Moving on, from mom to mentor
Saturday, Dec. 8
Photo by Brand X Pictures
By Carol A. Hawker
Special to The Times-Democrat
There is a stage in the lives of mothers for which no one really prepares us.
Sure, we have all heard stories of empty nesters, both those who are happy to have their children launched, and those who are struggling with life when full-time parenthood is behind them.
Each of us makes this journey differently. But no one actually teaches us about navigating this huge life transition.
There are thousands of books, classes and well-meaning friends and family to help us through the transition into parenting. But how to get out of the active parenting role and move to the next phase? Not so much.
I have found over many years of working with individuals and couples in a counseling setting that the transition from full-time parenting is one with which many mothers struggle.
The degree of difficulty with this life transition and whether it is positive transition or one with many obstac les to overcome is related to several variables. Most important is how well balanced a mother’s life has been throughout the parenting process.
Although we all know how much time, effort and energy it takes to be a good parent, have we also learned to set aside time to take care of ourselves, physically and emotionally, as well as we have taken care of our children?
This, of course, means drawing personal boundaries so that as our children and partner’s needs are met, ours are met, as well.
I have counseled countless mothers who feel guilty about taking any time away from their families to pursue their own interests, activities, or even personal errands.
I find that, surprisingly, quite a few mothers are troubled with a degree of guilt that they are not living up to the ideal of the 1950s mother: totally and completely at the helm of all family responsibilities, whether they work outside the home or not.
You probably ask how could mothers in 2012 even know about a womans role in the 50s?
Isn’t it interesting how roles and expectations are passed down from generation to generation, sometimes without a word spoken?
Of course, we now recognize that this model did little to promote a woman’s sense of self, as separate from her jobs as wife and mother. Then along came the women’s movement of the 60s, and, with the painful and sometimes confusing evolution of our roles as not only mothers, but also as more independent women, we began to look at possible opportunities beyond the scope of our jobs as mothers.
Even though young women today are pursuing careers or activities in a wide array of fields, I continue to find this emotional conflict still has a stronghold on many young mothers today.
Child rearing can be an all-consuming job; there is no end to the tasks to be done. Once we accept this truth, we need to make more of an effort to block some time for ourselves, time we can use to continue to learn and grow to prepare for our lives once our children leave home.
Another critical variable in navigating the empty nest successfully is a concept I call “Active” vs. “Inactive” parenting. This has been a useful way to assist mothers to begin to understand the natural and healthy transition of their role in their children’s lives.
It is extremely difficult to move from being responsible for every aspect of a young child’s safety and well being to learning to parent a teen whose developmental stage includes pushing boundaries to, eventually, guiding our children as they move into young adulthood and work to find their place in the world.
This healthy transition can only happen if we step back in our parenting, trust what we have taught our children, and begin to take on a more passive or “inactive” role in their decision making.
Just what does good, healthy parenting mean?
It is not just making sure our children have their immunizations, eat balanced meals , and complete their homework. It is also preparing our c hildren for the hard work it takes to become confident and competent individuals on their own.
Raising a competent child means giving children the freedom to make choices of their own, succeed on their own, and, yes, fail on their own.
We all know that, unfortunately, the most valuable lessons we experience in life are how to recover, learn from, and grow from our mistakes.
After a job well done, it is time to let our children manage their lives on their own with our continued guidance, should they request it.
The problem I most often encounter with women experiencing the transition from active to inactive parenting, is the mindset that a good mother is ever present and always on call.
It is my experience in working with adolescent and young adult children that, as they mature, they develop a keen appreciation for a parent who trusts them to tackle their own problems and encourages them to find their own solutions.
An added benefit of creating an enjoyable, productive life away from parenting is that it makes the transition from “mommy” to mentor possible.
It is critical for us to ensure our children know we trust them and we are always available for advice; a mentor, of sorts.
There is nothing more satisfying than seeing your children learn from their mistakes, and use that wisdom to make more thoughtful decisions in the future and, finally, to know the joy of taking responsibility for their success.
Throughout this entire process, your children can be secure in the knowledge that you are always available for a “consult.”
It is not unusual for me to find that women negotiating this transition, whether they are conscious of it or not, fear that as their c hildren launch, they will be left without a purpose or a defined role in life.
There are several factors, I believe, critical in making this not only a smooth transition, but an exciting one, as well.
It is important that we develop activities and interests to pursue while our children are young.
I have been known to write out a prescription for young mothers to take several hours a week away from their c hildren and partners to attend a class, taking riding lessons, or to have a lunch or dinner date with girlfriends.
Somehow, if I hand them a prescription as a homework assignment, they feel they have permission to pursue these activities.
Write yourself a prescription, change your routine, renew your energy and work to reclaim the person you were before you became a mother.
This attention to your individual spirit now will determine the woman you will be after your parenting job is finished. An added benefit is that children and their fathers or other caretakers have more one on one time to strengthen their bond.
We all know that when we are around, we are the default. Give dad, grandma or grandpa or your best girlfriend a chance to be the “go to” guy.
Next, it is important in making the inevitable transition from active parenting a pleasurable process is to nurture your adult relationships.
Marriages as well as friendships cannot be put on the back burner indefinitely. Once children are out of the home, relationships, particularly marriages, without common interests, activities or goals tend to wither and die.
I once had a couple come into therapy and state that in 18 years they had never been away overnight from their children.
They were quite proud of this fact, but failed to see that this complete focus on their children to the exclusion of all other relationships and personal activities was, at least, partially responsible for their daughter’s eating disorder, their son’s anxiety, and the ambivalence they felt about being together on their own.
To enjoy the wonderful years after parenting, we need to develop and maintain a separate life as partners, and not just co-parents.
This life transition, while a major change in women’s lives, can also be an exciting time of increased freedom, exploration and excitement.
If we have done a good job parenting, the time will come, ready or not, when our children will no longer need us. Prepare to be as proactive for yourself as you have been for your children.
To create a sense of self through the child-rearing years brings a huge, benefit not only to ourselves, but also to our partners and our children.
I have witnessed young adults, time and again, regaling me with stories of their admiration for a mother who had just earned a college degree, opened a new business, or expressed excitement in exploring a new activity.
Marriages, too, take on a new and interesting dimension, one that has been suppressed as the needs of our children become a priority.
Women who create active and interesting lives in whic h they continue to learn and grow, appear to have a much easier time transitioning into the next, and sometimes most interesting, phase of their lives.
Hawker is a licensed professional counselor who has recently opened a practice in Warrenton.