This, by miles, is the most challenging period. The transformation from being a couple to being parents is not just a matter of “and baby makes three.” Rather, it involves a quantum leap in stresses, adjustments and new experiences. The decision to have children will affect each spouse’s individual development, their family identity and the marital relationship itself. Each of them now has three distinct and demanding roles: as an individual, as spouse, and as parent. Minimally, that is, since this is also known as the Sandwich Generation, from which both younger and older generations demand attention.
Thus, individual identities have to shift, along with ways of relating to each other and to those outside the immediate family system. Skills not learned in previous stages will be difficult to pick up at this point. If one has not previously learned compromise and commitment, one may not possess the skills needed to negotiate through this stage well. Separation and extramarital affairs often occur during the raising of small children, mostly because one or both spouses have not learned proper life skills. Maturity indicators such as the ability to communicate well, to maintain relationships and to solve problems are often tested during this stage.
For those who are able to learn the proper skills, this can be a very rewarding, happy time, even with all of its challenges. Optimally, one develops as an individual, as a member of a couple and as a family. And much consolation comes too from children who are growing well, healthy in mind, body and spirit.
Some psychologists further divide this period into two sub-stages: parenting young children and parenting adolescents. This is definite testament to the fact that parenting is a gargantuan, complex job. (In fact, we will next have a special discussion on adolescence alone.) The goals for the early parenting stage include adjusting the marital system to make space for children; taking on parenting roles as mature adults; realigning existing relationships with the extended family to include parenting and grand-parenting roles; becoming decision-makers for the growing family; and providing a safe, loving and organized environment for the children.
Later, when the children enter adolescence, the goals will additionally include modifying the parent-child relationships to allow the children to make their own transitions into adulthood; shifting personal focus towards midlife transitions (we will feature this life-stage separately as well); and taking care of marital and career issues. It is usually during the stage of parenting adolescents when the spotlight needs to enlarge further, as concerns for the older generations in the extended family escalate.
Launching Adult Children
At the moment the first child leaves home, this stage begins, and it ends with the “empty nest,” when all the children have been released into their own lives. In families who have satisfactorily learned the necessary skills, the young adult offspring will be ready to leave home and handle life’s challenges, and the parents will be quite willing to let them go.
The launching of adult children affords the married couple time and opportunity to re-prioritize. Shifting the focus from raising the children to being a couple again is part of the goals for this period. If the husband and wife have not transitioned through the past stages together, they may no longer feel compatible with each other and have much work to do. Inability to handle the tensions and readjustments necessary during this phase have led some couples to separate. On the other hand, there can be much joy in a rekindled marriage.
Many couples at this junction also rethink their jobs and careers, and even establish new career goals. However, this is also the time when health and energy levels may decline. Another task may involve the realigning of relationships to include in-laws, as the offspring marry. Grandchildren are also welcomed at this time.
Retirement or Senior Stage of Life
This stage is characterized by freedom from the responsibilities of raising children and the enjoyment of the fruits of one’s life’s work. Many seniors are able to explore new family and social roles: grand-parenting, mentoring, volunteering among them.
At the same time, it also brings the decline of physical and mental abilities. It thus becomes important to maintain one’s own interests and physical functioning, along with those of one’s spouse. Even as the bodies age, intellectual, social and emotional development can be nurtured and can bring happy rewards. Changes in financial or social status may also occur at this time. In addition, there are those who, in their senior years, are called upon to continue providing emotional (even financial) support for adult children and extended family members.
The quality of life during this phase depends on how well adjustments have been made in all the earlier stages. This is the time for reviewing life, reflecting on lessons and experiences, and passing them on to the younger generations. Part of the family’s tasks for this phase is to make room in the family system for the wisdom and experience of the older adults and to provide support without over-functioning for them.
Many at this point also have to deal with the loss of a spouse, siblings, and other peers, and prepare for one’s own death.
Each family life is unique, yet underneath all our differences lies a universality, a sameness that binds all families together. The Creator’s design is so complex and so simple all at once. And regardless of what life brings to our families, we parents hold, in our hands, the power to make the best or the worst of it that we can. It seems we are creators too.
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Aldous, J. (1990). “Family Development and the Life Course: Two Perspectives.” Journal of Marriage and the Family 52:571–583.
Baxter, L. A.; Braithewaite, D. O.; and Nicholson, J. H. (1999). “Turning Points in the Development of Blended Families.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 16:291–313.
Bengston, V. L., and Allen, K. R. (1993). “The Life Course Perspective Applied to Families over Time.” In Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, ed. P. Boss; W. Doherty; R. LaRossa; W. Schumm; and S. Steinmetz. New York: Plenum.
Family Life Cycle by Ralph Poor, everettclinic.com
Family Therapy: An Overview by Goldenberg and Goldenberg