Midlife, also known as middle-age, is by far the longest period of a person's life, due to a recent increase in lifespan thanks to healthier lifestyles and advances in medical care, but sadly it is commonly depicted in a negative light in our culture, especially during the post-parental period of midlife (McGoldrick, Carter & Garcia-Preto, 2011). Midlife crises, menopause, empty-nest syndrome, these are some of the things we think of when we think of midlife, which lends support to the negative view we have of it, and of aging in general. Research over the past 30 years or so has been shifting its view of this time of life, however, and has begun to demonstrate that it is actually one of the happier stages of life, one full of development, growth, and identity formation for both mothers and fathers, and one which represents the highest levels of marital and overall life satisfaction of any other stage (Gorchoff, John & Helson, 2008).
Historical and Cultural Influences
The "post-parental period", also known as the "empty nest period", is defined as the period immediately following the last child's "launch" from the family home. There are many false perceptions circulating about this period and it’s effects on the family, which are propagated by many negative portrayals of it in the media and popular culture. Our culture tends to depict people at this age and stage, especially women, as unattractive and sexually irrelevant (Stewart & Ostrove, 1998), past their prime and having served their reproductive purpose. For mothers, the empty nest period is particularly socially devaluing, they are "fertility has-beens" (McQuaide, 1998) in a society where a woman’s reproductive years are “central to her life”, so when their children leave the home it is often assumed that they must be depressed and unhappy as a result (Oliver, 1977).
Even though cultural expectations are shifting and we are seeing more stay-at-home fathers than ever before, mothers are still quite often the ones who stay home to raise their children, so naturally their roles can change dramatically when children leave home (Raup & Myers, 1989). This does not necessarily mean that they will become depressed or be unhappy, however, usually it is quite the opposite. It appears evident, then, that these negative perceptions are remnants from a time when a mother's identity and role was more likely to come into question after her children left the home, a time when tradition and culture dictated that this should be her primary role in life (Stewart & Ostrove, 1998).
Still today people are consistently exposed to the folklore that suggests that empty-nest parents are usually miserable, lonely and anxious individuals, and perhaps this is why they are often portrayed like this in the media (Oliver, 1977). Many of us have observed this played out in recent movies like “Meet the Parents” or “Monster in Law”, movies that portray parents who have entered the post-parental period as crazed individuals who are unwilling to let go of their child and move on, and act out in comically crazy or manipulative ways in demonstration of this fact. It is no wonder, then, that the many people who are exposed to this media image still have this perception of this stage of life (Schewe & Balazs, 1992).
The unfortunate reality is that people approaching this stage can be heavily influenced by this negative imagery - we often look to the culture and people around us to understand how we are expected to act in a role, and this can make a powerful impact on our actions and beliefs, even concerning our own self-perceptions (Schewe & Balazs, 1992). The majority of mothers tested in one study by McQuaide (1998) who were asked how they felt they were being perceived by society in the post-parental period said that they imagined society viewed them negatively, even though now that they had reached the stage they were feeling very positively about themselves.
Even the term "empty nest”, say Raup & Myers (1989) is a term that is both sexist and ageist, and should be replaced with language that is not so. As Oliver (1977) demonstrates in her article on the empty nest syndrome, this "language of the barnyard" depicts mothers as "chicks" who have now become “old hens” whose own chicks have left the nest. In addition, since roosters are not usually part of this metaphor, fathers are left out of this image entirely.
Indeed, the parental role is certainly one of the most major roles a man or woman can occupy in life, and what could be perceived as the termination of such an identity-forming role can be very shocking. For women, who are often socialized to believe that their reproductive role is the most important aspect of their lives, and who can be criticized in society for occupying other roles and not giving their children their full attention, the loss of this role can be difficult. Oliver (1977) identifies the issue for these parents as a loss; not just a loss of persons, but a loss of power, a loss of responsibility, the loss of influence, the possession of which can be what makes a person feel that they have value and meaning in their life. This role can be what they feel gives them a sense that they matter.
As we have seen, historically the post-parental period has been viewed as a negative time for parents, specifically mothers. This view has been re-examined in recent years, as most research that we have now demonstrates that the period is actually one of improved marital satisfaction, identity development, and overall life satisfaction for parents.
The post-parental period has more recently been considered a time of development and change, as adults who were parents are finding themselves with more time (due to the trend of a much longer life span), more energy, and less focus on the needs of others. (Barnett & Baruch, 1978). The continued evidence that parents actually anticipate the post-parental period with eagerness demonstrates that it's entirely negative reputation is not deserved, and that the positive elements of the period can provide encouragement of what is to come.
Identity and Intimacy
For one thing, the post-parental period involves a re-examining and re-defining of both the identities and the intimacy of parents - giving them time to answer the questions; who are we now, now that a huge role in our lives has ended, what will our relationship look like, and what are we going to do with all of the time and energy we now have (Gorchoff et al., 2008)? Research has shown that for couples who are less clear on the answers to these questions, the post-parental period will prove to be more difficult, but for those who approach these questions eagerly, and with a clear direction in mind, the post-parental period can be an extremely fulfilling time (Mackey, Diemer & O'Brien, 2000).
