- a guide to dealing with transition when the kids leave home
© 2015, Ruth Bleakley-Thiessen
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More books by Ruth Bleakley-Thiessen can be found at www.ruth-bleakley-thiessen.de
This book is for the wonderful souls who chose me as their mother
1 Having Kids 3
2 Being a Parent 10
3 Stepping into Change 20
4 Crisis and Transition 30
5 Transition for the Kids 55
6 Learning from others 60
7 What comes now? 77
A whirlwind hit my life three years ago.
At least it felt like it. My three kids all left home, flew the coop, and left behind an empty nest.
I guess either the same has happened to you or it is about to happen in the near future. So you're also being reorganized, rewoven, repatterned, just like I was.
Some events in life change us, even when we don't want the change. Circumstances change individuals, yet we are often so caught up in the event that we aren't able to respect how it happens and what it does to us. In our response to what life offers us we can become overwhelmed.
Some things deserve more time and space in our collective conversations. One of them is what happens when the kids are gone, and the way life changes us. This is a time when there is a lot to grieve and a lot to celebrate. This is a time when we consider how we are going to reshape our lives and our futures. It's a time when we bring more attention to our thoughts on what we want to change, and how we can go about the change we would like to bring about. It is important that we give ourselves the space needed to go through this extremely important phase in our life.
It can be a time without clarity. It certainly was a time of reorganization for me. A transition period. It wasn't a swift, active movement from A to B, it was a sort of a mixture, when transition took place in the midst of messiness, mushiness and confusion. When the kids leave home, your life gets rewritten. It is a huge adjustment.
In my experience I felt like I was being washed over by the waves, like I had entirely given up my control to the sweeping tide. In surrendering to the process I let go of my old self and allowed myself to write the next chapter in my life. For some of us, this same transition happens with gentle tears, or a few sobs, or a wink goodbye and an open hand, allowing the children to slip away. For others it's not just so easy. I have illustrated many examples in this book, which I hope will help you in your own personal transition.
After all, it's meeting yourself again, most likely your partner too, after a lot of years of parenting have flown by. Change often happens in the moment you'd least expect it to. My invitation is that you surrender to it and allow it to happen whilst reading on. I fully respect and acknowledge what you are going through and would love for you to have self-compassion and self-love for this important phase in your life.
Giving birth is hands-down the most intense and moving thing I have ever and most likely will ever experience. Intense is the best word I can think of to describe it, because it balances precariously on that rickety fence between out-of-this-world-sweet-crazy pleasure and all-consuming pain.
I've had three babies. They were all born naturally, or by spontaneous vaginal delivery (SVD), as the medical world puts it so poetically. And still, each birth was completely different.
I'll try to explain, all being from a woman's side of things. Naturally men experience the birth of their children as a moving experience too, albeit from a different perspective.
First, let me qualify the pain part. Because this is the thing most of us have been led to associate with giving birth to babies. And fear of pain is what most of us have. We don't like having our bodies hurt in any way, and this is the reason why caesarean and medicalised birth statistics are as shockingly high as they are in the developed, private medical-care funded world that is.
I've done it three times. The first time I had no idea of what it would be like, apart from what I had read in books and what my midwife had explained to the prenatal class I went to. It seems that when you're pregnant, no-one wants to scare you with the fact that childbirth is so damn painful. It's not really that I was told that giving birth would be in a heartbeat, and there is no way that anyone can say in advance how a birth is going to be anyway. The moments of my children's births are still intoxicating memories for me, as they definitely are still vivid for my husband too, who was looking on from the outside, and fevering with me as only a father can for his own flesh and blood.
I mean intoxicating because I honestly felt like I had been given the strongest happy-drug in the world when I had my children. It's incredible what hormone surges can do for you. I have never felt as powerful in all my life as I did in the seconds, minutes and hours after I birthed my children. Even after hours and hours of being in labour and a sleepless night, I felt unconditional love for all of my babies after their birth. I can remember holding each of them in my arms for the very first time, overwhelmed at the sweet beings I had given birth to just a few moments earlier. I wasn't able to do anything else other than lie gazing at them, taking in the beauty and wonder of what I had been carrying in my womb for all those months.
