consider how you will feel when your time comes. I know I hated to think about it previously.

I realize that I'm still square in the middle of this and that my thoughts will probably change over time, however I wanted to try and sort a few of them out here, while I'm still experiencing it all. If you are at the stage where it is too painful to consider life as an inactive mother or if your world is so overwhelmed with childcare issues that you can't imagine why anyone would see this as a problem to be addressed, you may want to skip this post. However, it may be those people who need to read it the most.

One thing I've realized is that mothers (and I use the term loosely, in that I mean individuals who take a primary role in the emotional and physical caring and nurturing of a child they claim as their own--an individual's sex has nothing to do with mothering, except for the fact that it is still primarily the female sex that takes on this role) spend their lives learning their children. It is a knowledge that goes so deep and becomes so entwined with who you are that you no longer see it as knowledge. We spend a considerable amount of our time figuring out why our child did or didn't do something; what our child may be thinking or feeling or believing and why. We learn what our child likes to eat and how he or she likes to eat it. We learn all the incredibly intimate details of our children's daily worlds.

Intimacy through knowledge does not only belong to the mother-child relationship, our relationships with our partners can also include an incredibly rich and detailed knowledge of the other, especially in long-term relationships. However there are several differences, a big one being that our partners can speak for themselves (well hopefully) and care for themselves while our children (at first) cannot. So we learn to listen to them in a way we do not listen to any other person in our lives. We strive to understand them because we want to help them and because they fascinate us. We look for ourselves and our loved ones within our children. We also constantly look for who our child will be--we see glimpses of our future child.

Growing up under this scrutiny, our children also study us but they don't see us. They study us for the reasons that all people in the underdog position of a power-imbalanced relationship study their superiors--that knowledge can save them from us. The result is an incredibly intimate relationship (the relationship can be healthy or unhealthy but it still remains at a level of intimacy we rarely experience elsewhere). When I say our children don't see us I mean they can see us only as mothers not as individuals, at least initially. Not being able to see us as individuals they are completely unaware of their true power to harm us. They are aware of a superficial level of that power--and many will try out that power by screaming "I hate you" at the top of their lungs one day--but they are oblivious to the harm they cause by becoming their own person and stepping out of that intimacy; by seeking that intimacy elsewhere.

So what happens when they do leave? There is a hole that is left that no other relationship seems capable of replacing. I suppose some people do start "mothering" their partners but that seems, to me, to be (a) a poor substitute and (b) both insulting and unfair to a partner who is a fully grown and functional adult. Other people mother their pets; some refuse to stop mothering their grown children (think helicopter parent here); and some push their children to have grandchildren. I'm sure there are myriad other approaches or strategies but I haven't found a satisfactory one yet.

But lets think about that hole a bit more. The knowledge that we accumulate about our children is no longer necessary and soon becomes obsolete. Your child's favorite snack is no longer a staple on your shopping list. And your child will most likely develop new tastes and favorites that he or she would never think it important to tell you about. Other people will know his or her intimate details and will understand the person your child is becoming in ways you will never again. Now that is not to say that people don't stay the same. There will be knowledge that will continue to be useful; there will be sides of your child that probably only you will know (of course for many years these will be embarrassing to your child so you won't be able to use them anyway). However I believe people change as much as they stay the same. As individuals we realign our personal narrative to allow for change; we create more continuity than I believe is really there.

But we still own the knowledge and have no place to put it. We also have spent years being concerned about our child's welfare. As mothers we worry. This worrying is an activity. It takes up a certain amount of our time and of our emotional energy. What do you do with this worry when it is no longer applicable? As it turns out, it doesn't go away on its own (at least it hasn't for me yet). I wrote in an earlier post about being on the beach last summer with Angel and losing track of him. I thought he was in the water and the ocean was crowded. I couldn't see him anywhere and fell into default mode of imagining him in danger, knowing full well this was irrational. Angel was just in Costa Rica when the recent earthquake hit. Again, rationally I knew he was fine and that I didn't NEED to worry about him but my entire mood changed once I knew he had landed back in the States. I have also come to the recent realization that soon I won't be the first person called when something goes wrong. He will (a) know how to handle things on his own and (b) have other people--more intimate relationships--to call and reassure first. But the reaction doesn't turn off. There's just no where to put it, at least no where that is considered appropriate.

If your partner was suddenly no longer in your life as your partner (which unfortunately happens frequently) you would feel many emotions, such as hurt and anger and despair. If you are the person left you would probably feel abandoned and lonely. With time those feelings would begin to lessen. Let's say you've even managed to stay friends with your partner and the two of you enjoy a very different but satisfying relationship. At some point you would realize that you might not miss the person but you might miss being in a partnered relationship. You miss the shared intimacy; the small everyday things you do together that make up your world. You would realize that you can find this with someone else and you would look for it. When your child leaves the relationship, even if you manage to readjust your relationship, even if you have a satisfactory level and quality of contact, you miss being in a mothering relationship; you miss that intimacy. However no one is telling you to go out and find another (although admittedly this is the approach I took with Pumpkin). Instead the message is to find yourself; enjoy the free time; enjoy your partner. But what if you had already found yourself? Have been enjoying your partner? Don't particularly need more free time? How many hobbies can one have, really?

