Jennifer Quinn says there are two times when parenting is most difficult. When the baby first arrives home, and when the adult child first leaves home.
Most of us are familiar with the chaos and disruption that a new baby brings to a family. There are so many demands, so much to do with so little time, and the forging of a new identity. Not only is there a new life, there is also a new role: that of parenting.
When an adult child leaves home, some of this seems to go into reverse. Suddenly there are no demands on our time. The house remains as pristine as we last left it. We might even feel that we are no longer a parent.
So a child leaving to study, work, travel or to live elsewhere to us involves change:
- There is a change in identity. If this is our last child to leave home we are no longer the parent of a school child.
- There is a change in purpose. Our role is no longer to provide food, washing services, a taxi, or daily support.
- There is a change in family dynamics. One person leaving the home may leave others who have to work out what to do with the gap they leave. This can lead to strain and stress as everyone re-adjusts.
Change always involves loss. Even positive change, which is gladly welcomed, means that the old order of things has gone.
This can bring up a number of different issues for parents:
- Life has changed forever. The days of parenting small children is over. Arms and laps which rejoiced in small, wriggly, rounded bodies are empty.
- Life is moving on. Seeing adult children becoming independent, seeing them and their friends qualify and take on responsible jobs is a reminder of the passing of time. Suddenly the phrase "don't the Police look young?" becomes meaningful. It is an indicator of our own mortality.
- Life feels empty. The change can rob parents of a sense of meaning, purpose and identity. If they are not there to care for their children, then who are they? After 20 years or so of self-sacrifice, parents may have lost a sense of their own interests and goals.
- Life feels lonely. There are so many jokes about dreadful teenagers it is possible to lose sight of the fact that many parents enjoy their children's company. The home may have felt busy with comings and goings every day, with their friends visiting, with the hustle and bustle of "family". It can feel too quiet now. Sometimes both parents have focused on the child. When they leave, the focus turns to each other and some partnerships feel the strain. For single parents, the loss can feel very deep because there is no partner who is able to fill the gap.
Research varies as to how much parents are affected by the "empty nest syndrome". There are some academics who argue that women are not adversely affected and that it is men who suffer more.
In my opinion, the empty nest can feel especially difficult for parents who feel they are not good enough.
Because this is an ending, parents can feel it is the end of their chance to be a good parent. It feels like there is no time left to be a "better" parent.
People who feel not good enough are painfully aware of their shortcomings and the empty space the child left behind can be filled with bitter regrets about not doing a better job when they were at home.
This in turn can lead to anxiety. Our minds reason that if we did not do a good job as a parent, we have left our child woefully unprepared for adult life. We worry that they will not be able to cope. This in turn may lead to over-protection and control such as constant calls and messages that our children find burdensome and restrictive.
Telling ourselves off - self-recrimination - can lead to depression. We begin to "globalise" our mistakes. We may become obsessed with some incident in childhood where we were less than perfect and think that it has ruined our child's life. Rather than seeing something as a mistake, as a single incident, we see it as proof that we are bad parents. We "catastrophise" it. We see it as something that will cause the worst to happen.
If we continue to allow our thoughts to plague us like this, is it any surprise we will suffer from a low mood?
Is there any way to approach the situation differently?
It may help to:
- Acknowledge that this is a difficult change. Acknowledge the feelings of sadness and loss. It is not wrong, it is not an indication of "clinginess", it is an indication of the very deep feelings of love you feel.
- Take time to care for yourself. The sadness is a grief that needs to be cared for. It will take time to feel better and to adjust to the change. Don't be cross with yourself for feeling like this.
- Participate in soothing activities. These are anything where you are able to feel rested and restored. Spending time with nature, being creative, reading, exercising, chatting with close friends, are all examples of things that can help.
- Spend time doing practical things - such as cleaning their bedroom and disposing of junk - as well as grief work which could involve looking at photos or videos and having a good cry.
- Try to notice when your thoughts have begun to become self-critical. Many people find it helpful to give their critical self a name (mine is the "Headmistress"). This helps them to see that self-criticism is just one part of themselves. If it is just a part, it is not the whole. There is another story. Ask yourself how you would advise someone who came to you with this thought. It is very likely you would be kinder to them than you are being to yourself.
- Allow a new you to emerge. As grief subsides, you may find yourself beginning to enjoy the extra time and lack of responsibility. You may begin to become involved with projects that are outside the parenting remit. You may begin to appreciate not having to be at home at certain times. You may even begin to appreciate the silence!
- Recognise this as a new stage of life. The acknowledgement that one part of your life has ended can, in time, produce a new sense of purpose. The passing of time may be the stimulus you need to get on with your own life before it is too late. Denial leads only to stagnation. Acknowledging that time is finite can be a great motivator.
- Leave your adult children alone. It can take time to work out how much support they need now they have moved. Their needs may well change as they settle in and make friends. Try to demonstrate your confidence in them as adults by not sending constant reminders about what they should be doing. Allow them the freedom to make mistakes and work out how they want to live. Ask them how often they would like you to be in touch and respect their reply.
Then just when you've got used to it, your adult children will be back for the start of university holidays, a celebration such as Christmas, or to visit friends. A word of warning here: although they may appreciate seeing you, it is very likely they are more interested in catching up with their friends. You may not see very much of them!
Then in a matter of days or weeks, they have gone again. This is your new normal. As time goes by, it does become part of life and become easier to accept.
However, if this is not your experience, counselling can help to unravel why not. Counselling can help to challenge the negative thoughts and the feelings that accompany them. It can support someone who is grieving by giving them the space to speak without feeling "silly" for their emotions. It enables people to look after themselves and heal.
If you would like to explore whether counselling could help you, please feel free to contact me.