In fact, the post-birth high lasted for almost a week every time. I felt like Superwoman. I had just birthed a baby. In those final minutes the most primal part of me took over completely. I can remember the sound of my own voice as I pushed them out in the last visceral effort, like a goddess which took root inside of me, allowing nature to take it's course. And there they were.
My body took over from my mind. I had done what generations of women before me had done and will continue to do. After their birth I tasted life in its most concentrated form. Pure, potent and simply miraculous.
I would not exchange these experiences for all the riches in the world.
If you have carried life within your body and given birth, you will have had your own innate experience. For me, the first birth started delicately, after having to lie flat on my back for four weeks with premature contractions. My first son wanted to come early but wasn't allowed to for his own good, so the doctor said. I had been put onto medication to prevent a premature birth. This was a bit of a bummer, as I wasn't the most patient of expectant mothers. So after four weeks of close communication with the child in my womb, my husband and I agreed to allow him to come any time after two weeks before the due-date arrived, which was considered a normal time to deliver.
And he wanted to come immediately after my medication was stopped. My contractions started, which were painful, more painful than pain as I knew it. My husband accompanied me to the hospital and the midwife sent me away to walk so that my cervix would dilate more. I remember sitting and moving inside the car, puffing through the contractions. Then I was allowed to relax in the bath before going into the delivery ward. I guess this was a normal birth, which took about eleven hours.
I'll never forget his most exquisitely beautiful face with long black hair surrounding his features. The midwife called him Mickey Mouse, which with his black hair, he did sort of resemble.
The second birth was completely different. I was woken up at two in the morning with contractions. It was ten days before my due-date. This child had been more active during the pregnancy, kicking a lot. We got someone in as arranged to look after our first son and we drove to the hospital. I wanted to lie in a warm bath again to allow nature to open my cervix in a relaxing manner. No way, they pushed me into the delivery room as the baby was already well under way. It went like a storm. He was there with only two pushes at five o'clock in the morning. We thought, wow, this little guy knows what he wants, and he has gone through most of his life in this manner since.
The third time I got out of bed in the morning, again also ten days before my due-date. My waters broke, wetting the insides of my legs, which made me get right back into bed. I called my husband, who was getting ready to leave the house for work. I was carried out of bed and into the ambulance on a stretcher to be taken to hospital. I wasn't sure which way round the baby was lying, so I had to be careful. My other two kids slept soundly through the whole procedure, although I'm sure it would have been exciting for them to see the ambulance. After an initial examination in the hospital I was given breakfast, so that I would have enough strength for the birth, and I was sent off to climb stairs to get things going. My contractions hadn't started yet. Eventually they did, and the procedure continued until early afternoon, when our third son arrived.
We were home with him late afternoon. It all seemed so surreal at the time. I remember that there was thick snow on the ground and we had trouble getting home. When we arrived, everyone crowded around the new member of our family and he was greeted with wonder and joy.
Upon consideration, each child moved his tiny arms and legs after birth the way I had felt him move inside of my womb. Only now, they moved outside of me, with more room at last to stretch their little limbs, test their muscles, feel touch, water, clothing and the air on their tiny little bodies. I was mesmerized and totally in love.
Having spoken about my births and the pains of it, which all went very well, birth can also be a traumatic affair for the mother and the child. A lot of complications can arise. It can become a long drawn out affair. It can be a breach birth, there can be complications with the baby or with the mother, not to mention the trauma of still birth. I have been very lucky, for which I am deeply grateful. The only thing that happened to us was that I ripped internally with each birth. I guess they needed room in their birth canal. Each time I was neatly stitched up whilst holding my child in my arms. The last time I could have done with more anaesthetic, a lot more anaesthetic. I remember each and every stitch, but I was holding my newly born son in my arms, which distracted me from what was going on in that area of my body, and it made up for it.
