This article first appeared on Positivepsychologynews.com
My first-born has left the nest. Like the little hatchling that built its strength until it was ready to stretch her wings, she has taken off into the real world. Like the mother bird that nurtured and tended, I watch her fly away with pride and just a little trepidation. Yet something deep within me watches her with out-stretched arms and a heart that aches with longing.
Everyone tells me it’ll be okay. They tell me that the more I see her settled, the better I’ll feel. They tell me that I need to call less frequently so she can find her own way. They tell me I need to withdraw my advice so she listens to her own head and heart. Yes, they tell me she will change, she will become independent, she won’t need me anymore. I’m sure all these are said to reassure me. The truth is they do not.
Her leaving home has brought an end to a phase in my life that I am not ready to let go of. Not can I. I still have 3 younger ones at home. I am still mommy the nurturer. My world hasn’t changed. Except it is missing one key player. That is causing me a lot of pain.
When I think of her, I still see the little kid who turned back to look at me even when lost in her world of Lego. Who ran to me for the smallest scratch and listened to my words like wisps of wisdom. Who chattered away at night with tales of friends and enemies, successes and failures and everything in between. Secure in the enduring bond that we have, she has moved on to explore her world. I, meanwhile, still cling on to the apron strings.
We all do tend to hold on to something at some stage in life, even when it is evidently past its expiry date. It could be a belief or a feeling, like a fear or some past resentment. It could be a behavior, like staying up late at night or something you insist others do, like my daily nagging that the children make their beds. Or it could be a desire, such as desperately wishing times wouldn’t change and children would never leave the nest even when it is time for them to move on.
What then do you do when you know that you’re holding on to something that you just can’t make happen?
The World of Strengths
Positive Psychologists Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman have identified 24 strengths that can be seen as Character traits – essentially the positive psychological traits of human beings. All 24 are inherent in us, although some come more naturally to us than others. The good news is that they can all be strengthened and used when the moment is right. I may not need to use my emotional regulation while comfortably sipping chamomile tea on my veranda but I certainly would need it when the little ones are squabbling over the last macaron.
The strength of Perspective
Perspective falls under the virtue category of wisdom and is indeed a synonym for being wise, insightful and understanding. It allows us to step back from what we are attached to and try to see the bigger picture. When I hold my situation in a larger time perspective, I can see the workings of a system that allows young adults to leave the nest and explore the world to eventually return home with a renewed appreciation. Similarly, when I expand my perspective to look at it from my daughter’s eyes, I can think of my own time when I first left home. The exhilaration that independence brought. The confidence that competence built. Would I want to deprive my child of any of that?
Hope is the Human Torch
We humans are the only species capable of mental time travel. When we find ourselves in a negative state, hope is a strength that allows us to move out of our present pain and see our world a few days/months/years from now. Neuro-scientific research, including the work of Tali Sharot, on the subject of optimism shows that for the most part we are optimistically biased to the extent of often being irrationally positive But that’s a good thing as optimists tend to face adversity better than pessimists.
When I see my world a few months from now, I am happy in the thought of her coming home for the winter break. When I see my world a few years from now, I am comforted in the thought of her living her life to the best of her abilities. Dr. Philip Zimbardo has developed a therapy called Time Perspective Therapy (TPT) that allows you to analyze your own time perspective and try to move it to a state of optimal functioning. A moderately high level of future orientation is important for a life of well-being and hope is a strength that allows us to do so.
The Need for Self-compassion
Self-compassion is the full picture of the strength of love and kindness. It is not possible to have a heart for the world when we deprive ourselves of this key human need. Professor Paul Gilbert at the University of Derby has done extensive research on compassion and notes that self-compassion is not mulling in our misery. Instead, it grounds us and makes us feel safe, thus providing us with the courage to do the things that may be blocking us. If I can empathize with the way I feel with love and understanding, rather than with criticism and judgement, I give myself the strength to change my reaction to my emotions.
Curiosity Leads to Well-being
Curiosity is one of the 5 strengths that positive psychology has revealed as particularly connected to higher levels of happiness. Hope and Love (above) are 2 more. Curiosity opens up our minds and our worlds by allowing us to take an interest in ongoing experience by exploring and discovering. It allows for good things to come into the space that’s been opened up by whatever we’ve let go of. Perhaps I may find that I now have more time, freedom, or energy to do the things that are perpetually on my to-do list. Who knows I may actually go through the pile of half-read books on my bedside table.
I know that my emotions will not change in a day or two. But simply honoring them as an understandable part of motherhood while recognizing them as a yearning that is not helpful, will allow me to make the change that is in my power to make. By using my strengths to do so, I will steadily build my resilience to thrive in the journey that is life.
After all, I have 3 more young ones yet to go.