Article by Karen Burge
All over the world there are mothers sitting on the edge of their child’s bed crying. Perhaps holding a dirty T-shirt and breathing in the smell of the absent teenager. Yes, it’s that time of year when those irritating, noisy, smelly, stroppy youngsters finally leave home, yet instead of celebrating, their parents are struck down by grief.
It’s grief for a passing stage in their lives, for a job done, for the shedding of parental responsibility. The house is silent now. There are no shrieks of laughter, no pounding music, no footsteps on the stairs and the slamming of doors.
In contrast the fridge is full. No-one has finished the orange juice, eaten all the cheese or left the bread out. The laundry basket is almost empty, the top’s on the shower gel, and the towels are no longer a damp mess on the floor.
Do you hate it? Are you sitting there clutching your stomach, which is cramped, yet hollow, and sobbing? The tears stream down your face as you feel the strings cut at last.
The pain of the empty nester
I remember the pain of the empty nester. Twelve years on and writing this I can feel the deep pain that I felt then when the bedroom doors were closed because I could not bear to look inside and see the empty room.
So how do you cope? Like the story of the Bear Hunt, you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, you have to go through it. And there are ways of coming out the other side.
First you have to give yourself time and be gentle with yourself. You are grieving. You used to be a full-time mother and now they don’t need you to look after them. You need time to adjust to a new role and you may not even know what this is yet. So don’t berate yourself for feeling sad; allow and honour any feelings that emerge, you haven’t been here before. You may just feel relief! Just like when they were born, there was no instruction book on how to deal with this new stage of parenthood.
A change in your identity
Just as your role has changed so will your identity. Be open to what might evolve and get to know yourself better. Will there be a different you, a change of emphasis and the awakening of a new dream? This is the perfect time to discover who you are now. Parenthood has changed you for sure, you have different strengths, talents and values to those before motherhood. Do you know what they are?
What do other people say you’re good at? Are you great at getting people together, organizing committees, singing in tune? What do you really love doing? Maybe there’s an activity that you never had time for when you were rushing around running the family. Is there a creative energy you’d love to engage with now?
Now you have more time, what would you like to learn or develop? You’re probably going to lose the school community too, (no more concerts to attend, no more hanging around the sports field), so you can make new friends in a totally new context. That’s exciting!
It’s also time to acknowledge both your gifts and your limitations. Is there something you’ve been doing simply by being a parent that you’re now happy to drop? No more pressure to be or do that thing you always hated!
Try writing down what your thoughts are as you go through these questions. If you do this for a couple of weeks you’ll see patterns emerging. Some ideas will expand and take form; others will get crossed out. Eventually you will start to see the picture of what your new life is going to look like and once you have that you can start to plan.
Just as you have stood on the edge of any change before, whether it was becoming a new parent, moving to another country, or starting a new career, this is a transition and you can make it work for you. As an empty nester it’s about reclaiming and recreating your life. This can be a wonderful time if you give yourself space, reflect on who you are now and what you want your life to look like. Your second life is about to begin and you can decide just how it will be.
When you’re ready, you can put away the tissues, plan the next visit, and then step out towards your new wonderful life.
Biography for Karen Burge
Karen is a coach who works with women who are ready for a new phase in their life. She helps them take back control of their lives, so they can get confident and create what they now desire. Karen’s lived all over the world, bringing up 2 children, and running several businesses along the way.