"Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?"
— Mary Oliver
There are many questions parents ask themselves during the empty-nest stage of life, a transition time that can be difficult for us all.
To what extent do we unconsciously fill our lives with our kids or hide our problems with our partners behind the children? The absence of the children in the household can lay bare what has been fundamentally going on all along individually or in the relationship.
Do we need to make new meaning in our lives and how do we do that? Once our roles have changed, we may find ourselves in a free-fall in terms of our sense of who we are. "Who am I, if I am not a mother/father?"
Have we psychologically ever left our own parental home? Looking back at our own adolescence and coming of age, we may see we have never fully "left home." We may have moved straight from our own parents' home to our marital home, perhaps bypassing certain stages of our own autonomy. Our children leaving may trigger responses about our own unresolved issues.
What can we learn from our own parents' parenting styles? What might be "too much" parenting and what might be "too little"? In a recent talk, a participant recognized he was strict with his children in the same way his parents had been strict with him and over the same exact issues. Another participant reflected the opposite: He was completely laissez-faire with his own children for the behaviors for which he had been punished.
The first father was unconsciously repeating the pattern set down in his childhood; the second unconsciously rebelled and went in the other direction, a flip-flop of values and behaviors. Both realized they could do with some reevaluating of their reactions and see whether they were acting in accord with their own actual principles, and if some middle ground would be more appropriate.
How do we become more separate and at the same time stay connected? Many people focus on the child separating, but it seems equally relevant that the parents deal with their own issues and difficulties with separation. Part of the challenge is to keep close but not too close, or not in the same way as before. How do we find the way to truly support our children's autonomy?
How do we transition from a parent-child relationship to an adult-adult relationship with our children? How do we let ourselves mourn the end of the old relationship so that the new one can be formed? At the end of the documentary film "The Kids Grow Up," the father narrates over footage of him and his daughter. He sees "two grown-ups having a conversation, one of many to come in the years ahead." This signals a new level of acceptance of how things will be.
And further still, do we need to come to terms with our existential aloneness? Beyond personal psychology, there is the reality that we are born alone and die alone. With our children growing up, we can also be hit with the realization that we, too, are growing older and we have less psychological buffer from the reality that we are going to die. Some people find spiritual, emotional or philosophical resolutions to these issues.
If you are a person facing an empty nest, what are your pertinent questions? What possible self-understanding is this transition asking of you?
Marla Estes will lead a discussion after the showing of the film "The Kids Grow Up" from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, in the Meese Room on the third floor of the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. Cost is $10 to $20 on a sliding scale. All proceeds will benefit the Ashland Independent Film Festival. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-482-4948.
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