A listener messaged in asking Ed and I to talk about how to cope with the effects of children leaving the home and in this case going off to university.
You spend years developing your family. Your kids have good bits and bad bits. There are times when you could happily strangle them all and times when you love their bones. Then when you have learned to live with the madness that is called family hey, they go and leave home. The fact that they have been leaving their junk all around the house, just like a tree wedding leaves in autumn, means nothing, you just want them back. The bird has flown and the nest is empty. Suddenly your role has changed, or maybe even come to an end. This is the time when the answer to the question ‘who are you?’ suddenly changes.
The rites of passage
The sense of the changing role of self happens to us all, though it is more so for women. When a woman marries she changes her name and as she normally takes on the part of head of the house, often without the man even realising it, she has changed her role. Then the first child comes along and another set of changes begin and each time the answer to that question ‘who am I?’ changes. As the last child is born, as the last child goes to school, as the last child leaves school, as the last child moves on to university, as the last child leaves home. Each stage presents us with a different sense of who we are. For full-time mums the impact of these changes are much greater.
We live in an odd world. As primates we would be living in extended family groups. When change happened there would have been a natural stress management from the various relatives supporting each other. Even when your children had grown up there would be new young ones coming through. In our odd little nuclear units of mum, dad and the kids aloneness and isolation can become common place as evidenced in the general rise of depression, stress and anxiety in western society.
Some of our stress comes from the fact that we do not really understand how to act in this new family situation. There is a confusing shift in the roles that we now play. When you have been a full on parent and your child goes off to uni. What contact do we now have with our distanced child? Questions arise..
Who contacts who?
How often do I phone, text, skype?
Do I wait for them to contact me?
Do I offer the money, resources or wait until I am asked?
What do I do with their room?
Do I keep it as a shrine, redecorate it, let other people stay in it….?
What about the family dynamic?
One child moving out can upset the dynamic of the entire family. In some case this can create feelings of bereavement and loss. Some families will even go though a period of mourning. Siblings may become withdrawn or upset. It may effect their performance at school. I am not being dramatic I am simply stating that changes effect us all.
Often both parent and child do not fully comprehend the importance of the family unit until it is no longer there. ‘We don’t know what we’ve got ‘til its gone’.
But hold on, we always knew that this would happen, that this day would come it was just that we have chosen to ignore it. Maybe pretend that it will never happen. The awake mindful parent is preparing their self, the family and the child for their departure. Talking obviously helps but it is the practical issues and skills that effect a child most. These might include…
Knowing how to budget and pay bills
Making a shopping list
Basic cookery skills
How to use a washing machine
The art of ironing
The rules of engagement
Agreeing all the rules of contact and money and doing their washing should all have been discussed prior to the event. As long as they know that they can get you when they need to they will be okay. So what about you?
So who are you now?
If you have been a full on parent the chances are that you have lost the sense of who you are, what your own real needs are and what it is that you want to do with your life now.
Many couples caught up in the rush and business of raising a family lose contact with each other. Often in the silence of the empty nest two people stare across the void at each other thinking ‘Who are you?’ For it will have been along time since they really had ‘us’ time and for many this is the chance to get back in touch. Talking, sharing and date nights can help. The question ‘who am I’ extends to ‘who are we’ and ‘where are we going from here?’
I guess that over all empty nest syndrome just like bereavement is not an illness it is a process and the better prepared for it the better we process it when the time comes.
My resource for the podcast was to a look at John Bowlby’s attachment theory. Our ability to deal with endings is dependent on what happened to us when we were young and how we learned to attach and detach in our relationships. What we learned as children is played out in adulthood. The good news is that even if you do not like your current attachment styles you can re learn and re frame them so that they serve you better.
The biggest gift that we can give our children is independence and confidence and to do that we have to learn to let go and allow them to live and make mistakes.
Take care and be happy