Care and Feeding

The Lonely Mama

The kids are moving on, and I don’t know what to do with myself.

A woman stares forlornly out a doorway.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I am a single mother who has recently, in the past year, moved in with a kind and caring man whom I love very much. I have one son, aged 14, and an older son who is 26 and out of the home. My partner has two daughters, aged 16 and 18. The kids seem to have a normal stepsibling relationship: one part affection, one part annoyance, one part disinterest. Our home is beautiful, I love all the kids so deeply, and I’m very happy in my relationship.

But here’s the problem: I’m lonely. My history is that, even though I’ve been a single mom, I’ve always built a strong neighborhood community around me of other moms and parenting friends. Our kids always played together, we had dinner at one another’s houses when our kids were little, and we were all a family. Now all the kids are older, and everyone has gone their separate ways. I had thought that by moving in with my partner and his kids that we’d have some of that same communal energy. But it’s not happening. His kids are polite enough, but distant. I make food for everyone and try to get big rambunctious family dinners and barbecues together, but everyone is terribly blasé about it all.

I have asked my partner to help, and though he’s agreed to, it doesn’t seem that he prioritizes this sense of togetherness the way I do. I’m used to being every kid’s favorite auntie; I have always loved cooking for everyone, making kids laugh, setting up fun activities, taking kids to the beach or the park. But now that there are more kids in my house than ever, ironically, I feel less like myself than ever. I work an extremely intensive and stressful job, and family and kids have always been my replenishing space. Without that, I’m finding myself feeling somewhat purposeless. I wish this was a little problem, but it’s growing into a big one. I should be happy. But I’m not. Please help.

—Lonely Mama

Dear LM,

Oh, dearest Lonely Mama. As a very soon to be Lonely Papa, I feel for you. Because I don’t think this is about parenting styles. It’s about empty nesting. It sounds as though you have, for a tremendous portion of your life, defined yourself in relationship to your role as a mother. Your oldest son is in his 20s, so that means that you’ve been operating in the role of mother since the 1990s. Since the Clinton administration. Since before Google was incorporated. That’s a very long time. Not only have you been a mother, but you have found a tremendous amount of your sense of purpose and meaning in your ability to build and nourish a family and community around yourself. You have cared for your kids and the friends of your kids. You have made community dinners and planned outings. You have literally built a community around parenting and children. It was wonderful and fulfilling and beautiful.

But the season has changed. The kids you knew as little ones are all grown, or nearly grown. They are out into the world and are embarking on their own lives just as you embarked on yours all those years ago. Your partner’s kids, who have come into your life recently, are not available for field trips and picnics and dinners. They already have their own lives, in which you play only a small role. And even your youngest, who I’m sure loves you deeply, is at this point aching to face the world on his own. Your problem is not what to do with the kids—it’s what to do with yourself.

All transitions take time. They take time to recognize, and accept, and adjust to, which are three distinctly separate phases. First you must recognize what is happening. It’s not that your partner isn’t doing enough or that the kids aren’t loving enough. It’s that the phase in which your primary job is motherhood is coming to an end. Then there’s the question of accepting, rather than rejecting, that truth. And finally there is the matter of what to do with yourself now. Who will you be once this part of your being has passed?

Begin building relationships with your other parenting friends who, themselves, are beginning to look at empty homes. Set up regular dinners or coffee dates with them. Start looking at hobbies where you can find an outlet for some of the energy you’re used to devoting to kids. Maybe gardening, maybe art. Maybe if you have the energy and time for it, you can volunteer to read to kids at the library or the local elementary school. It seems like you are a person who really thrives in social settings, so maybe you set up a regular monthly potluck for your friends and whichever teenagers or young adults care to drop by.

You have done a tremendous job. The children in your life are happy and healthy and out in the world. That is directly because of who you are and what you’ve created for them. Now it is time to create a world for yourself.

More Care and Feeding:

My Anxiety Disorder Has Me Convinced This Baby Isn’t Mine

My Kid Won’t Stop Spitting

Can I Care for My Dying Mother and My Very Alive Kids in the Same House?

Slate Plus Bonus: My Daughter Wants to Know Why Girls Have to Cover Their Chests

Dear Care and Feeding,

Any advice on knife phobias? My 14-year-old is weirdly terrified of sharp knives. Today I saw her chop an onion with a butter knife. I pointed out that using a butter knife is far more dangerous than using a sharp knife, but she’s got some kind of issue on the subject of knives. (And no, she’s never been stabbed or cut.) I thought she’d make herself use sharp knives when her younger sister started using them but no such luck. I’m afraid she’s going to stab herself using butter knives.

—Edward Butterknifehands

Dear Edward,

Being reluctant to use knives is normal. I mean, they’re sharp and they can cut people. Seems reasonable. But typically, reluctance like this would subside with increased exposure to knives and an understanding of knife safety. Make every effort to expose your kid to knife use in order to normalize it and make it possible for her to have a successful experience with it. Buy her those little finger protectors or plastic knife shields. Show her knife safety videos and cutting techniques. Work alongside her, trading off cutting and instructing her along the way.

If you do all these things, and you still don’t see any progress, then what you’re dealing with is deeper than a fear of getting hurt. It’s quite possibly a phobia, a genuine medical condition that can be addressed as an anxiety disorder can. She may recognize that the fear response is irrational, but she still may need help in taking steps to override it. There may be underlying factors completely unrelated to knives. If you have insurance or can afford it, a visit to a therapist would be helpful in this case. If not, this WebMD feature on phobias is a good starting place for looking at resources to help your daughter.  Good luck.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When the jig is up about the Tooth Fairy, do you still give money for the teeth? We stopped, but I feel kind of guilty about ending it for the younger sibling a bit earlier than we did for the older one.

—Closing the Bank of Magic

Dear CBM,

With all due respect, what is wrong with you? Imagine if your teeth were falling out of your head. It’s painful and uncomfortable and unsettling. You walk around for days feeling like a rotting corpse while the people around you are blithely eat apples and pizza without fear. The inside of your mouth is a horror scene. Your bones are dangling by one bloody, gummy flesh thread.

The one consolation is that a magical creature takes pity on you and leaves a single dirty, crumpled bill under your pillow.  It won’t bring your teeth back, but hey, at least someone cares. Then you find out that there is no magical creature at all.  In reality, it is your parents who have loved you and pitied you so. And their response to your finding out is … to withhold the money??!! What has your child done to deserve this indignity? Nothing, I say. Nothing at all.

Pay the child. Do so at once. Include back pay as well as a 10 percent vig for your blatant disrespect.

—Carvell