Your child just left for college and left you with a huge hole in your heart. Besides slapping a college bumper-sticker on your car and planning a fall trip to their school for a football game, what else is a mother supposed to do? In my practice as a clinical psychologist and in my personal life, I see women struggling with overwhelming feelings of sadness, loss, and a lack of purpose related to their children leaving home.
I’m talking about what happens to a woman’s heart and sense of identity when the children that she has loved and nurtured-- cheered, organized, disciplined, and revolved so much of her world around, leave home. And here’s the kicker-we help them to do so and even celebrate the process, knowing that this is a healthy and exciting part of their development.
Certainly, our experience in this crossroads will be affected by many factors. Are you a single mom or is yours a two-parent family? Is your marriage a good one or a contentious one? Are you a working mom or a stay-at-home mom? And then, there are the developmental and personality factors. What was your attachment like to your own parents growing up and how did they respond when you left home? How much emotional support do you have now on a day-to-day basis and how easy is it for you to reach out to others? How central is being a mother to your sense of self?
When our children leave home to start this new and exciting chapter of their lives, how can we mothers begin a new and exciting chapter of our own lives? And, how do we handle the emotional crisis, as unfinished business from earlier in our life often re-emerges at this crossroads and collides with the current maelstrom of loss and sadness that we may be experiencing?
Once our children launch, here are a few steps to make our empty nest a reclaimed nest.
1. Think back to who you were and what you enjoyed before you had children. For me, I started playing golf again, an activity that requires more time than I had available when my kids were at home. I invested more time and energy in my work and went out for more girls’ nights out and mid-week dates with my husband. And, I somehow convinced my husband that I needed that fourth dog.
2. Take on an exciting challenge in this new chapter of your life. Maybe it’s a hobby, a new job, volunteer work, or a new training or education program. These kinds of new pursuits can be invaluable as a way to expand your personal and professional identity, particularly important when your identity as a mother has suffered a major hit.
3. Focus on one self-improvement goal. You are used to taking care of others and being their cheerleader. Now is the time to turn that focus and energy toward yourself. Select one self-improvement goal and set up a plan to accomplish that goal in gradual and manageable way. Whether it’s to eat more fruits and vegetables, to exercise three times a week, to get to bed by ten every night, or to begin journaling everyday-figure out one goal to work towards that will improve your mental or physical health.
4. Address personal issues. This is a time when unfinished emotional business from your childhood and teenage years may reemerge. Don’t shy away from working on these personal issues, whether it’s through therapy, journaling, or long talks with friends. Questions of who you want to be when you grow up, may also spring back to life and this new chapter offers a wonderful opportunity to explore them.
Many of us struggle with this letting go thing. With more time and energy to invest in yourself, your work, your hobbies, and your relationships, you can combat these new-found feelings of loss and sadness. Excitement for your kids and their new opportunities can combine with this new sense of challenge and purpose for yourself.
Beth Feldman, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and relational analyst, with specialized training in the treatment of substance abuse and eating disorders. Dr. Feldman is an expert in parenting strategies and offers her unique “Sane Parenting in a Crazy World”. consulting to parents globally. Beth is a frequent contributor to media and speaks publicly on numerous topics, including relationship and parenting issues, depression and anxiety management, and the secret to energizing personal change. For more information, visit www.bethfeldman.com.