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  • Alisa Stamps

Separation-Individuation for Soon to be Empty Nesters (as seen in: Jennifer Magazine)

Updated: Aug 14, 2023

I’m already feeling it. I was sitting in my car the other day and “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)” by John Lennon came on the radio—yes, I still listen to the actual radio—and I started sobbing. Like tears streaming down my face, stifling the sounds, sobbing. And my daughter hasn’t even left for college yet. I still have one more year. I still have only one more year.

Only one more year of hearing about her day and what they had for lunch. Only one more year of asking for her help with some sort of tech problem that I’m too old to figure out on my own. Only one more year of pouring out her morning OJ into their favorite Sondheim musical mug. And only one more year of dragging myself up the stairs at the end of the day to her room to say our goodnight’s. The separation process, at least emotionally, has already begun.

As a psychotherapist that specializes in working with adult children of narcissists, I speak a lot about the idea of separation-individuation. A part of and a part from. Dr. Karyl McBride the author of Will I Ever Be Good Enough: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, as well as other psychological literature, explains separation-individuation as “defining a sense of self and as differentiation, and that psychological separation is an internal process that has noting to do with geographical separation”(pg. 155 and 156).

How do we do this as parents? We hope that we’ve done enough giving of autonomy to our children that they can separate in this way from us, but after years of on-site caretaking, how do we do this for ourselves? How do we prepare to not be “active” parents any longer as we head into empty nests?

This has obviously been top of mind for me lately. The places I go socially often have to do with the activities that my daughter participates in. I work from home three days a week, so that doesn’t get me out of the house very much--I have felt an urgency to scramble to find places to go and explore hobbies that are of my making. To release myself from my daughter’s orbit, just a little bit, so that I can discover some of my life choices again.

So I’m trying things. I’ve gotten back into tap dancing and found that I still enjoy it, though my body sometimes not so much. I’ve looked into singing with a community choir—but I can be a bit of a music diva, so we will see if I actually stick with that one. I took ice skating lessons, but to my dismay I did not master a triple axle, let alone even attempt one, as my over-confidant imagination had lead me to believe that I would. But I will keep trying and exploring.

James Materson, the author of The Search for the Real Self, describes in it the main capacities of the authentic self. Some of these that he includes are:

-The capacity for self-activation and assertion—You can identify your dreams and desires.

-Creativity—You can find solutions to problems and defuse negatives with positives.

-The ability to be alone—You can enjoy a relationship with yourself.

-The ability to soothe painful feelings—When life creates painful situations, you can comfort yourself.

-The capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply with liveliness, joy, vigor, excitement, and spontaneity—You allow yourself to feel your authentic feelings and do not create barriers to numb. (pg. 160-161, Will I Ever Be Good Enough).

Maybe as I try, I also need to make room for the grief that is unfolding, as James Masterson states. I’m going to be sad—I am already sad—and that’s okay. As I tell my clients, we can hold the “yes, and”. We can hold the spectrum of complex emotions at once—sadness, excitement, relief, etc, and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We can also continue to discover our authentic non-parent selves and grow in the separation-individuation process while still feeling these emotions. And these feelings may come in waves, when we are least expecting it, in places we never imagined. Like when we are sitting in a car, stuck in traffic, and a song about a father and son comes on the radio.

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