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"Without a Life" After Kids are Grown

QUESTION: Things change in a marriage after raising children for many years. I think it was once called the 20 year fracture! My husband and I made the mistake of giving our entire beings to our children. I was a stay at home Mom and now find myself without a life. Literally, I don't know how to get the joy back I once had. I don't feel good about myself at all. I know what I should do, but I can't seem to get myself going. My husband has his career and I feel left behind. I'm stuck and it affects my marriage in a big way. I still have a highschool junior at home, but he needs his independence and I need a life of my own. What to do?

Your feeling of "being without a life" now that your children are leaving home is not simply due to being a stay at home Mom. I have had a career throughout raising my children and when both of my children left for college, I felt a huge hole in my life. In the two years following their departure I felt lost and somewhat aimless even though I loved my work!

You have spent 20 years in a primary nurturing role in the family. Because you have done such a terrific job, your children are striking out on their own. You recognize this and support it, but it does leave a void in your life to fill.

Being in touch with your children's needs on a daily basis, loving them and caring for them is a vitally important part of life as a mother, whether you work outside the home or not. The nurturing you give also nourishes and rewards you in the circle of that love. Living together is an intimate connection we take for granted. Grieving their daily presence is natural and inevitable if you have connected deeply. Other feelings of joy, relief and pleasure related to this change may also occur. However the overall adjustment is one of loss for the daily intimacy and structure in your life that having children at home provides.

Family life gives us a way to organize our lives. And healthy family relationships require that you derive meaning from being involved in your children's lives. This is what gives them the sustenance to become independent. You cannot protect yourself from this loss. If you've done your job well, you will hurt! But the good news is that your life will also change and evolve. You are entering a life transition and it feels like one, with all the ambiguity and uncertainty that is a part of a major life change. Transitions by nature are "liminal". That is, they are without form, literally taken from the Latin to mean "on the threshold" between things.

Murray Stein in his book, "In Midlife" describes liminality to be a period of "unformedness" likened to being the elements of life before life itself is created. It is a time before creativity, but essential to the birth of new forms. A place of the "naked soul". Despair and a sense of emptiness are common reactions while traveling through transitions of any kind. But it is also a place of struggle towards the birth of a new form of identity.

You are in the family life cycle stage of "launching children". Talk with your husband about mourning this change in the structure of life you have shared together for so long. He is bound to have feelings about children being gone from the home as well. Share your grieving even though it will be different for each of you. One of the tasks of this period is the re-negotiation of the couples' relationship. Emotional support from your husband is important now. Spend time together. Take walks or do things you may not have been able to do because of the demands of raising children. Weekends away are important. Getting reacquainted to one another without the interaction of the children between you will help to establish a new kind of relationship. Start courting each other again. And don't be surprised if you feel shy or awkward at first.

Using the support of husband and friends can be the spring board to exploring new interests and activities or rekindle old interests left behind in the process of raising a family. The fact that you know what to do, but just can't seem to get yourself to do it is an indication that you are mourning. Allow yourself a period of mourning as a part of this transition. When you acknowledge your grief as appropriate and a natural part of life change, you will be less likely to blame yourself for past choices. You are not hurting because you were a stay at home Mom. You are grieving because you love and have cared for your children well and now need to let go.

Turn all of the loving care you have given to others on yourself now. This may be an excellent time to engage in some personal therapy or marital therapy to get support in exploring your options. A woman's support group may also serve you during this transition. It usually takes about two years to reestablish structure in your life, so be patient. You will not always feel this way and each day, week and month will lighten your sorrow and consolidate your new sense of self, including rewarding adult relationships with your grown children.

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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