Empty nest syndrome: The long goodbye

Posted on November 19, 2016

Yesterday I got a call from my 19-year-old daughter Alice in Cambodia, who had been due home tomorrow, to say that she would be staying for another month. At first I can honestly say I felt what parents are supposed to when they're letting go: that it's great she's so independent, having such fabulous experiences, that she feels secure enough to go so far. She was the last of my three children to leave when she went to university last September, and because she's a few years younger than her brothers, Adam, 24, and Paul, 26, I've been let into the empty nest gradually.

But today I just miss her. It's a horribly physical, queasy feeling, and there's no point even trying to be rational. Other mothers describe the same kind of visceral wrench: a hand goes to the heart as they say they feel bruised, ill, hollow, empty when a child leaves home.

But what did I expect? Bringing up children is such a physical business. I mourn the passing of an era, the loss of babies who breastfed, the toddlers who held my hand on the beach, who cuddled up and read Alfie on the sofa, who demanded all of my attention. And I miss their teenage selves, too - all that hanging about, watching telly together, the chance conversations, the smell of them - that elusive mix of feet, fags, aftershave and Coco Mademoiselle.

Friends try to cheer you up by saying "they'll be back", or "you can always Skype them", but that misses the point. Of course technology helps, but it's no substitute for the real thing. Communication in our family is mostly non-verbal, and anyway you can't tell your child's mood from a text. I hate the fact that these days meetings have to be scheduled, and it always feels so poignant when afterwards the children go back to the new addresses they now call home. Some of my saddest memories are of sitting tongue-tied in Starbucks in some university town, stuck in limbo before you have to say goodbye yet again.

The physical ache is there whether you work or not. This has been a revelation to my generation of working mothers. We're still stuck with the idea that the empty nest affects only a very traditional kind of housewife - someone like my own mum, who taught part-time but built her life around her husband and four children. As the youngest by a long chalk I observed how bereft she was when my siblings left home. And as a result I resolved, even before my children were born, to maintain a strong separate identity through my work. I assumed my career would insulate me from the isolation and redundancy associated with empty-nest syndrome.

It worked, but only up to a point. Full-blown empty-nest syndrome - debilitating grief and loss of purpose - is mercifully rare, but that doesn't mean the transition isn't still painful and complicated, as well as exciting and discombobulating. When I started interviewing parents for my book about the empty nest, it was clear that working mothers find it just as hard as stay-at-home mothers. Despite having several part-time jobs and plenty of interests, their primary identity still was being a mother.

For mothers today the empty nest is less straightforward. Whether they work full-time, part-time or stay at home, women often feel less certain about the decisions they made than their mothers, whose choices were more limited. Regret about whether I made the right decision is a big part of the empty nest. I never regret not giving up work, but I do regret my dodgier decisions about childcare, spending so many weekends working and not taking the kids on more outings - I regret not enjoying them enough, basically. Overnight I've turned into one of those middle-aged women who peer into pushchairs and warn young mums to make the most of it.

But the empty nest is not all sadness and regret. Life goes on, and I've gradually found that this new phase can be weirdly exciting. I quite like feeling that the carpet's been pulled from under me. It makes you question everything: your relationships, your achievements, your work, how you enjoy yourself, how much time you waste on admin.

And like many empty nesters, now that the dust has settled, I've got more energy - energy which, almost without you realising it, has been absorbed by other people's emotional, physical and psychological needs for 20-odd years. Having less mess, cooking and laundry is only a small part of it. Eight years into my empty nest, I'm still not sure whether I'll ever be as happy as I was when I had young children. But at least I've got over the initial feeling of purposelessness. It has been replaced by a new sense of urgency about making the most of whatever comes next, and I'm beginning to feel what the most contented empty nesters feel, that the time is right to move on. Well, just as soon as I've Skyped Alice in Cambodia, that is.

To read the full article, click on the link below.


Category(s):Family Problems, Parenting

Source material from The Independent


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