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Life After Mothering
What happens when the children no longer need your mothering?

“Mothering is a terrible disease.  I don’t think one can ever quite get over it.”  This statement was made by the renowned family therapist, Carl Whitaker, in 1994.  Dr. Whitaker was examining the dilemma for both the mother and growing child to need and support each other, yet also develop into independent, unique human beings.


A new baby isn’t really aware of its existence apart from its mother.  But slowly, as it develops sight and awareness, it starts to explore its environment while always checking the whereabouts of its mother.  In time, the child separates further, and develops friends, and grows up with a life of its own.


Yet, what happens to women who identify themselves mainly as mothers and suddenly are no longer needed as mothers?  I had always worked outside the home or attended school, and still I found the end of “mothering” a challenging experience.  I thought I’d welcome the end of 25 years of looking after four children, and indeed I did enjoy the freedom and peacefulness of my life.  What I had to work out was the letting go of my identity in my mothering role and develop new relationships with my grown children who had all grown into interesting adults.  I noticed during this transition that I had a tendency to seek out people who needed my “mothering” and then found myself resenting being tied down again.  In spite of my active professional life, as my children had become adults, I had yet to “switch gears” and separate from the part of my identity as mother.


Sometimes, our unmet needs and desires remain unconscious.  Being a mother often demands a suppression of our personal needs, and when we are no longer “mothering” those needs surface often in uncharacteristic ways.  Suddenly, we may get drawn into behaviors and relationships which are almost compulsive.  At other times we may feel lost, alone, scared and almost like it is the end of life …at least a meaningful or purposeful life.


Women, at this time, being perhaps 45-50, need to explore what their identity is beyond mothering and how to let go of those mothering behaviors which will only alienate their grown-up children.  Exploring a new identity may be scary because it requires involving oneself in a world that has developed and changed while we were preoccupied with our children.


At 49, I challenged myself into a completely new environment, that of weight lifting at a fitness club with mostly men.  I had never been involved in sports or exercise other than the jogging I had started a few years earlier.  I started to see myself in new ways;  as a woman who could have a little muscle, as a woman without children, as a writer, as a friend to fellow club members, basically, as more of an individual in my own right.  I was just me.


Another difficult issue at this time is how to start relating to that adult child as an adult.  Every time I saw my college bound son, I found myself asking him about his health, or school or finances.  Would I do this with other young adults?  Probably not.  Would I give others advice?  Probably not.  My son kept telling me to stop it, but it was such a habit.  Our children still need and want a mother, that base and love that is unconditional; but they don’t need “mothering”.


Women who have not had a career outside the home find it even more difficult to separate from their children.  Often they experience depression, an increase of physical ailments, and irritability or moodiness can become more frequent.  Life may seem uninteresting, and they experience little motivation for anything.


As we raise children, we often put our needs second or last to those of the family.  We have little time to get out to the aerobics class, because Johnny needs a ride to soccer.  We cook healthy and delicious goodies, which, of course, must be tested!  We may gain weight and slowly, over the years, we no longer look or feel like that unique, creative and developing woman we once were.  And for many of us, finding that person again seems an insurmountable task.  However, with the help of friends and exploring ones hidden talents, it can also become a wonderful adventure.


To move forward we have to let go and find new ways to fill the place “mothering” had in our lives.  If we are courageous, we may allow ourselves to grow, and find ourselves with a life after mothering, in a place of renewal or rebirth. 


J’Fleur Lohman PhD has been a psychotherapist in her own private practice for over 30 years.  She specialized in women’s issues and couple counseling.  With her husband, a University of Arizona Professor, she consulted in research studies related to obesity in women and children.  She and her husband raised 4 children and are both now retired. 

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