Beyond the Mommy Years

How to Live Happily Ever After...After the Kids Leave Home


By Carin Rubenstein, PhD

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Full of research-based tips and real-world wisdom, this book is a guide for mothers on how to thrive as they transition to their empty nest years.

Thirty million mothers between 40 and 60 years old are about to face childless households for the first time in decades. For some women, it is a lonely and confusing time; but for the vast majority, it’s a journey of joy and discovery. Through intensive and wide-ranging original research, author Carin Rubenstein reveals how and why some mothers thrive and others do not. She breaks the post-motherhood launch down into three stages–grief, relief, and joy. If a woman makes it through to the final stage, friendships blossom, work thrives, and she develops a renewed sense of confidence and well-being. While in many instances, increased time together hastens the end of a struggling marriage, most women discover their relationships improve when children leave. Beyond the Mommy Years offers fascinating research, helpful advice, and amusing anecdotes to the millions facing this uncertain but potentially enriching stage of life.

“An encouraging counterarguement to the idea that an empty nest leads to an empty life.” — Library Journal

“Carin Rubenstein, PhD., nails it: Any woman worried about her post-car pool life should read this book.” — Sally Koslow, mother of two sons in their twenties, and author of Little Pink Slips

Beyond the Mommy Years bridges the knowledge void felt by so many moms after their children leave for college…A thoughtful discussion of the positive changes that lie ahead for mothers after our children are launched. While parenting never ends, this book provides moms with the tools to live a rich and full life.” — Linda Perlman Gordon & Susan Morris Shaffer, co-authors of Mom, Can I Move Back in with You?


Copyright © 2007 by Carin Rubenstein, PhD

Illustrations copyright © 2007 by Adrienne Hartman

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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First eBook Edition: August 2007

ISBN: 978-0-446-53803-9

Chapter One

There Is No Empty-Nest Syndrome

Let's get this out of the way right now.

There is no "empty-nest syndrome." It does not exist. Period. The vast majority of mothers do not sit at home weeping about the loss of their precious progeny, the children who have left their home and family to go to college or to work or to get married or to serve in the military.

Most mothers do not experience a deep personal crisis when their children leave home, as many psychiatrists and so-called experts have said. They do not scramble to "fill the void" left by absent children, as some insist. They do not have the "forty-year-old jitters," as one anthropologist asserted. Even so-called overinvolved and overprotective mothers, as they are known among certain psychologists, women who tend to live through and for their offspring, are not in great danger of becoming depressed, demoralized, alienated, or alcoholic.

Americans hold a strong belief that motherhood should be intensive, that mothers must be child centered and emotionally involved with their children, wholly devoted to their children's care. Good mothers, the rule goes, are those who have subsumed their own needs and goals to those of family. And so, the parallel expectation goes, those mothers will surely be devastated when their children no longer need them.

But a funny thing happens on the way to children's independence. When women lose their full-time role as mothers, they do not despair, they are not racked with self-pity, they do not long to have their babies back again. Instead, a vast majority of mothers thrive and prosper when their children grow up. They are thrilled to have finally grown past the mommy years.

At first, of course, mothers admit to feeling some sadness when their children leave home. It is certainly natural to mourn the loss of a former life, a way of being that no longer applies. But most mothers do not grieve for more than a year or so. Instead, they celebrate their new lives. They're more likely to sing a hallelujah chorus than a song of desolation when the youngest child walks out the door.

When that door slams shut, many mothers feel great. Here are a few of the words they use to describe what it is they are feeling at that moment: excited, curious, happy, proud, relieved, relaxed, liberated, free. Add exclamation points after each word, and you get the idea: excited! liberated! free!

Take Tara, fifty, an office manager who lives in a New York suburb. She just sent her second son off to Colgate University, in upstate New York. She feels completely liberated, she says, because she has relinquished the sense that she must always be available to control and guide her boys. "I have no fears. I did the best I could as a mother and I saw that they were ready to move on. And I was more than ready to let them go," Tara says.

