The empty nest. The empty home. The empty heart. I seem to be hyper-focusing on this subject and yet this summer season, it seems to be omnipresent. I once again refer to
my bible Facebook where I saw many of my friends talk about their kids’ first summer at sleep-away camp (my Northern roots had me calling it “overnight” camp, yet down in these parts of the MidAtlantic, it seems to have morphed into sleep-away camp). Whether they are 7-9 or older tweens or teens, it is still hard (mostly for the parents) to have that first extended period of time away from home.
The FB pages showed happy kids getting on buses and waving good-bye while the parents lament their departure. The following day (or that evening, if they were lucky) those same parents were posting the pictures of their kids that the camp had uploaded. “Does she look happy?” “I think that is a smile” was the caption du jour. Today, just 3 days after the ‘great departure’, I read that two parents had received that first letter home; luckily BOTH of these letters confirmed the happiness that the parents were so hoping for.
Whether it’s a week long scouting camp, a 4 day soccer camp or some other combination of weeks of an all-around summer camp, we want our kids to thrive, have fun and learn some skills. We want them to get a sense of independence, build positive relationships both with their peers and counselors and learn a thing or two about tennis, pottery or pitching a tent.
So, what’s a mom to do when she can hear the silence in her house? notes that the mess that she cleaned up in the morning remains in tact by nightfall or yearns for a hug from her child? What about when she sees that man in the kitchen that she realizes is the guy she married 10+ years ago? Some moms do the happy dance and relish in their free time while still missing their happy campers, but many parents, particularly mothers, experience a profound sense of emptiness. Their identity as a mom has become their sole identity; the status of woman or wife slipped away amidst the diapers and backpacks.
This is that part again when I talk to my clients about filling up themselves and taking care of their needs as individuals and as couples. I feel it is really important to have a sense of self: who you are, what you like/dislike and what brings you joy aside from just where your daughter dances or what your son gets on his report card. It makes for a better parent to have the appropriate boundaries that separate the you from your kids. Kids like that their parents have interests and hobbies. They can feel overwhelmed if their parents are too enmeshed in their own lives. I have had teen clients that want their parents to “get a life”, in other words, develop their own personal activities that enable them to grow as a person rather than simply as a parent. It is great to be the band parent, but being the chaperone for every band trip can rob your child of some independence and autonomy.
If you find that you are pacing around the playroom while your child is safely ensconced in his bunk this summer, it is time to put the focus back on you. Take a class, join a group, or call a friend. There is this great site called Meetup that connects people that have common interests who live in the same area, the offerings are endless. I have some friends that go out almost every night after work when their kids are at camp. They go to free concerts, museums, not necessarily big ticket items, they just get out and remember that they are a couple. I know many couples that take their own vacation while the kids are at camp. Many times we forget that we were adults before we were parents, the parenting thing just came in and swept us up.
Imagine the stories you can share with the kids when they come back and tell you about every last bunk raid and Color War? They may be quite surprised to learn that mom and dad had as much fun, while still missing them, this summer as they did.
I recently moved into this office and had great fun decorating it. I spent a lot of time thinking about the space I wanted to create. I wanted it to feel peaceful, but not boring; I wanted it to be a comfortable and safe place for my clients as they engage in the important therapeutic work that is accomplished during therapy sessions. I have to admit that I am really pleased with the results, so pleased that that my inner geek has taken photos to show off my digs.
I hope you enjoyed my little tour of 461 Carlisle Drive in Herndon. It’s such a nice spot that I just had to share it. I feel really grateful to do the work I do in this little cozy nook of our wacky world.
In between seeing clients on Thursday, I hopped over to Facebook to see what was going on in my little world (as opposed to those who click on US News and World Report to see what is going on in the big world). There were many high school graduations in Fairfax County on Thursday and I was treated to numerous photos of young adults that I have known since they were toddlers donning their caps and gowns. I was also aware that several of my clients were
missing their therapy appointments graduating that day and I found myself feeling very emotional.
High School graduation is a pivotal time. I have likened it with parents of clients to jumping off a diving board. Will their child dive in gracefully, belly flop or, like most kids, land somewhere in between with a clean dive, but still getting a little water up the nose ?
