What Life-Stage and Family System Issues Does a Couple Face after Their Last Child Has Left Home?
Children leaving the family home carry with it the potential for considerable disruption. Contradictorily, not only are there concerns for trauma to the family unit, but also hopeful expectations for the future. Galinsky identifies this as the “departure stage.” She states: “Parents take stock of the whole experience of parenthood. They have the related tasks of preparing for the departure, then adjusting their images of this event with what actually happens, redefining their identities as parents with grown-up children, and measuring out their accomplishments and failures.”
Here are three family systems issues the couple might be facing:
1. Adapting to the departure. Exactly when “departure” occurs can be ambiguous. In many cases it occurs when a child leaves for college. Depending on e.g. geographical considerations departure may be a sharp cleaving off of personal contact such as saying “goodbye” for a final time. On the other hand it may be more of an on-going process if college is nearby and the child lives at home or comes home for the weekend.
Under either scenario there is a loosening of parental bonds. The child not only becomes more capable of caring for herself/himself but also increasingly asserts her/his independence and autonomy. This creates a reciprocal chasm in the parents’ conceptual space; every square the child vacates must be filled in by some other form of meaning-conferring activity. As a result the parental unit must redefine its personal identity, from primarily “caretaker” or “nurturer” to “supporter,” frequently at long distance. This in turn can create turmoil and instability in the parental unit as the parents reexamine who they are and how they fit together. If for example the “parents have stayed together for the sake of the kids” and “the kids are gone,” then a significant rationale for the ongoing maintenance of their relationship suddenly vanishes.
From a therapeutic standpoint this requires counseling as to the meaning of departure (what it is for someone to depart); the strength of remaining bonds (the extent to which the child still depends on the parent, e.g. for financial support); and the structural integrity of the inter-couple relationship.
2. A second concern is changing self-image within the parental dyad. The mother, for example, may have devoted most of her life to taking care of the children. She has defined herself in terms of their interests and activities. She may have been their source of transportation and supplying basic personal needs such as meals and clothing. She may have been a trusted confidant or taken pride in her children’s accomplishments. She may have developed social friendships as a result of child-oriented activities, e.g. meeting other mothers at after-school events and becoming part of a social circle. These rationales and underpinnings dissolve once the children depart the family “nest.” She literally will have to redefine who she is and the substantive content of her self. If she opens the cupboard of her self and the cupboard is bare (because she cannot find anything she is interested in) then psychological crisis is likely to ensue.
At the same time the parents may be bombarded by disconcerting images concerning the safety and well-being of the child. They may imagine the child no longer needs them; that the child has left for good and no longer will return; that the child is vulnerable and may be injured, get sick, or even die. They may be concerned whether the child will develop the capacity to take care of them as they age. They may idealize the parent-child relationship, both overlooking its structural infirmities and over-emphasizing any perceived weaknesses. These imaginal concepts may be sketchy, promoting a mentality of “filling in the blanks,” often with worst-case scenarios. They may be empty, leading to feelings of failure and lack of fulfillment.
From a therapeutic standpoint this requires counseling to discern where one’s interests truly lie (what one is interested in doing now that the children no longer are there as a primary focus of activity, what one’s future goals are); the steps one must take in order to re-tool to meet new objectives; and creation of an actionable, operationalized plan to press forward and realize these outcomes.
3. Another major concern is loss of control. As a species the human child is uniquely dependent on its parents for nurturing and sustenance, not just in infancy but also through adolescence and into young adulthood. Initially the child’s needs are simple – for food, shelter and protection. They become more nuanced however as the child progresses to school age and then onwards. As the child develops her/his own identity the parents necessarily must adapt to redefine their own. Metaphorically this process resembles the changing boundaries of a borderline – or a zone of truce. The parents’ original “parenting style” will undergo significant change. For example while an “authoritarian” style may have worked when the children are pre-teens, college-age children leaving home simply will ignore it.
This loss of control, complementing the child’s evolution of an independent identity, can be disconcerting. Images of the past when the children were young and dependent may come to predominate. It is likely the child has evolved to the point where its interests no longer coincide with those of the parents, possibly even to the point where the parents can’t recognize who the child is or what are the child’s primary concerns. The parents may be uncomfortable with the prospect of becoming grandparents or living with diversity, e.g. if the child selects a mate of a different race or SES (or even gender). The parents might be attempted to reassert themselves by e.g. conditioning financial support – a tactic with significant potential to be counter-productive and result in a build-up of animosity rather than a new form of love and mutual respect. From a therapeutic standpoint this requires counseling to discern the power dynamics of the family relationship; issues of separateness and connectedness; accepting the grown child’s separate identity; systems of rewards and punishments; who’s in control and the reasons why; and how these structures must evolve to accommodate the family’s changed circumstances.