You can almost picture her wiping her hands, hitching up her chic jeans, and moving on.

Dina, fifty-two, is a close friend of Tara's who lives on Long Island. She has three children, including twin daughters who are freshmen at a state school in Albany, New York. She doesn't work for pay, since her children were her work, but she doesn't feel as if she's been fired without notice. Not at all. Instead, she says with a laugh, she's noticed that when she's puttering around the house now, "I'm actually whistling!"

"All of a sudden, I have my own time," Dina says. "For the past twenty-one years, my life has been my children. I did everything for them. I took care of them and I took care of their friends whose moms worked, but I have my life back again. I'm doing projects around the house. My mind has never been clear enough to read a book, but now I'm reading constantly. And I can play tennis without rushing home to pick up one of the kids or to make dinner."

It is only now, she says, that she realizes that she has been striving to reach this goal for the past two decades. "For twenty-one years, I did for my kids. Now I deserve this freedom. I worked for this freedom," she says, with a fierce resolve that would surprise her children.

Freedom is the buzzword for mothers whose children have left. In fact, freedom's just another word for no kids left at home, which is what Janis Joplin might have sung if she'd lived long enough. Having no children at home feels sublimely and deliciously liberating for many women. How much freedom do they feel? Let us count the ways.

They feel freedom from daily responsibility for children.They feel freedom from anxiety when they hear nearby police sirens.

They feel freedom from worrying about what other people think. They feel freedom to do new things. They feel freedom to reinvent themselves. They feel freedom to get to know their own husbands again, in a new way.

They feel freedom to make their own decisions. They feel freedom to open themselves to a sense of possibility. Finally, they feel freedom to focus all of the energy and emotion and time that went into child raising somewhere else, somewhere of their own choosing.

How Many Freedoms Are There?

Mothers express their sense of freedom in endless ways, but here are some examples, taken from among the responses given by the hundreds of women I interviewed.

• Mothers of means buy a second home, on a lake, near a beach, or on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

• Mothers trade in the stodgy old van for a brand-new sports car.

• Mothers move to Florida, just for the month of March.

• Mothers take dance classes with their husbands.

• Mothers go back to school, to become counselors or nurses or Realtors.

• Mothers work longer hours or take more challenging jobs.

• Single mothers use vacation time to drive to states and cities they've never seen.

• Single mothers bring dates home for guilt-free sleepovers.

• Mothers renovate guest rooms.

• Mothers join health clubs, run half-marathons, and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania (as one woman at the gym tells me, while she works on machines to strengthen her leg muscles for her upcoming trip to Africa).

One mother even started a commune in her newly empty nest. Liz, fifty-two, of Greensboro, North Carolina, had already sent both daughters off to college when her husband of twenty-eight years announced that because he needed some solitude, he was leaving her. So Liz adopted a fifteen-year-old foster child. Then she invited six other people to live in her home, to be part of what she called "an anarchist collective." With that many people, it costs each of them only about two hundred dollars a month to live in the home, including utilities, mortgage, and food and supplies. They shop for produce in grocery store Dumpsters. They get along really well, just like a normal family, she says, only better.1

If that's a bit extreme, or more precisely, insanely extreme, there is Leslie, from Chappaqua, New York, whose youngest daughter left for college on the same day that her husband announced he was leaving her. This was after she had quit her job and spent eight years caring for him while he battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. So she decided to start her own business, to try to sell the soup that she had been making at home for friends and relatives. She opened a tiny soup restaurant in a narrow storefront on a side street in a wildly diverse New York suburb. The place has become quite successful, and the store's Web site, which offers its products for purchase by mail, also tells the story of her ex-husband, the man who ditched her when she was at her weakest and most vulnerable.