The graduate is facing one of his or her first major decisions of life. From ages 5-18, every September the child grabs a backpack and goes off to school. There is no question, it is the law and it is what is done. The September following high school graduation poses many options: school or work, what kind of school, job possibilities, what state to live in, dorm or home, roommates or parents (ha), the list is endless. What used to be simply a question of peanut butter and jelly or turkey and mayo is now an important decision with longterm effects. The weight of these decisions and subsequent effects can bring on anxiety for many of these young graduates.
The family also has growing pains upon graduation. The parents are watching their baby become independent, move out of the home and realize that clean laundry doesn’t just happen. They are often thrilled to get the ornery teenager out of the house while still yearning to tuck him in at night. The parents and child must figure out how to negotiate new norms : how often do we call, visit, text? What if he gets sick or she runs out of money? I worked with a mother of a freshman who literally drove 3 hours to her daughter’s school several times a month, slept in the daughter’s dorm room and was completely enmeshed in the new romantic relationship (e.g. texting the new boyfriend and knowing WAY too much about their physical relationship). I tried to help the mother build some boundaries into her relationship with her daughter while also helping her with her grief; the loss of having her little girl need her as the mommy she so desperately wanted to be. It can be quite a painful process to let go both of the graduate and the identity that surrounds the early parenting years.
Siblings often struggle silently. There is so much attention on the graduate and the parents’ empty-nest that we forget that the younger sibling is also saying goodbye. As much as they fight, they are still siblings and share the common link of
hating sharing their parents and understanding the subtleties of the family; no one knows your family and/or your parents like your siblings do. I have one client tell me repeatedly that when her brother went to college she lost someone with whom to “diss on mom”. Another client shared that he became the center of attention when his sister left for school. Every grade, forgotten chore or misbehavior was under scrutiny because he was, as I like to say “the only fish left in the fishbowl” with parents watching from every angle.
As I witness my clients and their families buy the linens, pick their roommates and say good-byes during the summer after graduation, I leave them with my tell-tale speech: College is an amazing journey; you will meet fantastic people, have wonderful opportunities and go to a party or two, but YOU HAVE TO GO TO CLASS, the attendance officer is staying at high school. College is both a privilege and a responsibility . I have had many a client wind up back on my couch after first semester with a pile of F’s, a drinking problem and looking for a job.
My intention is not to portray the gloom and doom of graduation. It is a tremendously exciting time with a great deal of joy. My goal is to identify some of the the problem areas so that if you find that you or your family are struggling with a glitch or two, it is completely normal. These feelings and struggles happen to everyone, thus the tears at graduation, it is part of the package.
To the graduates and their families: CONGRATULATIONS! This is a wonderful time. I wish you the gift of being present for the ride: the ups, the downs and the in-betweens.
Welcome to this corner of my website.
I am starting a blog to share some of my thoughts, insights and wisdom on therapy and my therapy practice. I hope to enlighten readers with articles, relevant posts that I happen upon or any other tid bits of information that strike me as something worthy of sharing. I hope that you will check back often and provide me with thoughts, comments or feedback that could enhance this blog.
Before going any further, this is my big disclaimer: I AM NOT A WRITER.
I enjoy writing, I have been told I “give good email” and I find writing to be a wonderfully therapeutic tool. I have often found myself writing when I come upon an emotional hurdle that I can’t seem to overcome. The words flow, the emotions roll onto the paper (or screen in modern day) and I often find answers that I didn’t expect to find; the beauty is that the answers came simply by writing, pouring out my thoughts and feelings.
Have I found my perfect happy place from this journaling? Not necessarily, but often I find that there is some relief, a more clear picture and a peace that I wasn’t feeling prior to writing.
I’d like to urge you to give it a try. Prompts that have been suggested to me throughout the years have been:
1. Put a word on top of the page. It can be related to something or someone that is troubling you, or a random feeling that has been gnawing at you. Then write. Try to write for 15 minutes. Write whatever comes to mind about that word. Spelling, punctuation, proper sentences are of no matter, simply write. See what comes out, I guarantee there will be something that you discover that you didn’t know was there.
2. Where do I see myself in 5 years? 10 years? 15 years?
3. I am feeling ___________ because____________. Go!
Have fun, dig deep and most of all be kind to yourself.