Is the 'mum' label for life?

Last updated 05:00 30/06/2012
empty nest
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EMPTY NEST SYNDROME: There's a well-documented link between children leaving home and depression rates.

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Risa Doherty is facing a landmark birthday. And with it has come the not unusual urge to re-appraise.

Writing in a New York Times blog, the mother-of-two is reflective as she watches her children leave home: "And here I stand, with a sudden need to affix a label to myself besides 'Mom'.

"'Mom' has become an old, tattered metaphorical nametag for me, out-of-date, unusable."

Proud of her "mom stripes" and wondering - if not lamenting - if she "mistakenly tossed aside" a career, the 49-year-old finds herself on the cusp of a new era, rethinking her choices as she looks forward to turning 50.

Is she right to crave reinvention and a more distinguished title than "Mom"?

It's not surprising, after a life devoted to being a mother, that an empty nest comes with it an initial psychological burden or two, suggests Hugo Schwyzer, gender expert and co-author of Carre Otis' revelatory memoir, Beauty Disrupted.

He has seen women go through Doherty's paces before; that she sees her status as a mother as something akin to a shrunken, faded tee seems to come with the territory.

"For most women, raising kids wasn't a chosen career as much as it was an enforced expectation. The problem, of course, is that children need you most at the very beginning of their lives, and then gradually grow more and more independent until they become adults," Schwyzer told Life & Style. 

"So if a mum's sole source of self-esteem comes from being indispensable to a child, the whole process of human development means that she gets less and less reassurance that she's needed the older the child gets."

Anne Walker, a 55-year-old mother-of-four and grandmother-of-two from Wahroonga, NSW, knows the feeling all too well.

"When your children up and leave, your raison d'etre has gone," the former teacher said. "It's like the man who's retiring and getting a gold watch. He goes off and thinks 'Great, what next?'

"It leaves you in a position to start searching again - which is a good thing. But for a while, it undermined everything. I felt it was a death of part of myself. A real depression - but you have to go through it come out the other side."

While an empty nest can be a difficult time for a parent - mother or father - it is not devoid of very real health implications, either.

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There's a well-documented link between children leaving home and depression rates - a reality that has spiked with middle-aged baby boomers hitting the empty nesting phase.

Add to that growing rates of drug use and mental and physical illness and psychologists paint a worrying picture of rising suicide rates among the 40 to 60 age group in American women.

There, as in New Zealand, longer life-spans and later marriages (and thus the later arrival of grandchildren) have put more baby boomer women in the position to re-evaluate their roles as mums than ever before.

But on the flip - and far more positive - side, are the pros of having to navigate a different, fresh path.

Watching successful children act independently comes with a satisfaction in itself - and then there's the obvious benefit of having more time and space to yourself.

Indeed, Schywzer warns that there is a fine balance to strike when it comes to worrying about redundancy.

"It's a huge burden that gets put on children too, of course. When you know that you're your mum's reason for living, the pressure and the guilt can be overwhelming. 

"One of the great gifts you can give your kids is letting them know that though you love them, your life doesn't revolve around them. That liberates them to receive love without feeling that they are responsible for your sense of meaning in life."

Perhaps most important is to acknowledge the many and brightly contrasting roles mothers can straddle. The label "mum" need not be all-defining.

As encouraging as Schywzer's words may be, he says that one of the reasons grandchildren are so often urged for is to fill a void. To once again find that sense of "meaning".

Susie Hartley, 67, from Queensland, Australia was, for many years, a social worker. She now looks forward to her three adult children having babies and says she has struggled with what to "call [her]self" since her children grew up.

"I thought I'd have grandchildren by now - I look forward to them still. But in the meantime, I try different labels out for size, depending on who I'm talking to.

"I do lots and I'm always busy - but I think people expect more. I'll talk to someone who has just designed a bridge and feel that my days at home aren't worthy.

"I studied horticulture, I took up bridge, I love gardening. But people come back to the 'How many grandchildren do you have?' question. They and I see it as the next natural step after being a mother."

Hartley, like many women her age, is busier than ever. Perhaps the pressure from others to define herself by a role is not helpful, or even relevant, given that she is so active within her local community.

"Empty nesters have a huge amount to offer," said Schwyzer. "Older women (and that's an elastic term) are the ones who traditionally sustain communities through volunteerism."

Labels can change, stages of life will come and go, but, he says, "It's not just your own children who need you, after all."

One way to cope with the post-children-at-home phase, found Walker, was to "accept the death of the all-encompassing, that's-my-whole-meaning -in-life-mother", and to shift focus away from having to have a label.

"Even though I devoted a lot of my life to being a mother, I didn't see myself as being 'mum'. You're still the other things you were. I don't think you need to search for the next label - that's regressive and superficial. I'm trying to detach myself. I was a label for so long."

For others, the process of adapting takes a different shape. Despite yearning for reinvention and searching for meaning, ultimately, Doherty says, her self-definition is wrapped in her family.

The "mom" label will stick, she writes, even after children have flown the nest, "Because being a mom is the core of me, no matter what else I do with my life."

Doctor, housewife, lawyer, astronaut, actress, retiree, mum: A mother will always, after all, be a mother.

-Sydney Morning Herald

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