Interview with Carin Rubenstein, author of Beyond the Mommy Years: How to Live Happily Ever After... After the Kids Leave Home
Dr. Carin Rubenstein offers helpful insight into how to thrive during the "empty nest" years.
Commitment: Beyond the Mommy Years is a really interesting book about women redefining themselves after their grown children leave home. According to your book, this is a stage of life to be embraced. Yet, most of us are nervous about this stage. How can women best prepare themselves to make the most of the post-mommy years?
Dr. Carin Rubenstein: Mothers must prepare themselves for growing beyond the mommy years by finding a fulfilling and engaging life before their children leave home—one that goes beyond the needs and desires and interests of the kids. This might sound difficult—especially if you have babies or toddlers—but it actually becomes easier and easier as the years pass. You need to find something, anything really, that defines you other than motherhood. It could be working for pay, or volunteering, or creating, or anything that will give you an enhanced and enlarged sense of yourself after you are no longer Mom First. And, after all, isn’t that the whole point of raising children? To watch them grow to maturity and teach them independence and self-sufficiency?
Commitment: Based on your research, what rituals seem to ease the transition for both parent and child when grown children leave home?
Dr. Carin: Children and parents who are used to lengthy separations do best when children leave for college. That means parents who sent their kids to sleepaway camp are used to having empty bedrooms, at least for a few summers. But the best way to ease the transition is for children to be happy wherever they are—in college, at work, in the Armed Forces. A contented child makes for a contented mommy, even if that child is almost grown.
Commitment: A friend of yours doesn't like the phrase “empty nest” because it sounds like “emptiness.” Do most women view their lives as empty after their kids leave home?
Dr. Carin: The only women who view their lives as empty after the kids leave are those who are unable to define themselves as anyone other than Mother. Women who put their husband first, for example, who think of themselves first as a Wife, and then as a Mother, are in much better shape to carry on with life after their kids leave. So are women who have an engaging career or a worthwhile cause. But women whose entire sense of self revolves around their children and being a mother tend to have a difficult time once that role has been put on the back burner.
Commitment: It seems that after one's children leave home is a perfect time for a woman to start thinking about herself. But how can moms who have spent years putting their children's needs first, suddenly transfer to a “My Turn Now” mentality?
Dr. Carin: Simple. They should stop putting their children’s needs first all day, every day, at least after the children reach the age of five. Or even ten. How about fifteen? At some point, surely once the teen years begin, children do not benefit by having family life revolve around their needs and wishes and desires. Mothers must develop a “My Turn Now” mentality, at least some of the time, long before their kids leave home.
Commitment: You divide moms into two categories, “Confronters” and “Deniers” based on how they handle the departure of their grown children. How do strategies for successfully sending a child off into the world and still living a rich life differ for each type of woman?
Dr. Carin: Women who confront their problems and fears tend to do much better when they face the major life change that involves the departure of the youngest child. And make no mistake: this change is surely as drastic and as life-changing as the one that involved welcoming a first-born child. Sometimes, women who deny emotional troubles and pains get by in the short-term, because denial helps them function day to day. Still, it’s crucial that by the age of 45 or 50, mothers meet their new self head-on, and acknowledge that they are still mothers, but they have been downsized from that full-time job. They must confront and accept the fact that they have gone beyond the mommy years.
Commitment: You break down the post-motherhood launch into three stages: 1) grief; 2) relief; 3) joy. Do all women reach stage 3? What advice do you have for women stuck in stage 1?
Dr. Carin: A few women stay stuck in the grief stage, and they are almost always women who define themselves first, last and always as mothers. They are almost in a kind of culture shock when they face the reality of life as a distant mom, one whose children no longer live at home. Those who are seriously stuck here may actually be suffering from depression. Think of it as a very very postpartum depression. For mothers to move on from this stage, it’s crucial that they figure out a way to launch themselves into the world, in the same way that their children are being launched. They must find a purpose in life other than motherhood—a job or a cause or a faith or a true love—something by which they can derive a sense of purpose and meaning.
Commitment: Is there a difference in how working moms and stay at home moms react to their children's leaving home?
Dr. Rubenstein: I think it may be slightly easier for working mothers to adjust to their children’s departure, but only if they have work that they enjoy. A mother with a career or a job that gives her a sense of identity has a big advantage over a mother whose entire purpose in life is caring for and about children.
Commitment: When grown children leave home, it is often just a woman and her husband left at home. You devote an entire chapter to “Making or Breaking a Marriage.” How does the sudden absence of children at home affect a marriage?
Dr. Rubenstein: Suddenly, it’s just the two of you again, staring at each other over the otherwise empty dinner table. You can ignore your problems or hide from them or pretend they aren’t there. If you’ve always had a vibrant, attentive relationship, you’ll be fine. If not, you may be in for some rough times ahead.
Commitment: How can single moms best handle an empty nest?
Dr. Carin: Actually, single moms might be better equiped to handle the empty nest than other moms, especially if they’ve shared custody with a former spouse. If so, they’re used to having the children gone for weekends and parts of summers, which can make this transition easier.
Commitment: Some women are faced with a double whammy: menopause hits just as their children leave home. How does menopause effect the post-Mommy Years?
Dr. Carin: In some ways, menopause can be a blessing in disguise, since it forces a woman to focus on herself. A sweating, flashing mother on a hormonal roller coaster can’t spend too much energy mourning the disappearance of her kids, since she’s got to figure out how to get herself back on track . Although it may seem like a double whammy—being menopausal and emptying your nest all at the same time—this can actually be a good thing.
Commitment: You refer to “the saving grace of girlfriends”. How important are friendships in the period beyond the Mommy Years?
Dr. Carin: Friends are a lifeline to another, richer part of life, especially if they are friends that you have chosen, instead of the mothers of your children’s friends. Women often sacrifice their own friendships for the sake of their children, socializing only with the parents of their children’s friends, because they have each other’s kids in common. This might be fine while the kids are home, but such connections tend to fade once the kids are gone. That’s why it’s a great idea for moms to maintain their friendships over the years. Once the children leave home, there is more time and more energy to invest in these precious ties.
Commitment: Based on your research, what are the keys to living a rich and fulfilling life in the period after the Mommy Years?
Dr. Carin: Well, for that, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the book!
Carin Rubenstein holds a Ph.D. in social/personality psychology from New York University. She has written several books, including IN SEARCH OF INTIMACY, a book about loneliness in America, as well as THE SACRIFICIAL MOTHER, about what happens to women when they give up too much of themselves for their children. She has also been a journalist, writing for many women's magazines, and for a local edition of The New York Times. She has discussed her work on many national television and radio shows, including “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “The View,” and “Oprah.” Her blog, www.tivolady.com, is about entertainment - television, books, movies - from a boomer point of view.
Dr. Carin is married to David, and has two children, Rachel and Jonathan. She also has a dog, a Jack Russell terrier, named Kippy. She lives in Westchester County, New York.
For more information on Carin Rubenstein and Beyond the Mommy Years, visit her website at www.drcarin.com.
To purchase Beyond the Mommy Years, click here.