We don't have the language for the relationship between mothers and their grown children. We use the phrase "my child" to mean both the person that you are raising--who happens to be a child--and the person that you raised. However the person that you raised is not a child. In a sense you are always a mother--even if your child should die, you are still a mother. And I find people like to remind you of that fact when you are no longer, what I phrase, "actively mothering." They say it to reassure you that your identity hasn't changed but in fact it has. My identity as an active mother is far different than my identity as an inactive one. Retirement is not the same as employment. When I retire I will still be a professor but it will not be the same. And my relationship with Angel as an adult is very different from my relationship with him when he was a child. There is no way around it and it is a good thing for him. My point here is that I have gone through (am going through) a transition of the same magnitude as the one I went through becoming a mother, however the line between not being a mother and being a mother was sharply defined then whereas now it is blurry.

In my professional life I've heard a lot of talk about the problems associated with not having "coming-of-age" rituals for adolescents and young adults. We, as a society (although some cultures still have strong and meaningful rituals), no longer clearly mark the distinction between childhood and adulthood. We also, due to economic conditions, have been prolonging the time people spend in this quasi-dependent state. It may be a problem for young people; I believe the way we view adolescence in general is highly problematic for young people. Perhaps it is also a problem for mothers. The lack of a distinct boundary and a recognized mechanism for crossing that boundary, might be leaving some mothers suffering in silence and creating solutions that may or may not be healthy for them in the long run.


Anonymous said...

Your comments are well worth considering! It sounds like you are a recent "empty nester", and you are considering what you want to do in this next stage of your life.

As an active mother who was soon to send her children to college, I chose to send them on their way with a written letter that quickly grew into a book, on useful information they should know on entering the college environment.
This included everything from tips on making friends to money and time management. So many people asked for a copy of the book that it can be found at www.portableparent.com, and it now has sections where parents can write in their own wisdom.

This gives me a sense of "parenting from a distance on request" which I think appropriate for this stage of young adulthood.

You are still a mother, but now for the first ti me in many years, you have more time for yourself - enjoy it!

Church Street Cellars said...

All I can say is that I understand. My eldest is 23, the middle, 21 and the youngest, 20. I am working on where and how I fit in their lives. The children are wonderful and good, and we all talk regularly, but what now? And I agree, there are support groups for so many things, but this area is lacking. I, too, have searched for answers in literature and self help books, and they come up short. The most I recall is song lyrics, "Where do we go from here, now that all of the children are grown up?"(Allan Parsons Project). I remember thinking about this song the first time I flew back to college and seeing my parents waving goodbye at the gate (I am the youngest). How time flies when you are having fun. Now it is my turn. I am adding you to my "Sites that I Read" on my blog and following yours. Your blog is the first that has touched the community that I am looking for here. My blog is very superficial and silly, for I find that when I don't know who is actually reading something, I don't want too much insight into our personal lives. That may change in time.
Peace Be With You!

punkindunk said...

Well, you know that I am in the thick of mothering young children, but I absolutely love your posts on the end of that phase in life. And this post in particular, is just so beautiful and I very thankful to have read it.

Julie said...

I actually read this post first and had to come back to it to comment, because this is so very powerful. And so true. I cried when I first read it, but the tears were good. Tears of relief that someone understands.

Not that long ago, I was giving you stupid advice like "it gets better." I apologize for those dumb words. Well, it does get better, but then certain memories, images, even things like songs or smells, can trigger that feeling of loss again. I'm feeling that lately. Nothing bad has happened between my daughter and me. And I'm really very proud of her. She is being exactly what I raised her to be--strong and independent. It's just that letting go is hard.

You are so, so right. Now when I see my daughter with her boyfriend, I rejoice for her. But I still mourn for what was...and I see that "mother" is no longer the number 1 part of the equation. It's only natural. Still, why do I want her to call me and tell me her troubles? I still want to "fix" things for her, but I can't.

I wonder how being an empty nester at an earlier age falls into the equation? Is it harder for a 39-year-old woman to let an only child go? Or is it harder for a 65 year old woman who has raised several kids? I don't know.

Please excuse me for taking up so much space. Your words are excellent! And a comfort. Thank you for such a beautiful post. It has given me much to think about. This could be an article in a mothering magazine!

blue milk said...

Fascinating post.

Anonymous said...

OMG!!! And I thought I was going Crazy!!! I cried all the way thru ur article. I really don't have any friends going thru this. All the websites talk about is creating a relationship with your spouse, I don't need that. People say, you need to find u something to do! Well thats all well and good, but I don't know what to do! It sorta feels like your life is over, like your just taking up oxygen. Then I think well maybe I'm just tired, or maybe I'm going thru the change! It's pretty bad when ur so bored that you just take naps.

My oldest thats 24 just returned to finish college in town, he'd been gone for abt 4 1/2 yrs. my youngest 21 been gone abt 3yrs. Both being boys doesn't help the matter. Girls r usually more close about coming home. Don't get me wrong I'm close w/ my boys, but they're just not as sensitive.

If anyone has any suggestions please advise.

And yes I'm on HRT and antidepressants. LOL