Beyond the Mommy Years
Excerpt from Beyond the Mommy Years by Carin Rubenstein, PhD.
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.
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 dÃƒ©jÃƒ vu all over again.
Only this time, we’re not the ones doing the leavingÃ¢â‚¬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 homeÃ¢â‚¬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 child-centric 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 telephoneÃ¢â‚¬psychologists, sociologists, doctors, and economistsÃ¢â‚¬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.
Think about mothers who have children who are unable to leave home, like one I interviewed recently. Her child has a congenital neurological disorder, does not speak or move, and spends all day in a wheelchair. She has devoted her life to becoming his advocate, raising money to help prevent and cure his rare disease. Meanwhile, though, the boy is dependent on her for everything. She dresses him, bathes him, connects his feeding tubes, secures him to his chair. She is thrilled when a doctor mistakes him for a victim of cerebral palsy, a higher-functioning disease than the one he has. She would give anything to be able to launch her child into the world as an independent young man, out on his own.
Remember that it is a blessing to have children who are able to leave home. Be grateful and proud that they can do so.
My delight in my own children’s departure is, quite frankly, tinged with envy. My children are at their beginning; they do not yet know great disappointment, failure, or rejection. They live communal lives, among their closest friends. In fact, they live a Club Med life, a year-round, all-inclusive vacation, with food, lodging, entertainment, and education paid for in advance by me and my husband. My daughter goes to school in Washington, D.C., but travels constantly, to study and to work. My son goes to school near Boston, at the center of the known college-student universe.
“What’s not to like about that?” as one of my friends asks. She’s the one who says that paying college tuition is like paying for a fantastic cruise every month, only you never get to go anywhere. It’s like emptying your savings account in front of a fan, and watching it blow child-ward.
It’s not that I’d want to be young again, but I wouldn’t mind a trip back to my younger self, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 movie Peggy Sue Got Married. The middle-aged mom travels back in time to become her high-school self, only she knows about everything that has happened in the decades since, including the invention of pantyhose and computer chips. I’d love to be equipped with my much wiser, middle-aged brain, plunked into my much better, and younger, body. I’d appreciate what I had a lot more, and I wouldn’t take any of it as seriously.
It’s too bad there’s no such thing as Fantasy on Demand, like HBO, only customized. I’d take a few months of time travel back to my younger self, if I could afford it.
Back to my real life. Here, in the no-time-travel zone, I’m nervous, but pleased to launch myself into the postmotherhood phase. Life without children at home is drastically different for me, certainly. Although I work full-time, my own daily routine used to revolve around an axis of children that no longer exists. Even with teenage children, I had a schedule of forcing breakfast, packing lunches, planning evening activities and dinnertimes. I had a car-borrowing schedule and permission slips to sign and proms and school concerts to prepare for. I had baseball games and ballet performances to attend.
That carefully planned, child-centric calendar is gone, replaced by my own life, and my husband’s.
Gone is the mealtime pressure. Gone is the car borrowing and stay-up-until-he-gets-home pressure. But gone, too, are the good-night kisses and head pats accepted by teenagers, gone are the minor and elusive details of what’s going on in my children’s lives, day by day, night by night.
Friends tell me that they miss the commotion of having teenagers at home. They miss the noise of bad rap music. They miss the endless telephoning and texting and IMing. My friend Teri says that she has begun to miss what she hasn’t seen for at least fifteen years, when her son was a toddler. “I miss his toothless grin. Every once in a while, I look at that picture of him, and I miss that little boy,” she says. “When he started to walk, I’d put out my foot to trip him, so he wouldn’t run away from me so fast,” she adds.
Still, he ran, all the way to freshman year in college. And this time she let him go, without sticking her foot out.
Our daily duty of mothering little children, and big ones, is over and done with. Sometimes it seems so completely vanished it’s as if it never existed at all.
But then I remember all the work, the many years of meal planning, for instance.