This is just the tip of the freedom iceberg for hundreds of newly liberated mothers who have shared their plans with me, plans for today and plans for tomorrow. Plans they could never have imagined making before their children left.

Martha, a forty-nine-year-old divorced real-estate broker in Cleveland, puts it rather bluntly, if not exactly in proper English. "I can explore the freeness of being me again!" she says. "I adore my son and I will always be there for him, but I never want him to move back in with me. I spent twenty years working and living pretty much in his best interest," Martha continues. "I'm done with that now. This is his time to grow up, and my time to grow up and grow on, as well," she adds.

Deb, a fifty-four-year-old secretary and mother of two in St. Louis, puts it this way: "I suddenly realized that my desires, my wants, and my needs are just as important as everybody else's. But now I'm free to spend my time on myself and not feel guilty about it."

Guiltless freedom, that's what newly liberated mothers have found, and what could be more scrumptious? It's like double-chocolate brownies, macadamia-nut chocolate-chip cookies, and cherry cheesecake all rolled into one superdessert, but without the calories.

My own research confirms what these women say about the pleasure they feel in finally launching their children into the world. I conducted a Web-based survey of one thousand mothers. Most of the women are from the United States, as well as some from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and Latin America. This is obviously not a randomly selected group of women, but I believe that they are fairly representative of middle-class women in the middle years. I recruited the women from several different sources: some were readers of the More magazine Web site, others were graduates of one of a dozen or so large universities, still others were regular users of Web forums such as or (I have changed the names of all the women I quote.)

These mothers are, on average, fifty-two or fifty-three years old. They have two or three children. Three-quarters are married, for an average of twenty-four years. About three-quarters work for pay, an average of about thirty-five or thirty-six hours a week. They are librarians and special education teachers, registered nurses and receptionists, office cleaners and doctors, accountants and attorneys, administrative assistants and police officers, dairy farmers and secretaries, waitresses and ranchers.

In other words, they are EveryWoman and EveryMother.

They told me about themselves and their friends, their husbands and lovers, their children and their pets. They confided their secrets and their fears, like the woman who feels sexier "due to spending more time on the Internet, having phone sex, reading about erotic subjects, and writing my own erotic stories. Shhhh!!!" Or the one whose daughter is in the Peace Corps, so they see each other only three times a year. This mother's terrible fear is that she will see her daughter just sixty times more, and that's only if she lives another twenty years.

And when I ask about their feelings on the departure of their youngest child, they confess their secret pleasure: two-thirds say they are happy and joyful that the children are gone! Another 23 percent feel relieved to be on the leaving end of the offspring exodus. That's nearly 90 percent who feel fabulous about being on their own—child free and liberated from maternal responsibilities—despite the fact that they think about their children almost every day.

There are, however, a minority of moms—about 10 percent—who are truly saddened and in despair about having grown children, according to my research. They also say they feel a sense of despair about life in general. There may be a simple explanation for their distress, though. In any large group of women, a certain number are bound to be depressed or unhappy. Indeed, several major epidemiological studies show that, at any given time, between 10 and 15 percent of American women are suffering from depression.2 So it's possible that any drastic life event—an empty nest, a death in the family, a divorce—will trigger an episode of depression among a small number of mothers. (For more about these mothers, see chapter 3.)

But let's get back to the not-so-silent majority of moms, those who are delighted with their newfound freedom.

My research shows that six in ten mothers whose children have left feel a strong desire to reinvent themselves. Half say they feel excited about their future, and nearly as many feel a sense of liberation.

There's Donna, fifty, from Urbana, Illinois, who has three children and has been married for twenty-nine years. She's an office worker for a math journal, but her heart is not in numbers. Here's what Donna says:

Having no children at home is very liberating most of the time. I miss them, but my husband and I are having a lot of fun. We can eat what we want, listen to the kind of music we want, go where we want on vacations, watch what we want on television, have conversations that we want to have, have sex when we feel in the mood, and fix up the house the way we like it. The list is really endless. We have both been very devoted parents, but we feel like our dues have been paid. We've raised three decent human beings. But now we want our lives back, and we want to find each other again.

