A big part of what she has lived for over the last 10 years — the years she’s been a full time stay at home mum — is slipping away.
Her daughter Maddy left home for university a few weeks ago.
The separation is brutal.
Two lives that were tightly intertwined before, have come undone.
They now live thousands of kilometres apart, in different time zones, different climates and different cultures. No chance to catch up every week-end or to quickly pop over to do some laundry.
Lauren is not the first mum to see her child flying off the nest. But Lauren is an expat mum.
What’s so peculiar? You may wonder.
In this new phase of her life, Lauren faces two tasks that she’s already experienced in the expat setting while confronting a third entirely new one…
Why does it matter?
Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything.
Meaning also leads to validation and validation to acceptance.
Understanding eases into action.
It can be the first step towards healing.
Since Maddy’s departure, a sense of loss has crept in.
A kind of loss that, as an expat, Lauren knows too well.
An ambiguous loss.
Task #1 for the expat mum facing empty nest syndrome: grieving the ambiguous loss.
Keeping her daughter in her thoughts, she desperately misses her presence: the way she would slam the door open when coming back from school; their conversations while commuting for ballet, gym and music lessons; their special ‘girls’ days out.
There is one less plate for dinner, an empty seat at the table, no more music coming out of the bedroom and less waiting time for the bathroom.
On the other hand, Lauren is in regular contact with daughter Maddy via Facebook, as she shares pictures of her dorm room, messages the latest menu at the canteen and sends selfies with her new friends.
This – all too familiar for expats – syndrome made of psychological presence but physical absence has a name that renowned therapist Pauline Boss coined about 30 years ago. It’s called ‘ambiguous loss.’
Ambiguous loss is extremely stressful because it’s confusing: Maddy is not part of the daily family life any longer but she’s still alive!
It feels like a loss but it’s not really one.
This ambiguity can be paralyzing and may freeze the grieving process, an otherwise healthy reaction that takes place when there is true, clear and definitive loss.
Lauren had to deal with the same feelings when she left her parents and friends behind 10 years ago due to their international move. Except this time, she’s the one to stay put. The pain is not eased by the sense of excitement towards an unknown future. It’s not engulfed in frenetic activity to re-establish a new life.
It’s just the same routine with something missing.
“You’ll finally get more time to yourself. How often did you complain about fitting in your life around my work and all the kids’ activities, existing only when all the others had their needs met?
Granted: there are still 2 teenagers at home but not for long. Another 3 years and they’ll all be gone”, said Mick her husband.
Lauren shivers. All gone in 3 years? This sounds both daunting and liberating.
Liberating because she’ll be relieved from the practical caretaking aspects of her motherly role.
Daunting because she’ll have to reinvent herself.
Task #2 for the expat mum facing empty nest syndrome: redefining herself.
And she anticipates this identity modification with much anxiety. She remembers how hard it was for her to transition from an active career woman to a stay at home mum 10 years ago when she followed her husband who got a job abroad and became a so-called ‘trailing spouse‘.
The pain stung and sometimes still does.
Identity is not a topic to be taken lightly.
Identity is one of the 9 fundamental human needs along with Subsistence, Protection, Affection, Understanding, Participation, Creation, Leisure, Freedom according to economist Manfred Max Neef in his book ‘Human Scale Development’.
It’s important to notice that, in opposition to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Neef considers all needs equally important once subsistence is ensured.
Lauren does the math in her head.
One child less. Two children left.
Does it mean that she’s now a mum at 66%? What about the other 33%?
“When you’re a parent, you’re in it for life”, her own mother used to say.
Sure, thought Lauren, but when you’ve been used to arranging your life day in day out around caring for others, you feel empty, disoriented, useless when they’re gone. That’s scary. I don’t want to think I’ll become a burden…
If she doesn’t care for the children, what does she want to do?
Lauren’s seriously considering going back to work, but it’s now been 10 years she’s been out of the workforce. And in this foreign country, she doubts her credentials will be recognized and she’ll get a work permit.
Would going back home be the solution? The economy is down and Mick would have to find another job!
One advantage though would be to remain closer to Maddy, thought Lauren.
Since we’re in this expat adventure, we’re used to sticking together. Changing country every 3 or 4 years, we could never rely on extended family or a fixed circle of friends. The only constant factor has been our little family, Mick, myself and the children. Or should I better say, me and the children. Mick is always so busy with his job.
With Maddy going away, it’s the first step towards physical disintegration of the family unit.
This separation is a new situation the expat life hadn’t prepared Lauren for. On the contrary.
She struggles with the thought of being separated from her children.
Task #3 for the expat mum facing empty nest syndrome: letting go of the child.
‘The very essence of motherly love is to care for the child’s growth, and that means [for the mother] to want the child separate from herself.
The mother must not only tolerate, she must wish and support the child’s separation.
It is only at this stage that motherly love becomes such a difficult task, that it requires unselfishness, the ability to give everything and to want nothing but the happiness of the loved one,’ writes psychoanalyst and humanistic thinker Erich Fromm in his book ‘The Art Of Loving’.
Lauren is entering her most difficult task ever, as Fromm asserts:
‘Only the really loving woman, […] who is firmly rooted in her own existence, can be a loving mother when the child is in the process of separation.’
Rooted in her own existence? This keeps resonating in Lauren’s head, she who had moved 3 times in the last 10 years….
As she enters this new phase in her life, struggling with more questions than answers, she feels insecure and distraught.
She wishes someone could give her answers or at least a list of tips and advice to move forward.
But for such deeply personal and complex matters, is there someone that knows better?
Now over to you: which task do you dread most when the children leave the nest? How do you deal with it?