I prepared three meals a day, five days a week, minimum, for, let’s say, fifteen years. That’s at least 11,700 meals cooked for two children, not including my husband’s food. That’s a lot of planning and shopping and cooking and cleaning up.
But I don’t have to do that anymore. My husband and I eat easily prepared food, and we don’t complain if we eat the same thing three nights in a row.
Then there’s our marriage. We’re all alone again, just the way we were before we struggled with serious fertility problems, before I had surgery, before I got pregnant, before I bore and raised two children.
So what do we do now? He’s still here, and so I am, but nothing else is the same. We’re older and heavier; he’s got a lot less hair, while mine is graying rapidly. We have decades of child rearing between us that seem to have lasted forever, but also seem to have lasted no longer than a millisecond.
Some days, I feel as if I am desperate for a system reboot, as if I were a faulty computer. I long to restore my family system to the way it was ten or fifteen years ago, so I can do it all over again, only better. But if I think about it carefully, that’s not really what I want. I’m pretty sure I don’t have the energy, or the motivation, to make that enormous effort all over again.
I’m finished with the intensity of daily mothering. My mother-mode days are over, and my me-mode days are back.
There is a definite upside to this transformation.
Not only don’t I have to worry about what I’m serving for dinner, I also don’t have to worry about being at home at a certain time or having the car back or doing errands for time-pressured teenagers. I am first on my list of priorities again, in a way I haven’t been for twenty years.
One of my friends, a mother of two, sees many advantages in having sent her youngest son off to college in Virginia. She is sad, she says, but “my husband is thrilled. There’s not another man to get into pissing matches with.” Not only that, she adds, but “we can go into New York City without worrying if a party’s going on at our house!”
Another woman I know, a mother of three whose twins just left for college in upstate New York, is giddy with the notion that she’s on her own during the day.
She can play tennis, go to meetings, meet friends, work on charity events, all without worrying about being home to pick up the kids or to make dinner, she says. The sense of complete freedom, she reports, is invigorating, and even a little scary.
She feels guilty about not feeling bad that they’re gone!
Mothers agree, however, that they are never “free” of their children, nor would they want to be. It’s just that, as another mom tells me, “I have time now to relax, and to take more of an adult role. It’s another stage of life.”
This stage of lifeÃ¢â‚¬liberation from childrenÃ¢â‚¬is both exhilarating and terrifying, all at once.
It’s a launching platform from which mothers send themselves into a new kind of motherhood, one that includes generativity, the desire to extend yourself beyond family. The transition period, though, can take at least several years, or even a decade. When my children first left, I was in Stage One, Grief. (The stages of what I call MotherLaunch are discussed in detail in chapter 3.)
I cried at vaguely sad television shows and movies, for example. Anything heartfelt made me weep. A few years ago, when my daughter left for college, I removed her place mat, number four, from the table. Then there were three left, one for me, another for my husband, the third for my son. For the next two years, there were three mats, except during holidays and parts of summer vacation, when we were again, briefly, four. When my son left for college, though, I wasn’t able to put away place mat number three for months.
Also, I wasn’t used to all the enforced intimacy, all of this odd, uninterrupted time with my husband. So I watched TiVo while he watched sports on another television. (And I started a blog, called TiVoLady .com.) We both realized that we could walk around the house naked if we wanted to. One mom told me that she realized recently that her whole house was now available for sexual encounters. “We could have sex on the kitchen floor if we wanted, but who wants to?” She laughed.
The truth is that it takes time to get used to this newfound sense of liberation. Here’s a short quiz to help you decide how well you’ve adjusted to having no children at home. Try to answer quickly. And be honest.
THE MISSING MOTHERHOOD QUIZ
True or False?
- On some days, you catch yourself at three o’clock or three-thirty wondering if there’s something you forgot to do or someone you forgot to pick up from school.
- You drive by the high school occasionally, or you still belong to school-related committees.
- You call your children several times a week.
- You check your e-mail, or your instant messaging service, to see if your children have sent you anything or are online at that moment.