Donna's not being selfish; she's simply living her own life again.

Other research offers similar conclusions.

A Texas sociologist analyzed six national surveys several decades ago, for example. While 46 percent of forty-something mothers whose children still lived at home called themselves "very happy," 61 percent of women that age did so if their children had left. Among moms in their fifties with kids at home, just 30 percent called themselves "very happy," but once the children were gone, 42 percent described themselves that way. This social scientist was surprised that no matter how much money families earned, parents in their forties and fifties were simply happier and enjoyed life more once their children were gone.3

Surprise, surprise!

It's our dirty little maternal secret: we love our children fiercely, but we breathe a sigh of relief when they're grown and gone.

A similar study in Australia reached the same conclusion. In the first year after the youngest child had left home, mothers' moods actually improved, as did their sense of well-being. In addition, mothers reported fewer daily hassles, a psychological measure of everyday problems that bothered or annoyed them, like finishing paperwork, dealing with bad weather, doing housework, and keeping the car maintained.4 The hassles scale was developed in the 1960s, by the way, when the word "hassle" seemed like a hip way to describe minor personal irritations and turmoil. Now it just sounds quaint.

Finally, another study of New York–area women in their forties and fifties showed that 72 percent were happy, and nearly as many, 64 percent, were not at all confused about life. The secret to midlife happiness, the researcher said, is having good health, earning at least thirty thousand dollars a year (in 1998 dollars), and having a confidante or a group of close friends. To be happy, women didn't have to be wealthy, they just had to avoid poverty. The women were happiest, too, if the children were no longer at home, and it didn't matter if the women were married or divorced. The happiest women felt important in their own right, not marginal or useless. They had a vision of their own future, and they were able to fashion a life full of meaning, one that did not necessarily include their children.5

In other recent studies, social scientists also report that women's sense of vitality and confidence and strength actually blossoms as they grow older, although their looks fade.

The Fifties Are the Prime of Life

Some researchers insist that fifty-something is the prime of life for women. According to this view, women are at their physical peak when they are nineteen, and their marriages peak in happiness just before children are born, but they achieve a gold medal for all-around emotional security and comfort at the age of fifty or so. (Others say women peak at age sixty-three, as I report in chapter 9.)

Several psychologists who specialize in the study of personality focused their research on a group of seven hundred women whom they studied over several decades. They concluded that, among these baby-boom women, the prime of life occurs between the ages of fifty and fifty-six. It is during these years, they say, that women still have their health, they enjoy the highest household income, they feel happiest about their relationships with husband and friends, and they have launched their children.6

For such women, sending children out into the world provides a sense of accomplishment, of a job well done, a job that is finally over. In addition, life at home becomes pared down to a much simpler life, but one that is more rewarding, and they are able to refocus the enormous energy that they expended on children in places of their own choosing.

Take Cherie, forty-seven, who works for a government agency in Arizona and who lavished all of her love and attention and support on her two daughters for the past twenty years. She relies on them still, as shopping companions, as spa buddies, as manicure pals. Cherie and her husband, Ralph, fifty-three, always took several family vacations a year, and each daughter was allowed to pick one destination each year. The family has been to beaches in Spain, the Virgin Islands, and Jamaica; they've been to Paris and Turkey and Rome.

Cherie reminds me of Mrs. Bennet, the mother of five daughters in Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice who missed her daughters terribly when they were away from home. Mrs. Bennet was especially bereft when her dopiest daughter, Lydia, ran off with the reprehensible Mr. Wickham before the two were even married—a terrible, horrific breach of social etiquette in the early 1800s.

