I Believe in Life Beyond Parenthood
(This I Believe, 2014)
When your children leave home, you better have some meaningful people and activities in your life to fill the vacuum that their absence has created.
We’ve all been told that a well-rounded life is important no matter what stage of life we’re in, but let’s face it, when you have kids they occupy an inordinate amount of psychic space, and in addition they create a vortex of time and energy that simply pulls you in. Some of us happily combine our work with this all-consuming project of parenting, and our lives are filled with a delicious richness and complexity. For me, while all roles and activities were important: part-time work, volunteer activity, socializing, exercising and parenting, it was the parent component that trumped all else in terms of its emotional significance and omnipresence. This is not to say that parenting is all peaches and cream; the joys are counterbalanced by the fears and stresses that are part and parcel of bringing vulnerable, unformed beings into the world and marshalling them through the challenges of their development with the hand they’ve been dealt and in a world that doesn’t always cooperate. But these challenges, both rewarding and draining, only deepen your investment in these beings who cement themselves into your very marrow and remain parked there no matter what else is going on.
Though others may have felt differently, or been more conflicted, I accepted the emotional primacy of this responsibility though I didn’t let it stop me from having other meaningful responsibilities and activities such as my part-time psychology practice, various volunteer roles at TCC and other places, spouse, sister, daughter and friend. How important it is, I now realize, that these other roles existed and that I invested much of myself in them.
And why is that? Because, inevitably, the very thing for which you’ve been preparing your children for 17 or 18 years comes to pass: they move away and create lives independent of you. They’re still deeply embedded in your psychic life, but not in your everyday one. The more you try to involve yourself in their everyday life, the worse it will be for everyone involved—I now see my job as letting them go, trusting that just as I have internalized them, they have internalized me, and carry around within them what they need from me to be okay in their new world without me.
How does a parent accomplish this frankly ridiculous task? You’ve spent 18 years ever deepening your connection to a person and then you’re supposed to just send them off and be happy that they’re doing okay? Here is where the robustness of your life really kicks in.
If you have one, your relationship with your spouse or significant other better be in order. You are thrown together in a way that hasn’t happened for almost two decades. You are face to face without the scaffolding of your children’s lives supporting you as a couple. What remains from the pre-children era? What new can be forged? A forthright recognition of your interdependence can be a powerful anchor for this new stage of your relationship. What you make of this challenge will be the template for future joys and stresses that come with the inevitability of getting older, and if you’re lucky, navigating many decades of shared life with flexibility, courage and commitment.
Now is the time to re-commit to the external, non-nuclear world. Despite the annoying changes of middle age, you have more time and you have more energy now that your kids are off and running on their own. How you use these gifts of time and energy can infuse your life with meaning and significance in ways you may not even have thought about before. I’m not talking about finding the cure for cancer or befriending scores of new people. Just appreciating the importance of people already in your life and what your relationships with them do for you can be enlightening. Despite our deeply ingrained habits and preferences, openness to new people, ideas and activities is crucial to forging a fulfilling “empty nest.” While some parts of your life may have been fully operational but on low gear, you can now up shift and see where you get traction, where you want to direct yourself and your energies. Once again, these changes are not monumental; you’re just better off knowing where things stand and orienting yourself toward the most rewarding possibilities. Of course there are those who will reinvent themselves in a more dramatic fashion which can be very exciting and fulfilling too.
My kids are only in college and, happily, still do appear frequently in my life, but I’m no fool—I know their presence will continue to diminish and the importance of these ideas will hold true even more. Don’t get me wrong; in very quiet moments I do miss my children deeply, but those moments pass. And those sad moments are punctuations amidst the following: my connection to my life partner—my husband, to my siblings, mother, and friends; my investment in my patients and peer supervision group of almost 25 years; my involvement in TCC and the various jobs I’ve held over the years; my book group; my knitting group; pilates and Planet Fitness. I am grateful that I maintained some facsimile of a balancing act over the past 20 years so that these people and activities are here to sustain and enrich my life now that I am freer to enjoy them.