Are You Still a Mother After They’ve Left?


I handed him a baby spoon filled with pureed carrots, something I’d done countless times before. Normally my son would grab the spoon with both hands, only to splatter the contents everywhere before it reached his mouth. But this time was different. This time, he used his left hand and the spoon made it to his nose first, then to his lips. I remember this not only because it was his first step towards independence, but because as a new mom, I was relieved to put this milestone behind us. There were lots more to go and I had no training as a parent. It’s not as if I’d interviewed for the role. I only knew that I wanted it, wanted him, wanted to be his mother. It was the job of a lifetime. But would love and instinct be enough to see me through almost two decades, and him off to college?

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Two years later, by the time his brother was born, I was in the groove. I’d found great pediatricians, enlisted the advice of other parents, and read copious books about parenting. All the while, I continued to work full-time—sleep-deprived, commuting for as many as four hours a day, getting promoted—until what I mostly felt was guilt, for either being away from my boys or away from my job. My husband worked full-time as well and it became clear that something, or someone, had to give.  After much discussion I decided that my career dreams could wait. The role I most identified with, first and foremost, was that of mother to my sons. Especially since it was all or nothing in my particular ladder-climbing workplace—there was zero in between.

So I went freelance and became my own boss. It turned out to be the best decision for my family, though not a great one for my identity apart from being a parent, something I didn’t realize until much later down the road, when I looked back.

And now, here I am all these years later, and both of my sons are in college—and I’m wondering if I’m supposed to stop thinking of myself as a mother, first and foremost.

I’m profoundly different now than I was when my first child was born. Mothers grow, too. Nobody talks about just how much. We start out as undergraduates in parenting and when all is said and done, we’ve earned advanced degrees in medicine, psychology, research, teaching, business and more. Yet it’s the only profession that I know of where so many women who have accomplished so much end up being not only undervalued, but told to buck up and get on with their lives when the primary job they’ve held for two decades slowly becomes irrelevant. It’s worth noting that after twenty years, members of the military can retire and draw up to half their pay.

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I’ve read studies that say it’s all about the marriage—if you have a strong marriage, you won’t feel the same sense of loss when your kids leave home. Others say it’s about your lack of self-esteem, or the fact that you don’t have a career, or if you have one, it’s the wrong one.

I enjoy my work, it makes me happy. But my heart only beats for the people I love, and some of those loves are leaving home.

At times, this last year has felt like The Long Goodbye as one routine after another falls away. It sure makes it difficult to ignore the loss of a role intrinsic to my identity for the last 21 years.

So many milestones have passed since that day my son fed himself for the first time. And as it turns out, yes, this was the job of a lifetime, and yes, love and instinct have served me well in my role. Which is why I cannot simply flip a switch and get over the loss in an instant.

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I know, of course, that it’s not really a “loss” at all—my boys have matured to become kind, thoughtful, productive and curious young men. They make me proud every day. But I’m only human, and therefore subject to feelings that have nothing at all to do with logic.

The way I see it, until science figures out how to make mothers who look like mothers but are actually computers, who can successfully raise a family by logic alone—and at this rate, that will be sooner than later—I make no apologies for my complex, beating heart.

Forever and always a mother, then. Though perhaps no longer first and foremost.

About the writer


Melissa T. Shultz is a writer, and an editor with Jim Donovan Literary. Her essays and articles have run in publications such as The Washington Post, The Dallas Morning News, Reader’s Digest, The New York Times, Ladies’ Home Journal,, Newsweek, The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Club Mid,, and The Los Angeles Times as well as CNN Radio. She was previously director of creative services for Food Marketing Institute in Washington, D.C. Her first book will be published by Sourcebooks in 2016. Follow her on Twitter and her blog, Sisterhood of


C. Lee Reed 2 years ago

Perfectly said and I echo those sentiments. Thank you for writing.