Even so, Mrs. Bennet was distraught when the slutty Lydia left home. She refers to the loss of her daughters as an absence of friends, a rather modern view of one's offspring. " 'I often think,' said she, 'that there is nothing so bad as parting with one's friends. One seems so forlorn without them.' "

Like Mrs. Bennet, Cherie views her girls as the best of best friends. But unlike Mrs. Bennet, Cherie has the luxury of refocusing the energy and devotion she lavished on her daughters, turning to other causes now that her children are nearly independent.

A few years ago, Cherie took a job with a nonprofit branch of the local government, doling out money to nonprofit groups. She also started her own charity, which she called Cinderella Affair, to collect used-only-once prom dresses, evening bags, wraps, and shoes and then to distribute the party frocks to needy high-school seniors. It's a labor of love, one that makes Cherie feel as if she has five hundred new daughters every year.

"Some of these girls never had a dress, let alone a prom dress," she says. "My daughters helped me start the project," she adds, "but it's mine now."

Cherie has also gone back to college, to earn a BA for herself. It took her six years to get a two-year degree; she's working on completing the final two years in a lot less time. "I'll graduate between my two daughters," she brags. "That really helps the empty spot disappear."

Mothers of every age, in every era, surely feel that so-called empty spot, but how they react to the children's exodus depends very much on where they live and to what generation they belong. Social scientists refer to each generation as a cohort, meaning a group of people who were born at roughly the same time and who experienced the same things as they were growing up. Baby-boom women, for example, those born between 1946 and 1964, grew up during the Vietnam War and the sexual revolution.

There are about seventy-seven million women and men in the cohort known as the baby boom, and they comprise four in ten of all American households, according to the Census Bureau. Because the group is so huge, demographers refer to boomers as "the pig in the python," since they are a giant bulge, all moving through the life cycle at the same time and all riding the rising tide to later life together.

Baby-boom women and men are very different from their parents, the World War II generation, or their grandparents, children of the Great Depression.

Most boomer women think it's okay if a woman never marries, but their mothers disapproved. Many boomer women think that it's fine if a woman works while her children are young, but their mothers did not. Most boomer women believe that a husband should share household chores, but their mothers were likely to be shocked by such a suggestion. Women born during the baby boom have the gift of choice: they feel free to chose to work or to stay at home, to marry or to remain single, to divorce when they fall out of love.7 All of this makes life more complicated and difficult, but also much more empowering and exhilarating.

The grandmothers of baby boomers, women born in the early 1900s, held much more rigid and sexist views about marriage and motherhood, including a strong and widespread belief that a woman's main purpose in life was to be a wife and mother. Thus, the loss of one of those jobs was often devastating to a woman's sense of who she was. But among baby-boom women, at least half of whom held a job while they were raising children, the children's departure may not have such a radical impact.

Indeed, psychologists compared a group of baby boomers who had lost their jobs to another whose youngest children had left home and found that getting fired was a lot more traumatic, painful, and difficult for boomers to deal with than was watching the youngest child leave.8

Age of Aquarius Meets the Age of Eternal Middle Age

Baby boomers tend to be loath to admit to having anything to do with "old age" because they are so consumed by the idea of youth, so get ready for brand-new expressions to be invented when boomers enter their seventies and eighties. In the near future, the elderly will no longer be called elderly. We'll be "late middle-agers," or even "late, late middle-agers," which may be especially appealing because it sounds so much like "teenagers."

When I was a college sophomore, nineteen years old and flippant about my youthfulness, my roommate, Susan, and I had a slogan that we repeated over and over, mostly to explain our view of the world. We said it with smug pride, never once believing that it would ever ring false. It was: "I've been young all my life!"

We couldn't imagine the day when that statement would no longer be true.

It might as well have been the motto of our entire generation, a group of die-hard Vietnam-era semi-hippies who, to this day, refuse to believe that the wrinkled, freckled, sagging face in the mirror is really our own. It's as if we believe that the great song lyric, from the Who's "My Generation," has come true somehow. It is "Hope I die before I get old," but what we really mean is that we want, always, to feel young and to think young and to be young in our hearts.

