By Laura Owens
Your baby is growing up. She’s changing and most likely — so are you.
In what seems like mere moments, your little one moves from your arms, to confidently waving goodbye, to a moody middle-schooler, soon she’ll be stressing about her driver’s license, prom and SATs.
Next stop? Out the door and farther away from fully needing you.
Every milestone in our children’s lives can be an emotional turning point in our own, constantly ping ponging between feeling proud of our kids, and experiencing a genuine sense of loss as they leap forward.
Each new responsibility they conquer is one more task we finally get to let go and yet – its one more thing we have to let go. As our children grow-up our role in their lives changes and we begin to feel the slightest shift deep into our cells. Our identity, once so intertwined with theirs, gradually begins to reshape itself.
Ann Pleshette-Murphy, author of The Seven Stages of Motherhood [Macmillan,2005] suggests that the ages and stages during motherhood force women to re-think their lives, identity, relationships, choices and goals. Regularly noticing how we feel as our children get older can help emotionally anchor us (and our partner) for the final stage – empty nest.
The Seven Stages of Motherhood
New Moms: The First 12 months
Parenting educator Jan Faull refers to this as the “parent on call” stage. As mothers respond to their baby’s every need they soon neglect their own. This can be a pivotal time in a couple’s life as they reorient their relationship, responsibilities and expectations.
This stage can be a key launching pad for new moms to adopt an attitude that her needs matter as much as her family’s. While this might sound unrealistic with a baby who needs you 24/7, starting your parenting life with a mindset that your identity and needs are separate but equal to your kids and spouse, paves the way for a healthy family balance.
Toddler Years: Age 1 and 2
This is a push-pull time for mothers. Separation anxiety and tantrums mark a stage filled with mixed signals and high emotion. As toddlers become more independent, mothers realize they can’t always control or protect their increasingly active child.
Depression rates are twice as high among women with toddlers and many moms during this stage, begin to question their parental prowess. “We all hold on to unrealistic expectations of seamless transitions,” admits Pleshette-Murphy.
Pre-school to School Ages 3 to 6
As pre-schooler and kindergarten children become a little more independent parents sometimes forget that kids at this age are still emotionally demanding. Parents and children simultaneously let go and yet, reflexively grasp for each other.
As children enter school the separation can bring up feelings of ambivalence in mothers, particularly for those at home full-time. Because while this stage can feel somewhat liberating, for some it can feel as if their mom cord has been forcefully ripped away.
I suggest mothers always nurture their “non-parent” identity with date nights, time with friends, a part-time job, a new career, classes, a hobby, putting at least some priority on fostering parts of their identity outside of mothering.
Pre-Tween: Gradually Pulling Away Ages 6 to 10
During this time moms may begin to treat their children more and more as an individual. Pleshette-Murphy suggests this period is a “motherhood midpoint of sorts” as women begin to sense that their role in their child’s life is slightly diminishing.
For years I met mothers who told me, “I’ll have time to focus on me when my kids start school.” But the thing is, you never go away, the kids do, and who is left is a woman wondering who she is.
Try to fit yourself into your own life from day one, long before your kids enter school. This teaches your kids (and you) that while they are deeply loved and valued, you also honor and respect your own identity and your own (and your spouse’s) needs.
Tween Gray Zone: Ages 10 to 13
Pleshette-Murphy calls this time the “Gray Zone” because one day a tried and true parenting approach works wonders with your child, on the next day it’s a total disaster. Similar to the toddler/pre-school years, only with hormones and an advancing vocabulary, pre-teens reaching for independence can become volatile and engage their parents in endless no-win battles.
And like toddler time, there’s a constant push-pull, says Pleshette-Murphy. “When she stands with one foot in childhood and the other in early adulthood, and struggles to maintain her balance, the person she will grab onto with a desperate, clawing intensity is you.”
Teens Getting Ready To Go: Ages 13 to 18
As the empty nest approaches we see the horizon of our “second life.” This has been a particularly bittersweet time for me as my daughter turned 14. I’ve been struck by the intensity of emotion as I look back and then think forward to how our lives will be different when she’s out of the house. I’ve long since forged my identity with my child and separate from her and feel firmly rooted in myself, yet I still have abrupt pangs of loss.
Pleshette-Murphy writes of this time, “In the process you will have re-shaped not only your relationship with your child but your identity as well. Trying to figure out who you are with your adolescent children will trigger feelings of resentment, loss, panic, and anger – but also joy.”
This can be a major turning point for couples. Years back I met a woman in my mom’s group who was a therapist. She told me she saw mostly empty-nest couples in her office because when the kids left home, very often the parents felt like strangers, their relationship long anchored by their children’s needs.
At every stage of our children’s lives, as we celebrate and yet mourn the loss of their innocence we can re-evaluate our identity and relationships. At each touch point as we prepare our children to confidently move out into the world, so too can we prepare ourselves — to reenter our own.
Laura Owens is a professional writer with a B.S. degree in Psychology. She attended Rollins College and University of Florida. Laura’s work covers alternative medicine, psychology, social trends, motherhood, women’s issues and personal empowerment. Her articles and insights stem from extensively reviewing medical research and from her own experience in successfully creating personal wellness for more than a decade.