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Empty Nest


Dr. Rebecca Jankovich, PhD can be reached at 322-1839.8-26-10 Empty NestEvery year, at about this time, women who have just sent their last, their youngest child, off to school or out into the world, call me because they've hit a wall of deep sadness. They don't understand why they're so unmotivated; why they don't want to do any of the things they used to like to do, or the things they thought they'd want to do once they had more time. They tell me they feel empty; they can't find a deeper purpose to their lives; they feel like they're just drifting. Sometimes they can't stop crying; sometimes they can't sleep. They gain weight, eating to fill the emptiness. They spend money, shopping to fill the emptiness. Their husbands miss the kids as well, but they seem to get over the loss of full time parenting more quickly than moms; but then, they've got their jobs and their activities they've been enjoying all along.These reactions of grief to the loss of full time mothering are normal. It's also normal if you don't have them. The depth of grief isn't correlated with whether or not you were a good mother; it's often correlated with how much of your meaning in life you derived from parenting the more you felt fulfilled through your role as Mom, the more you're going to miss the full time role. Not all women are equally fulfilled through mothering; doesn't mean you don't treasure your children because you're not perfectly content with only mothering; and it doesn't mean you're not an interesting woman because you were perfectly content with mothering.If your path in life had been full time mothering and now the children are raised, your sense of emptiness is likely to continue until you find something else to do that gives you meaning. Often husbands, and your young adult children, have little empathy for why you can't find something to do; they have no experience of what it's like to have to devoted most waking moments and energy over the past 18 years to one project, mothering, leaving no time or energy to pursue, or even to figure out what else might interest you. If you married within 4 or 5 years out of high school, you didn't get that decade after leaving your parents' home, to knock around as a single woman, live with roommates, date lots of guys, and be constantly exposed to tons of experiences; experiences you got to sample, thereby learning what grabbed your interest and what didn't. Instead of being dragged by friends to kayak, backpack, drive the California coast, go to concerts, try line dancing, you were spending all your time coping with babies, keeping up a house, being a good wife, and trying to keep your weight down. Now in your 40's, your kids are gone and you don't know what you'd enjoy doing because you never had the luxury of sampling to find out. You're not just a loser who has no life, you're someone who was so consumed with the role of being mother, you didn't have time to find what else you might enjoy. So, now is the time. You can't just lay in bed at 4 in the morning when you wake up worrying, and imagine what you might like to do with the rest of your life. It doesn't tend to work that way. Most of us figure out our passions by being grabbed by the experience, not by thinking about it. The way to go about this search is to start sampling activities until something grabs you; by forcing yourself to go into motion and try new experiences, serendipity takes over and nudges you to find your passion. Whatever you sample has to be at least appealing to you theoretically: if you know you don't want to learn Spanish, don't take the class; if you think it might be fun, give it a try. Think back to when you were in high school and remember what you used to do with your free time; sample some of those interests now and see if they still grab you. Go along with your husband or your friends to sample their interests and see how you enjoy them. Stay informed about what's going on in the community and go to whatever piques your curiosity. The key is to keep sampling until you land on the right experience; when you hit it, you'll know because you'll feel compelled to do it again. Women ask me how long this is going to take, and I don't know. It takes as long as it takes; you might sample 3 things, or 30 things before you're grabbed. It's not a failure to try something and realize you don't like it; that's just one more experience to cross off the list. You're not wasting time by sampling because you're at least figuring out what won't work; it's important keep going because the alternative of never finding meaning is unacceptable. Without meaning, you'll only live with more emptiness. This is a new chapter, finding meaning when the children all leave. Most women eventually find that next passionate interest. Keep sampling and know you're not alone in the search.