This September my daughters left for their first term at university. They are twins so milestones arrive in duplicate. No dipping toes into changing family dynamics for me; it’s a head first dive into an empty nest situation, and it has churned up a lot of emotions. Will the loss of my ‘mum’ identity mirror the kicking and screaming of my younger self as I was dragged in to motherhood 20 years ago? Can I step back into the pre-child version of me or is she lost forever? Am I equipped to navigate this time of change and uncertainty?
Luckily the answer to that last one is, hopefully, yes. Positive Psychology has offered me some tools that come into their own when life gets uncertain. That doesn’t mean the sea doesn’t get choppy it’s just I am more confident in my ability to float, perhaps even swim.
So today, Day 2 in a childless house, my chest is tight. It feels like there is a tangled knot of something stuck there and unpicking the mess of feelings may just help me digest the whole. So here is what I have learnt about transitions, emotions and resilience.
This season of change is bittersweet. Positive and negative emotions are jumbled together and hard to separate. The aim is to acknowledge these, trying to discern them as clearly as I can, without assigning judgements like ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
For me, there is pride in my daughters’ success in their exams and excitement as they move towards adulthood but there is also sadness, loss, regret and emptiness. I accept I will be feeling these things for a while. There is nothing wrong with that, in fact, there is a lot right with it. ‘Second Wave’ positive psychology highlights the purpose to be found in negative emotions (Lomas & Ivtzan, 2016). By acknowledging them rather than denying them we can consider where they stem from and what they have to teach us. I notice a sense of grief that resonates with losing my father. Some of my sorrow is connected to that more permanent farewell and not about my girls leaving. This is an important distinction because it helps me keep a more balanced perspective. I am a great catastrophiser so the sense of loss might otherwise lend fuel to feelings of panic that I am not there to protect and reassure.
If, as the weeks go by, you do find yourself in a deepening cycle of negative feelings then Fredrickson and co. (2010) have found that positive emotions help undo negative emotions by broadening our thinking, offering a way to boost us back out of a low mood. Do some things you enjoy and keep a written or mental checklist of the good feelings each day. This focus on and savouring of the positive offers a helpful counterbalance.
Happy memories are great but there needs to be balance and that is not always easy! Keep present but don’t make yourself over busy to mask the pain. Indulge in fond memories whilst not wallowing in the past. Make plans for the future but don’t use these as excuses to run away from our emotions. It can seem like a minefield and there is no perfect formula. Try not to get overly biased to one-time perspective, shifting your focus between the past, present and future. Set aside time to enjoy happy memories, then move on with your day.
If you are prone to focusing on the not-so-good memories then practice holding some compassion for your situation. The children leaving home can bring up all kinds of regrets and doubts about the relationship but this is a change, not an ending. How I am with my children will continue to grow and evolve. We all have things we wish we had done better, conversations that could have been handled differently. Remember you are not alone and be gentle with yourself.
Remember also to acknowledge and celebrate your success. Equipping our offspring to navigate adulthood independently was always the goal. There has been a lot of celebration in our house but much has been about the children and we sometimes forget to consider our own achievements as a parent. Give yourself some space for this. Modern society can fall short when it comes to useful rites of passage so find your own way to mark this close of a chapter.
Knocks to our identity are especially difficult. I find myself wondering who I am if I am not a mother. Okay, I know I still am one, but the day-to-day level of active care has mostly passed. I’m more of a telephone advice line now.
There’s nothing like raising children for keeping you so busy that you don’t have to think about yourself, your direction in life and what you want. There seems to be a window in the diary for that now. Several windows in fact. There are no more excuses, no one else to blame, and that can be daunting. I need a new source of meaning and purpose in life and this is where reframing helps. I plan to use this change as an opportunity to focus consciously on the next stage of my journey. This calls for some introspection, some journalling, some soul searching with friends, and remembering who I am and what I stand for. Knowing what is important to me will help to build a future with these values at its core.
Opportunity and Reframing
As we step into the next stage of life there are all sorts of changes coming at us from every direction. But we are lucky to be here. This time is a golden opportunity to do some amazing things for ourselves, our families and our communities. Focusing on the positive in this period of change doesn’t mean you’re not missing your children, you are just experiencing both sadness and potential all rolled together.
So with all those threads now less tangled, things are a little clearer. I have taken time to think about what I am feeling and why, and with this recognition comes some ideas for how to manage the coming months. This is resilience. I hope it will inspire you in how you approach changes in your own life.
Garland, E. L., Fredrickson, B., Kring, A. M., Johnson, D. P., Meyer, P. S., & Penn, D. L. (2010). Upward spirals of positive emotions counter downward spirals of negativity: Insights from the broaden-and-build theory and affective neuroscience on the treatment of emotion dysfunctions and deficits in psychopathology. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 849-864.
Lomas, T., & Ivtzan, I. (2016). Second wave positive psychology: Exploring the positive–negative dialectics of wellbeing. Journal of Happiness Studies, 17(4), 1753-1768.
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