Columnist on launching children • Jennifer Smith
The next stage of the family life cycle is launching children and moving on. This stage is a series of accepting a multitude of exits from and entries into the family system. This phase of the family life cycle is the newest and longest, and for these reasons can present some of the most problems. Until about a generation ago, most families were occupied with raising their children for their entire active adult lives unto old age. Now, because most families have two or three children instead of 10 to 12 children, and also because of the long life span of most adults, parents launch their children almost 20 years before retirement and must then find other life activities.
The challenges of this time can lead families to hold on to their children in unhealthy ways or can lead to parents feeling empty, depressed or wondering what to do with their lives. This can be particularly true for women who have focused most of their time and energy on their children and now do not know what to do since they are gone.
It can also be particularly difficult for the marital bond. The degree of conflict or closeness is directly related to the nature of the marital relationship to this point. If the family has been completely child focused without the continued nurture of the marital relationship, then the absence of children in the home can create distance and conflict. The reverse is also true. If the martial relationship has been nurtured even while raising children, then this stage has the possibility of having more depth and more expression of love than any other stage in the family life cycle.
Couples who have spent time defining and developing a sense of self while also raising children do not feel as “lost” when the children leave. They may miss their children, but can also experience a feeling of relief when they have successfully launched their children and begin to develop adult to adult relationships with them. They may also have more financial freedom to explore travel, hobbies, or new careers. Another change in the system is the realignment of relationships to include in-laws and grandchildren should adult children marry or have their own children.
There is a maturity that can be present at this stage depending on how the couple has historically managed the individual/togetherness balance. Studies indicate that to the extent that the partners in the couple have maintained their individuality, while also being a part of the family, then major life transitions will be accomplished more smoothly.
Another important task for the couple at this stage is negotiating the care of their aging parents. Most individuals in this middle generation lose one or both of their parents, and they themselves become the older generation. This stage of the family life cycle has the potential to go either way, depending on how previous stages were handled. Being adaptable to change is key.
Printed in the September 6. 2012 edition.