Within the family, parents still play a large role, but the emphasis has changed. Even motherhood is not static; it contains at least three stages:(1) early motherhood, when the children are preschoolers are the mother is about 25 to 34; (2) middle motherhood, when the children are school aged and the mother is in the 35 to54 age range; and (3) late motherhood; when the children are18 or over and the mother is past 55. When women live to old age, the mother- child roles sometimes become reversed (Bernard, 1975). In middle age, the mother –and of course, the father –have children of high- school age or older. The mother often becomes an important confidante of her daughter, and sometimes of her son.
The father’s role changes somewhat, too. The very young father takes and interest in his children for a while and then, because of work pressures, becomes much less involved. Later on in middle age, middle-class men, at least, often seek to establish a closer bond with their children (Sheehy, 1976). To some extent they may succeed –adolescents typically admire their fathers (but at this age teen- agers are seeking autonomy and spend little time with either parent).
The father’s role depends partly on his social class, for lower- class fathers are generally less involved and more authoritarian than middle- class ones. Father with lees education may feel somewhat inadequate as their children’s education equals or surpasses their own. In addition, the more children there are in the family, the more authoritarian and controlling the father becomes. Middle –class parents reason with their children more, whereas lower –class parents use physical punishment (Troll, 1975).
As children move into and through adolescence, the parents’ roles subtly change. In the family, middle age is associated with children growing up and leaving home. The man may be threatened by the increasing power of his almost- grown sons at a time when his feelings of “ physical potency ” are declining (Fried, 1967). There may also be a shift in the locus of power within the family in middle age. The man may feel guilty about his aggressiveness up to now, and the woman may become the central figure in the family constellation. As time goes on, she becomes increasingly important, to the point that “ she pushes the father from the stage and seems to draw strength from his decline ” (Rosenberg & Farrell, 1976).
In recent years greater attention has been paid than before to the reciprocal nature of parent- child relationships. Elkind (1979) speaks of three basic contracts between parents and their children, one being responsibility and freedom. Parents allow their children freedom to the extent that children prove themselves responsible. Adolescent children may have friends over for the night if they make no disturbance in the house. A second contract concerns loyalty and committed. Parents will spend time with their children, being loyal and committed to them, if their children show respect for the parents’ beliefs and values and care more for them than for other adults. A third contract concerns support and achievement. Parents will be supportive of their children in various endeavors if the children achieve goals that the parents perceive as worthwhile. They will pay for their children’s college education if the children receive acceptable grades.
The Pluses and Minuses of Middle Age Parenthood
PROBLEMS. Certain problems are involved in being a middle- age parent. Young people often experiment with activities and things that their parents disapprove of, including cohabitation, smoking pot, and having premarital sex. Parents also worry about their almost-grown children’s dates, driving habits, and vocational choices. Nevertheless, they must avoid appearing to dictate to their children for fear of alienating them and severing the lines of communication.
Parents must also help their children become independent and resist the urge to bind them to themselves. While considerable attention has been paid to parents’ attachment to their children, far lees has been paid to their separation from them (Bardwick, 1974). Nevertheless, the bonds must be loosened if children are to mature. Healthy children are created not only through attachment but also through separation.
In a national sampling of married couples, the most often named anxieties concerned children’s illness or general worries about their children’s sickness, whereas parents of teen-agers were concerned about what their children did away from home. Some parents worried about drugs, alcohol, sex, and getting into trouble. They worried more about girls than boys because of concern over the girl’s reputation or possibilities of sexual attack or premarital pregnancy (Hoffman & Manis, 1978).
The most commonly mentioned disadvantage was the expense and the interference with the mother’s employment. Childless couples often mentioned being concerned with “ this trouble world, ” while parents of young children did not. Parents viewed world conditions in terms of the problems they might present to their children, while childless couples questioned whether they should bring children into such a mess. Parents also worried about children’s health and safety. Overall, lees-educated women had more alternative activities (Hoffman & Manis, 1978).
REWARDS. There are compensations, too, in childrearing, but they are somewhat different from what they use to be. In the past many parents relied on their children to perform chores in the home or supplement the family income by working. Parents also expected their children to support them when they grew old. Nowadays children’s own occupational achievements may provide prestige to their parents, particularly at a time when they are leaving the working world themselves.
There is lees child-parent conflict today, too, partly because the gap between the generations in basic values has narrowed; spouse relationships have become move equalitarian, the hierarchical power relations in the family having diminished. The matter of power within the family, predicts Yorburg (1973), will ultimately disappear, for parents will “ defer to and learn from children, if the occasion suggests, as they will defer to and learn from each other ”. Indeed, there has been a reversal in the traditional socialization patterns. Considering the current rate of social change, youth’s more flexible adaptation to change, and parent’s desire to comprehend their children, parents often imitate their children’s behavior rather than the reverse. Thus parents may seek to keep up with and link themselves to the changing world through their almost-grown-up children. Examples include “ language accumulation, even four-letter words, music patterns, and the new dance steps, and in some cases, hair styles and drug experimentation ” (Gunter & Moore, 1975) On the other hand, some authorities believe that the erosion of adult authority can go too far (Baumrind,1974). They believe that “ the roles of guide and guided are essentially hierarchical … and that youth will hardly seek advice from those whose status is exactly on a par with their own ” (Rogers, 1977).