Some researchers have argued that in terms of identity formation and development, especially for women, the post-parental period is the most important phase of life, with the most development and identity formation of any other stage, even surpassing the young adulthood stage in this regard (Stewart & Ostrove, 1998). Fathers also face changing roles and identity development in this stage, because the traditional identity of “provider” for the family, often attributed to fathers, can diminish with less mouths to feed. This can result in less pressure and anxiety over this role, and more time to explore new avenues of interest.
These considerations offer some explanation as to why this is such a crucial time for a couples’ relationship, and for the re-defining, re-organizing and reclaiming of that relationship. Spouses who have been relating to each other for years as primarily 'mother' and 'father' to their children may have to re-discover what their relationship looks like as simply ‘husband and wife’ (Gorchoff et al., 2008).
What research has found to further complicate the post-parental period in recent years is the increase in the likelihood that children will "boomerang" back home after having been launched, which can drag out the process for parents and make it difficult to move on and begin to enjoy their newfound, post-parental freedoms (Raup & Myers, 1989). An additional complicating factor in this stage is the “sandwich effect”; when parents need to care for their own aging parents, which can be emotionally and financially draining (Raup & Myers, 1989), and can also affect the levels of happiness and the sense of freedom that can be found in the post-parental stage.
Overall, however, improved marital satisfaction is commonly reported by couples who have been through the post-parental period. This improved marital satisfaction seems to be attributable to the resulting energy and time couples have now that they no longer need to devote that time and energy to their children, and this, coupled with increased alone time, a better financial situation (now that they have no dependants), and the opportunity for more spontaneity and intimacy can be an effective recipe for increased marital satisfaction (Raup & Myers, 1989).
Research has demonstrated that marital happiness over the span of an entire marriage is usually in a "u-shape" - at the beginning it is high, it declines in the child-rearing years, especially right before the children are launched, and it goes up again after children leave home (Bjorkland & Bee, 2008). It is during the post-parental period that a couple is typically beginning to have the freedom to re-examine their marital bonds and cultivate a deeper relationship (Raup & Myers, 1989). Many couples have even reported this period as feeling like a "second honeymoon" (Bjorkland & Bee, 2008).
Relationships with Adult Children
Another positive aspect of the post-parental period for a couple is that they can now work on establishing and developing adult-to-adult relationships with their children. Research has shown that a successful post-parental period, one that increases life satisfaction rather than decreasing it, is strongly predicted by the relationship parents have with their children after they have left the family home (Crowley, Hayslip & Hobdy, 2003). In fact, research has shown that both frequent contact and recent contact with launched children was necessary if overall life satisfaction was to be improved (Hobdy, Hayslip, Kaminski, Crowley, Riggs, & York, 2007).
Parents never truly cease to be parents, their relationship with their children as they age simply changes and must conform to new terms and new boundaries. The opportunity to share the experience of being an adult together is one that can increase closeness between parent and child, and it can add a whole new enjoyable dimension to the parent-child relationship - the growth of an existing relationship into a different and mutually beneficial one. Kittel (2005) compared the leaving of children from their family home to a birth; the child has so far been nurtured in the womb of his or her family home, a temporary residence to prepare him or her for birth into life outside of that safe, nurturing growth environment. Once the child has matured to the point that he or she is ready for life on the outside, there is a "relocation and a metamorphosis" that happens - the child is “born” into the world, and they change from a son or daughter to a fellow adult. Though the umbilical cord is cut, once the child is “born” the parents and the child have the opportunity to grow even closer, and likewise a child leaving home does not sever the relationship between that child and his or her parents, rather the bond becomes even deeper. An additional helpful comparison is that, like a birth, the post-parental transition can be painful, but the joy and new relationship possibilities that the “new baby” brings quickly make the pain a faint memory.
Another positive aspect of the post-parental period is that it can be a time of realignment of relationships within the community, and an opportunity for parents to rediscover new roles through which they can make a contribution to their communities. Research has shown an increase in parents during this period who return to their careers, often being able to devote more time to them. There has also been an increase in recent times of post-parental adults going back to school to improve their career opportunities, or simply because they enjoy the opportunity to learn and grow, and discover new and fulfilling roles (Raup & Myers, 1989).
As Oliver (1977) wrote, often "the problem is not the idea of the ‘empty nest’, the problem is the idea of the ‘empty women’". The problem, as we have seen, is a pervasive cultural and historical idea that post-parental men and women are now “empty”, when in fact research has demonstrated that in this new stage they have the capacity to be more fulfilled than ever before. Their roles have shifted in what can be seen as very positive and meaningful ways, leading to new relationships with themselves, each other, their children, their community, the workplace and society as a whole.
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