What I didn't see, but what my husband did, who cut the umbilical cords to our children each time, was that one of our sons had his umbilical cord around his neck and was blue in his face when he was born. The cord was quickly unravelled by the midwife and all went well. It must have been quite a shock to my husband, probably for the baby too. I, of course wasn't able to see it from my position, which was good, I felt, as I was able to stay calm.
Some mothers have no problem with their bodies after birth, and bounce straight back, even liking their body more than ever as a mother. After a pregnancy it's natural that a woman's body changes. It's a very feminine stage of breast-feeding. My body felt round, soft and squishy. As mothers, we are reminded daily of what we went through to have children. Stretch marks, cellulite and a flabby belly are the least of the worries, although this is a cause for shame for a lot of women. I know one woman who had extensive physical pain as her hips were dislocated during giving birth to her son. She needed ongoing medical care and physiotherapy for years.
One point I would like to consider here is that if a birth is difficult, even traumatic, it may unconsciously affect the relationship we have to our children. What has it done to our body? What has it done to the child? In which way has it affected us? Trauma does get stored in the body if we don't deal with it emotionally. Even though the pain of giving birth will be forgotten about very quickly, hormones take good care of that themselves, a difficult birth can cause havoc in our system. I will go into this in more detail in chapter four.
Being human, we all have insecurities; we are all scarred, imperfect and flawed in some way, physically and emotionally. Life is full, and with a child, we have the sweetest little chunk who fills our heart. Instead of being proud of the changes in our body, we often forget the big why in our considerations and judge ourselves wrongly. I’ve always struggled to accept my flaws, but after giving birth to my sons, those flaws seem more like beautiful marks of our journey together. I pray you see yourself through the eyes of your children, they know no judgment. They know love, and they think you are beautiful, even with all of your imperfections.
If only the rest of the world could see that way too.
Being a Parent
The day of giving birth to a fresh new being is the very beginning of a whole new way of using your senses. Listening probably takes first place.
Part of the exhaustion in the first weeks of parenthood, especially for a mother, is from learning which cry means hunger, tiredness or the need to be held. It's about coming to understand which middle-of-the-night whimperings are likely to escalate and which will settle and silence themselves. It's about getting to know the personal rhythm of the baby and its personality. A mother hears the tiniest little noise from her child and wakes up from the deepest of sleeps.
It's quite natural that babies make sounds, which only mothers can at first understand. When you listen to the sounds, they become words which at first aren't able to be articulated. The words become sentences and the sentences become stories.
Later, you can smile as you listen to nursery rhymes and little songs sung wrongly, words spoken back-to-front and the humorous things that your child says. I have these gems written down in little books. My kids love to ponder through them, it brings them back so many memories, and they laugh heartily at themselves.
As a parent, you get to know the voice of your child calling you in a crowd of children. You know just by the way they speak how they are feeling. Their childish excitement is conveyed to the people they trust the most – their parents. Parents know what their kids mean more than other people do, there is a blood connection.
As a parent you learn a very important sound – that particular hum of silence that is delicious, yet can also mean that something, somewhere is not quite right.
But it is not just listening that changes with parenthood, it is all of the senses.
A parent is the taster. I held the plastic spoon and used my bottom lip or the tip of my tongue to check for too much heat, bitterness, saltiness or spice before allowing my little ones to savour their food. I licked the very last dregs off spoons. I became accustomed to the sweet strawberry-yoghurty or pungent green spinachy kisses from my children.
My sense of smell heightened, saturating every scent with feeling. I knew the exact smell of my children, especially in the soft creases of their neck, and the soft as petal and peaches on their cheek. Their scent comes back to me today if I tune in to them.
I would draw my children close to me, daring someone to blow cigarette smoke or car fumes their way. I knew the scent of all the baby care products on their skin, and of other people's cuddles too. The pungent smell of nappies didn't matter one little bit to me. I knew at the end of the day, when I smelt the sweet smell of my children, that all was okay.