valerie 2 years ago

i’ve never gotten over my children leaving home and i never will. they have busy, career-driven lives in cities that are not near to me. i don’t get to talk to them frequently and hardly ever see them. i’ve tried finding a new career. i went back to college and finished my degree. i started a small business. i tackled “bucket list” projects. nothing makes my life matter or fills it with joy like parenting.

i am constantly baffled by the reaction of people to my dilemma. i have been called “selfish” by countless people. selfish would be manipulating my children into staying close to home, as i see many parents doing, including the ones who call ME selfish. encouraging them to follow their dreams, no matter how far away they take them is selfLESS. it often feels like i’m the only mother alive who struggles with my decision to put my children’s need for independence and fulfillment ahead of my desire for their companionship.

Sandra 2 years ago

I have one who just graduated from college and has moved to another city for work. It is NOT the same as him leaving for school!! It now feels like he’s gone forever. My second is a sophomore in college, also in another city. I’m still lost and unsure what I want to be when I grow up. Lol. Too many years spent as a stay at home mom means my college degree doesn’t mean much anymore and I’m not really interested in the field now anyway. I’m slightly schizophrenic these days, waffling between being thrilled that my children are healthy, happy, and doing well on their own, and saddened that they don’t need me anymore. My mother never warned me about this stage of life. On the up side, I guess a whole new world has opened up for me!!!!

MomsThoughts 2 years ago

I have a daughter in college who chose to spend her winter break in UK and a very independant son who is a h.s. senior with one foot out the door so very ready to spread his wings and soar! I am SO proud of them. I still love that every day at 2:30 the front door flies opens and he comes right to me as he has done every day since Kindergarten to relay the news of his day at school. He naps (like just like he did when he was 3) and then rushes out to work delivering pizza’s. The highlight of my day with both my children has been at 2:30 for the past 15 yrs or so. I know I am going to really struggle next fall when the clock hits 2:30 and no one walks through that door every day. I refuse to surrender my title of Mom though. I worked way to hard earning that title and intend to wear it until eternity.

    Melissa T. Shultz 2 years ago


Sarah in oz. 2 years ago

Thank you for this, Melissa. My oldest is about to turn 13, and i can already feel the fear of the anticipation of him becoming an adult and having his own life. This same year, my youngest started primary school, and with that, the window closed on that season of having kids at home. I also work freelance from home, and am so glad i did it. I joke that now that i am on the verge of my fortieth birthday, i really should decide what i want to be when i grow up! But what ever i do or choose, my greatest acheivement ever, the one that was the hardest, and at times most excruciating job, was that of being a mother and raising future adults with independent, full lives.

    Melissa T. Shultz 2 years ago

    So now I am teary…well said.

Lisa_GrandmasBriefs 2 years ago

This is beautiful and heartfelt, Melissa. And my, oh, my! We are ALWAYS mothers. When does a child stop needing their mother for moral support and a listening ear, if nothing else? Never.

With three adult daughters, there are many days I’m just as busy as when they were young, tending to their requests for support and advice.

A mother’s job may be to raise her children to not need her but there’s nothing in the job description that says raising them to not want her. Thankfully, my children still want me in their lives.

Motherhood changes but it never ends. And if you’re lucky, you get promoted to GRANDmotherhood.

Lovely post. Thank you for sharing.

    Melissa T. Shultz 2 years ago

    Those are smart daughters you must have.. Thanks for reading this and for the great advice…

karen 2 years ago

I love your posts, Melissa. And much as I love my babies, I do look forward to the day when it’s not ALL about them anymore.

    Melissa T. Shultz 2 years ago

    Thank you, Karen. I so appreciate your following me. And I totally understand what you’re saying.I do, still, sometimes hide my favorite cookies before they come home for a visit.

Susan 2 years ago

This is beautiful; as a mother of young kids, I can’t imagine that day.

    Melissa T. Shultz 2 years ago

    Thanks, Susan. Take your time. The day will come soon enough…


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