In the national sampling cited above, when couples were asked how much satisfaction they gained from particular areas of life –their job, their spare-time activities, being married, work in around the house, and being a parent –96 percent of the mothers and 98 percent of the fathers indicated great satisfaction from being parents. For mothers at every stage no other area provided as much satisfaction as the parent role; but no such consensus existed among fathers. The educated working women reported satisfaction with their jobs more often than did either lees-educated mothers or men, whether or not they currently worked. Very often parents reported that they children were “ fun ”. When asked, “ What was more important in making you feel like an adult?” one in four of the women and one in six of the men mentioned having children as a fulfillment. Most young adults viewed parenthood with mixed emotions, but older ones viewed it very positively. (Hoffman & Manis, 1978).
INDIVIDUAL TESTIMONIES. Here several middle-age men and women indicated to what degree and in what way they have found their children satisfying.
FEMALE, AGE 59, HOUSEWIFE: My children have enriched my life enormously. I’d probably be a rigid old female without them.
FEMALE, AGE 41, TEACHER: I am enjoying them more now as a parent-friend since they are older and we can mutually share in our enjoyment of the things we do together.
MALE, AGE 50, STOGKBROKER: I have always been so busy with my work that I haven’t had much to do with my children. However, I do love them and am proud of them.
So far our discussion has concerned children who are almost or completely grown, but sometimes couples have their first child when they are middle aged. They do so despite certain risks. The chance of having a Mongoloid child after age 40 is much greater than in earlier years–about one in a hundred. However, the process of amniocentesis, by which a small amount of amniotic fluid is drawn by a needle from the uterus, has become 100 percent accurate in detecting Down’s syndrome (Mongolism) and various other chromosomal abnormalities. If it discovered that a woman is bearing a seriously handicapped child, the fetus may be aborted. Besides, a growing body of data suggests that the physical dangers of having a baby after age 35 have been exaggerated.
The wisdom of having children at this age depends partly on the parents’ motives. In some cases a woman may become pregnant in order to avoid making certain decisions, perhaps about reentering the work world. Sometimes the wife becomes pregnant because she finally decides that she does not want to miss the experience of bearing and raising a child. When older couples genuinely desire a child, they are usually very successful, level-headed parents, and better prepared financially than younger couples to provide care.
The “ Empty-Nest ” Stage.
The increasingly long empty-nest stage, the time after the children have grown up and left home, may be the most dramatic period in the family life cycle. This time has increased on the average from two to thirteen years, chiefly because people are living longer. This has many implications, the most significant being that not only does the empty-nest period occupy a notably longer fraction of the parents’ total life span, but also husband-wife relations subtly alter –for better or for worse –after the children leave home. Since the birth rate is declining and people are living longer, in the very near future married couples will spend more post parental years alone together than they did as parents (Cleveland, 1976). In addition, many wives seek employment to fill the gap created by the children’s leaving home. Meantime, a substantial number of such couples find it practical to live in smaller, more modern living quarters (Glick, 1977).
In the empty-nest period, parents are often portrayed as feeling desolate and alone. With certain exceptions, especially among women, the opposite is more often true. Many middle-age couples feel considerable relief when their children no longer consume so much of their money and time. Thus, “raising a family seems to be one of those tasks, like losing weight or waxing the car, that is lees fun to be doing than to have done” (Campbell, 1975).
On the other hand, the empty - nest period is not especially stressful for most women nor an important threat to their physical or psychological well –being. The only significant threat may be in having a child who does nor become independent at the expected time (Harkins, 1978).
Lower-middle-class women, just prior to emptying the nest, may display symptoms of stress; and they rarely receive real understanding from their husbands and adult children. At the same time, now that they are free from childrearing and experiencing a need for self-expression, they are put under greater demands for care from their spouses, their parents, and their parents-in-law. Also, adult children may return home, often with their own children, for free room and board after separation or divorce – a circumstance that may prove quite stressful (Fiske, 1980)
Women’ s adjustment at this stage varies somewhat according to social class. In a longitudinal study of transitions, newly married working class women, more often than older women, reported that their husbands were the boss; in these not highly educated, somewhat conservative segments of society, women experience many sociocultural barriers. After their children leave home, they have ambivalent feelings and often rather negative concepts of themselves; many wonder whether they have any other potential that can be developed. Some find new activities and consequently attain higher self-regard. Those who continue self-sacrificing tasks persist in not liking themselves very much and being dissatisfied with their lives (Fiske, 1980).
For some women, the initial empty-nest stage is brief. Many more young girls today are keeping their babies born out of wedlock and calling on their mothers to help with their rearing. The result, suggests Bernice Neugarten, is to place on younger middle-age women tasks they would prefer not to have. These 40-years-old women are mostly in the job market and do not wish again to become full-time mothers and homemakers (Hall, 1980)
In general, the children’s departure from home does not affect fathers as much as mothers because children have typically played a lesser role in their lives. Only a minority of fathers feel very disturbed by the children’s leaving home. A study of 118 postparental fathers, whose children had recently left home, indicated that most of the fathers felt either neutral (35 percent), somewhat happy (26 percent), or very happy (16 percent). The fathers who were most unhappy about the last child’s leaving were also those who felt the least compatible with their wives or most neglected by them (Lewis, Freneau, Roberts, 1979).