"We're in love with the idea that we're hardly ever old," agrees Abigail

J. Stewart, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan who is herself a baby boomer, and who has a special fondness for her own cohort. That's why, she adds, "we view middle age as very long in America."

Stewart has studied the course of women's lives for the past few decades, and she spoke to me at length by telephone about her research on the lives of boomer moms.

"To the extent that this baby-boom generation is going through these experiences collectively, that's what makes them different," she says. "It's not women alone at home feeling sad and blue, it's women talking with others about what middle age feels like."

In her extensive research, Stewart finds that baby-boom women insist that their midlife is not the midlife of their grandmothers, or even their mothers. They really believe, heart and soul, that fifty-five is the new forty.9

But just a generation or two ago, this was not true, and it would have been a laughable idea, in fact. In one 1965 study, for example, both women and men agreed that a woman was middle-aged by the age of forty or fifty.10

Now, don't even suggest that forty is the beginning of older age.

"For many women, middle age is experienced as a liberating period, a time when gender pressure, the pressure to live up to a feminine standard, drops away, and there's an opportunity to be more open, more direct, and more straightforward about what you think and feel," Stewart says. Mothers who have had a straight career path have always had such freedom, she notes, so it is women with what she calls "a more complicated trajectory through adulthood" who are most likely to experience midlife as liberating.

"And they're surprised by that," she adds. "They expected to find middle age depressing or discouraging, they expected to feel some kind of waning of femininity that was negative, and on the contrary, they experience middle age as very liberating. They have a sense of coming into their own, that's the language they use and that's the language that best captures how they feel," Stewart notes.

Coming into their own is a lovely way of putting into words the way midlife women feel about themselves.

Stewart sums up her life's work by concluding that women in midlife "feel at the top of their game."11 And she doesn't mean at the top of their son's basketball game, or their daughter's soccer game, but the top of their own game, whatever that game may be.

In my own research, I find that age fifty represents a kind of mountaintop from which women can see the length and breadth of their life span. Looking back, they see themselves as young women who were full of energy but somewhat clueless about life. Looking forward, they envision a self with less energy but with a lot more awareness and confidence about how to live well.

Age fifty is when you know yourself best, you like who you are, and you enjoy how you feel. My own research supports this surprising conclusion: the fifty-something age group rocks.

Among fifty-somethings in my study, 70 percent are married, for an average of twenty-six years, and six in ten work full-time. Half have finished menopause and say they were, on average, about fifty years old when their last child left. Thus, they are living in their first decade of a mostly child-free life. They view this time period as a surprisingly productive interlude in which they are reveling in newfound freedom. For many women, it is the first time in their life that they feel a sense of safety and security, a kind of contentment with whatever hand in life they have been dealt.

I find that two out of three mothers in their fifties feel a desire to reinvent themselves, and almost half feel excited about their future. Half also feel a sense of liberation. Almost as many women in their fifties say that they expect to make new friends in the new phase they are entering, and also that they will fashion some kind of life that will be very different from the one they had before.

This is not to say that women in their fifties don't see any downside to having lived for five decades. Nearly half, about 45 percent, admit that they fear growing old. Even more, about six in ten, say they have trouble sleeping—but so do nearly as many women in their forties. Insomnia brought on by rampant, erratic hormones is an unavoidable biological fact of middle age. Having children at home, or not, will not make much difference in the snooze-ability factor.


On Sale
Aug 14, 2008
Page Count
352 pages

Carin Rubenstein, PhD

About the Author

Carin Rubenstein, PhD, is author of The Sacrificial Mother: Escaping the Traps of Self-Denial and a regular contributor to the New York Times. She has appeared on the Today show, Good Morning America, CNN, Oprah, and the View. She is also a psychologist who has done original research for
national publications including Family Circle and AARP: The Magazine.

Learn more about this author