- Your child has banned you from sending instant messages.
- You send care packages to distant children, several times a month, or more often.
- You avert your eyes when you walk past your children’s bedrooms.
- You find yourself looking at babies and toddlers with unconcealed longing.
- You consider it a good day when you have spoken to all of your children.
- You dream of being pregnant again, or of carrying babies in your arms, or both.
If you answered “true” to at least six of these questions, you may be suffering from major mother disorientation, the mother of all mother shocks of disbelief that come when all of your children have left home.
This book is probably for you.
Don’t fret, though. There are definite advantages to being child free. Now take this alternate test, to see how unplugged from motherhood you are.
THE REJOICING AT POSTMOTHERHOOD QUIZ
True or False?
- You work late whenever you want.
- You rarely feel guilty.
- You don’t bother shopping for groceries unless you feel like it.
- You traded in the van, or the large car, for a smaller one.
- You revel in how quiet and clean your house or apartment feels.
- You spend more than fifteen minutes a day talking to your partner.
- You watch what you want on television, for as long as you want.
- You talk to your dog or cat, at length, and it doesn’t seem strange.
- You refuse to do laundry for returning children.
- You’ve thrown away, or given away, most of your children’s toys and books.
If you answered “true” to at least six of these questions, then your adjustment time may be much faster than you might have thought. That’s because you’ve already learned to celebrate the pluses of life without children. You can work late and not feel guilty about it. You sense freedom, that your days are yours, your weekends are yours, you can do what you want, when you want. The house is clean and neat and quiet. The telephone is always available, and so are the television and the computer.
There’s no more setting-of-example pressure. You can eat cereal and marshmallows for dinner; you can watch television for twelve straight hours on a Saturday; you can not make the bed. Nobody else will learn bad habits from you, except you.
A close friend says that when she had two boys at home, she was always aware of maintaining her privacy. Now that the boys are gone, though, she doesn’t have to worry about what they see. Her husband walks downstairs naked to make breakfast, and she walks to and from the shower without a towel. “All my doors are open,” she says happily.
And that is the point.
We did the best we could as mothers. We are thrilled that our children are ready and able to grow up and move out. And we are also delighted to let them go. At this point in our lives, all our doors are open.
How we live these postparenting years is entirely up to us.
If we treat this stage of life as a disaster, as a major loss that derails our sense of purpose as neatly as if we were a train running off a lifetime track, we are in for more than a little misery. If we are unwilling to fashion a newfangled self, then we may be trapped in a frustrating, and ultimately harmful, frozen mother mode for years to come.
But, if we view this time of life as a challenge, as an opportunity to chart a new course through life, it’s possible that we’ll accomplish more than we ever thought possible. Deciding that this new phase of life is a gift will require a near-complete reevaluation of ourselves, our roles in life, and our goals and priorities. But if we do, we will ultimately be rewarded.
The choice is ours.
Copyright © 2007 by Carin Rubenstein, PhD
About Dr. Carin
arin Rubenstein earned a Ph.D. in social/personality psychology from New York University, with a specialty in survey research. Her dissertation was a study of loneliness in America, which she published as a book, called In Search of Intimacy. In those early years, when she was quite young but didn’t realize it, she worked as a research assistant for Gail Sheehy, conducting the survey work for several of Sheehy’s books. Her first job was as an editor at Psychology Today, which in those days was a respectable, national magazine. She was also an editor, briefly, at The New York Times and at Time-Life (as it was known in those long-ago days). She has been a free-lance writer for many magazines, including Family Circle and Self and Glamour. She also wrote The Sacrificial Mother, about the dangers of giving up too much of yourself for your children. In recent years, she wrote for a regional edition of The New York Times. The moment that her second and last child left home for college, she rushed to her desk and wrote this book, mostly to avoid the pangs of loss.
Rubenstein is a voracious reader of fiction, and loves any and all books that are not true. You can read what she thinks about what she’s reading at tivolady.com.
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