Parents see everything on their children – every new graze, bump, cut, bruise or freckle. Every expression of unease, joy, excitement and happiness too.
I used to scan the places we went to - rooms, playgrounds, roads we would cross, never stopping looking for potential dangers, and only when I was sure would I let my kids skip on. At the park, the market, the playground and at other people's houses, I knew that I must start to foster independence, so I would drop little hands. But I never, for a second, let their bobbing heads out of my sight.
The touch of a parent is more powerful than I ever could have imagined. All of a sudden I realized that my cool hand on a hot forehead could relieve a lot of suffering, just as the squeeze and a rub of a recently bruised knee or grazed elbow worked wonders. My kisses and blows on tiny wounds contained magic, and there is not much that a hug cannot soothe. My second son used to only fall asleep in my bed when he was a baby with my nose between his thumb and fingers.
As the years went by, some of these senses started to feel less necessary. A pulling away of a tiny body started when I bent over to kiss. When I reached over to brush hair out of the eyes, or brush dirt from a cheek, it wasn't welcome. The sweet baby smell is long gone, replaced by earthier, saltier smells. There were fewer calls in the middle of the night. Meals became independent experiences, where there was no need to blow soups before they were ravished. A time came when I had to ask for permission for kisses.
But as a parent, you can't turn the senses off. Once started, you always sit up straight in bed at night, thinking there could be something wrong with one of the kids at the slightest noise. This new way of listening will never end, even when the kids are older.
The seeing. The tasting. The touch. I miss it. Even when they're gone.
Now I'm speaking from the perspective of a mother, which I am. There is an ideal here which mums may consciously or unconsciously try to live up to. The pure mother, full of tender love and compassion, the Mother Mary. The perfectionist. The one who struggles with her temper at times, not wanting to lose it. The one who wants to take more time to sit down and listen to her kids, just drinking in their presence. The one who would love to have more patience. The one who really wants to let them know how much she loves them, to kiss them more and show her appreciation, yet never seems to get round to it. These are some of the struggles of a normal mother.
The ideal mother is not what I was. I had lots of joy with my kids, it felt so simple, so easy. It's natural with kids, they're easy and not so spoiled and tainted as many adults have become. I'm a person who loves being in nature and who loves natural things. I loved them and I let them free. It works. I'm not perfect. Of course I made mistakes, which I hope I will be forgiven for. But it's not that I'm not satisfied enough, and think that I could have done it all better.
I have many memories of my own mother when I was small. We would sit in front of the fire when it was cold outside, me cuddled up on her knee. My mum was beautiful to me. She was the one who looked after me and loved me a lot. I felt her closeness, her unique smell. I knew deep down that she would love me forever and beyond it. There was a connection to her that I don't believe I have ever found with any other human being. I loved her treats, going shopping with her, her own sense of fun, her singing, her own way of saying “I love you”. All that I am I owe to my mother. I attribute my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her. And to honour my father, of course I learned a lot from him too.
Where would I be without all that love? If there is anything on this earth that is sacred, it is motherhood. No one can explain the magic that occurs when a woman knits together an unseen spirit from the Other Side with the perfection of a human body inside her womb. One woman told me that she first found out what it is to love when she had had her son.
What alchemy occurs when a mother hears her crying infant and she lets down her milk? What mystery is it that her milk changes to suit the needs of her child with every feeding?
How are we to explain that when our child is born, we can pick them out by their scent in a roomful of babies?
How are we not to be broken by the unwavering, unconditional trust of the toddler who lifts his eyes and small, trembling hand towards his mother, knowing that she will understand his tears?
What can take hold of a woman’s heart more strongly than the need to protect her child from all harm? Would she not walk through fire and risk death to shield her flesh and blood from danger? Mothers think twice, once for themselves and once for their children.
Women are the human embodiment of our Mother Earth. Living and dying with every breath that their children take, mothers give their entire body over to the preservation of humankind. And yet, some women are ashamed of the role we take as caregivers to the planets greatest gift and resource… our children. It's often not respected for the work it is. Biology is the least of what makes someone a mother. No matter how a woman came about to motherhood, whether through pregnancy, adoption, fostering, or fate, they are the lifeline of everything that is. This is a reason for gratitude.
