With the Kids Gone, Time for Growth and Discovery


“With The Kids Gone, Time for Growth and Discovery”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 7, 1996

As we all know by now, the first batch of baby boomers turned 50 this year. Many of the 38 million women born during the baby boom will hit another milestone soon: their last Mother's Day before their children leave home and head off to college.

Before we pity these women headed for the depths of depression, let's make one thing clear: the empty nest syndrome is dead. It never did exist. But the media hyped studies from the l960s that showed that women became depressed after their children left home. The general public never knew that this research was done on women hospitalized for depression.

The stereotype of the forlorn, broken middle-aged mother has taken on a life of its own, despite additional research that showed that women are not depressed--but relieved--when their children leave home. The concept has persisted because of the media's insistence on seeing women without children as unwhole and unhealthy.

In reality, when our sons and daughters leave home we are making a vital and normal passage. From my own experience and the interviews I conducted with 45 women whose children had left home, women have never felt happier and more fulfilled. This is not to say we breeze through the transition to post-parenthood. Launching our children and separating from them is a significant midlife task. Like any loss, it needs to be negotiated and mourned. "We lose our hearts to our children," an editor I know lamented. "How do we get our hearts back in our bodies after they leave?"

This can also be a confusing time, creating serious misgivings about ourselves and our future. Even women with high-powered careers wonder: "What am I going to do that's meaningful with the rest of my life" and "Who am I now--if I'm not mothering every day?" Sorting out these issues takes time.

Some women do more soul searching than others. But once we are able to let go and concentrate on ourselves without feeling selfish, we face a rare opportunity for personal growth and discovery.

Jennifer, a homemaker for 25 years, opened a water ice franchise after her two children went to college. She is part of the fastest growing segment of new businesses: those owned by women. "It was time to concentrate on me and not continue living for my family," she told me.

Sarah, a single parent and psychologist, always loved to dance. After her daughter left for college, she discovered a passion for Caribbean dancing and a nightlife that "feels filled with danger and mystery and ... things that I never did."

Martha, a teacher whose husband and kids hated the ocean, had always yearned to sail. She bought herself a boat after her son and daughter left for college and found a new kind of peace gliding on inlets and bays along the Atlantic coast.

Many women attribute their satisfaction to recapturing parts of themselves they lost or neglected during their years of active mothering. This kind of self-discovery, while heady for the woman, can send ripples through her relationships. In fact, an unpublished doctoral dissertation on women at midlife found that the largest deterrent to a woman's growth was her husband's objections. Women must renegotiate their connections with their husbands, parents and young adult children when they no longer live at home.

Very few women would choose to relive their child-rearing years. Once is enough. The women I interviewed felt they had been given a new lease on life, a second chance at self-fulfillment without the encumbrances and responsibilities of children at home. In no way did these women feel empty, nor did their "nests" wither away without their children's presence.

If society truly valued mothering, it would recognize our children's leave-taking as a crucial watershed for women. It would understand that it's necessary for women to come to terms with a major shift in a critical relationship, so they can move on.

Instead we live in a culture that exalts motherhood in the abstract--each year we buy 150 million Mother's Day cards--but blames mothers for their children's problems. Women who choose to stay home with their children are unfairly criticized for doing "nothing." And employed mothers get little support in terms of on-site child care or parental leave policies. Women are valued by how they make a living, not by what they do at home.

Let's bury the empty nest syndrome once and for all.

Our children's leave-taking is a reason for celebration, not a cause for depression.


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