Children are the best teachers we can have by far. I cannot express that enough, and how right I have found this to be. Having children for me has been an incredible growth experience. Small children are like cosmic mirrors, constantly reflecting every emotion and thought pattern we show them. They learn from their peers by seeing and doing, by imitation. Often parents are led to reflect exactly what their own values are, and what they believe is worth teaching their children. I have been unconsciously forced to take a look at how I would like the world to be, so that my children can have a life worth living. Children bring out the best in people, bearing their souls and opening people's hearts just a little more with their innocence and boundless joy.
When you hold a little baby, you can sense and see the pureness they have, not yet formed to do something or be someone just to get a little love and appreciation from their family. Even babies have huge unique personalities already in place, which will be carved out more throughout life.
As a mother, I didn't want my children to feel left alone. I worked from home and enjoyed looking after them. And then they grew up. I used to hear other people saying that time flies by so quickly, the kids are gone before you know it. Now I hear myself saying the exact same thing.
When my first son finished school, living in Germany, he absolved his compulsory year of civilian service, as he decided he didn't want to go to the army. He then applied for a place at a university near us to study at and whilst waiting, did two separate hands-on-training at a local radio station.
To his frustration, he kept getting refusals from the university, so after a while he decided that he would have to look further afield for a university, if he was going to get anywhere.
After applying for a number of places to study, from which three acceptances came at the same time, he was forced to decide which one to accept. So he headed off for the opposite end of the country. My husband drove him with his bags and pack. The car was full, so I stayed at home. It was a huge move for my son at that time, as he really didn't want to go so far away. Needless to say, fate had other plans for him and he's now finished his studies and has moved back not quite so far away. Looking back, it really has done him good.
But he wasn't the first to go. Our second son had just finished school and was ready and willing to go out into the big wide world to see what it holds. Being a person who knows what he wants and goes for it, he applied for a gap year to do voluntary work in the social sector. He ended up in France working in a hostel for homeless men. He was extremely brave in my eyes, and it was his choice. Or if you believe in it, the universe pushed him in this direction, for whatever reason we will find out.
So a few weeks after he'd finished school, he handed us his keys to the house and left. That was a few months before his brother left.
The younger son soon realized that he wasn't keen on being the last child at home. He was missing his brothers. He had also just finished school and had plans to move to a nearby city to live with a few close friends in a shared apartment. They all planned to do the same thing. They found work in kindergartens and did a voluntary year with children.
The LAST one. My full time job as a professional mother came to an end. Between my full-time days of cooking, school things, driving them here and there, homework patrol, I was always busy with “them”, with not so much time for “me”. Years of stuffed passions and desires wedged into my core.
Flown the coop.
The empty nest.
It had taken five years to have them all. Now they were gone within nine months.
It was damn quiet at home, which fell like a brick on me. I was working from home at that time, having just given up my studio due to dampness and an increasing problem of mould on the walls.
It all happened so quick, my husband and I had difficulties dealing with the suddenness of it all. I'd wander into empty rooms looking for a purpose. Searching for a new role. Everything hit a nerve. I felt a little lost. We both had our own methods of dealing with it. We got caught up in our own activities to dull the realization that the kids really were gone, two of them far away. No blame for that, I did it on my parents too. In fact, I moved out of home the same year as my grandmother passed on and my older brother got married. I had no idea of what I did to my mother, as I just didn't think about how she felt at the time. As a young person, you are pulled by where you think you should be and what you feel you have to do. You don't lose a thought about how your parents feel. At least I didn't. I know that she cried bitterly that Christmas as she was missing so many people at the same time.
Then our cat died a few months later. She had seen the boys grow up and had been a companion to all of us. She had reached the ripe old age of seventeen, which isn't bad for a cat. As you can guess, you could hear a pin drop in the house during the daytime now.
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