Where we stand when they’ve flown the nest: from uni drop off back to the empty nest

The uni drop-off

“A child enters your home and for the next twenty years makes so much noise you can hardly stand it.

The child departs, leaving the house so silent you think you are going mad.”

—John Andrew Holmes

Together with thousands of other parents all over the UK we dropped our youngest daughter off at university last Saturday. In fact, as we were crawling on Britain’s overloaded motorways we played spot the ‘Unayyy-car’ at the sight of other vehicles similarly loaded to the rim with student halls related boxes, bags and duvets and of course the nervous looking fresh undergraduate. It is an easy game, you shout: ” Unayyy” when you see a car like that. It was fun for the first two hours.

Samsung S6 2015 595
The classic Ikea moment on the hallway floor…
How could the fairy lights make it on the essentials list and the screwdriver didn't?
How could the fairy lights make it on the essentials list and the screwdriver didn’t?

Even though we had done this twice before and even though I have written a check list in a previous blog post, we had our frazzled moments trying to work out which order to do things in (gym membership first? – those induction slots go fast, or room first? – daughter was right, gym membership first) and from whom to borrow a screwdriver for the obligatory Ikea rack (How could we forget the screwdriver? The shame!) .

Somehow it all got done, we even kept our cool and went for a meal in town with the fresher, battling against her increasing FOMO (fear of missing out) and dropped her back in time to meet her flatmates gathering in the communal kitchen. And then came the goodbye which we kept short and simple. As my husband and I walked back to the car we saw at least 4 parents crying or at least blowing their noses in that noisy manner which spells: I’m not crying, really. Okay, maybe that was just me.

“A sob silenced,

A tear wiped dry,

A wave of the hand,

       And I choke on “goodbye”. “

Patricia Erikson at www.peakislandpress.com

It is an occasion, which had been hoped for, then worked, prepared and packed for, still comes as an emotional rollercoaster of pride, excitement and profound sadness even though we see it coming with our eyes wide open.

Friends or colleagues trying to be helpful will tell you not to worry ‘they will be back quicker than you think’ – and of course there is truth in that.  In our case, we don’t even strictly speaking have an ‘empty nest’ as our eldest has moved back in after graduating to work and save money for some travel plans.  But it’s still the end of an era, and the occasion of dropping your child in a different place for the next three years drives that end home very clearly.

Back home-

“Everything remained exactly where I had left it, even the TV remote.

I was like somebody in a fable who had got everything they wished for..

only to find out they didn’t really want it in the first place.”

Andrew Martin in The Guardian

So how do we react to this end of an era?

 “People make a lot of jokes about the empty nest. Let me tell you, it is no laughing matter. It is really hard.”

Michelle Pfeiffer

Well, there is always denial. Some people I know don’t enter the empty room left in their house and get on with their lives as if nothing had happened.

The worrying parent type continues to worry. What about those horrendous initiation rites at university sports/societies? I have heard some plain weird, some fairly harmless and then some awful descriptions, it has to be said – and why do the rugby ones always involve nudity?? (which is fine, unless it ends up on social media). Will Edwina/Hubert make friends? WillLet it go they even like their course? Will they eat properly? Will they drink too much? I think I can pretty firmly put myself in the worrying parent category, but even I can see what an utterly pointless waste of emotional energy that is.

‘Let it go’ .

Others throw themselves into everything else that has been on hold up until now, freed up as they are from school schedules and even spatially in their homes – I have to confess that we have had a re-jig in our home to make the most of the newly available room.

 “The thing is, when you have kids you’re such a captive to their school schedule so you get an invite or you want to go someplace or something, you have to be back (by a certain time). I’m very hands on so I have to break that habit,”

Susan Sarandon.

Like most things in life I don’t think there is a right or a wrong way to deal with this transition in life, as long as we acknowledge that it is happening. Our purpose as parents hasn’t ended but it will be different from now on. We’re less helicopter parent (if we ever were), more advisory capacity. For example don’t be the parent who visits their son at uni once a month to clean up his room and bring huge amounts of food (incredulous? trust me, these parents exist!) .

parenting advice, empty nest
Edwina is stressed? Say something helpful like this!

Be the parent who is just sympathetic enough when overtired Edwina skyping full of fresher’s flu has discovered the existence of essay deadlines and seminar preparations on a Sunday evening (this will probably be in late October).

Don’t be the parent who guilt-trips Hubert into calling home as this video hilariously sends up, be the parent who can take pride in their socially capable child.

 “A wise parent humors the desire for independent action,

so as to become the friend and advisor when his absolute rule shall cease.”

Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South. 

What wise Ms Gaskell is saying to me is that if life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans, according to John Lennon, then maybe parenthood is what happens amongst the chaos at home with you while you’re preparing your child to live as an independent adult.

By the way, looking at all these quotes about the empty nest by famous people: isn’t it telling how parents have felt this more or less painful transition since forever?  Which brings me to my final point: sharing your experience. New parents meet up in antenatal groups and find that the only people who understand (and let’s face it, are remotely interested) in their tales of birthgiving, breastfeeding and sleep deprivation are other new parents. We empty nesters should do the same. One of the best cures for those empty nester blues is to meet up with other empty nesters, have a coffee or a drink and a little moan and a lot of laughs about Edwina and Hubert’s efforts at uni and your own inability to break the habit of cooking big family meals or even just getting onto Netflix yourself.  How you deal with the transition itself is then a very personal thing which could involve increased energy at work or for those passions and hobbies for which you previously never seemed to find the time. Or even better still:  the empty nester-puppy. But that’s another blog post!

11 thoughts on “Where we stand when they’ve flown the nest: from uni drop off back to the empty nest

  1. Loved this piece. Will start playing Unayy with my own offspring when they finally leave the nest. Personally am looking forward to being able to find the remote control without taking every cushion off and looking under all the sofas but I get where he’s coming from. Great quotes and OMG I love that brilliant woman on facebook!

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  2. just dropped our eldest off at Uni today, managed to hold it together saying goodbye but was a nose-blower too! hubby coped better until we sat down to dinner tonight with our youngest, felt wrong having empty chair and it upset him 😦 your blog has helped me no end, thank you – am trying not to sob constantly as dont want my youngest upset, but its so hard, dreading work on Monday, just hope no snappy customers or they may get more than they bargained for!! :-)) xx

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    1. Hi Kay, they can be tough times, interesting to hear your husband felt the same. General consensus seems to be that the worst is over after 6 weeks… I hope the transition gets easier for you both!

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  3. thank you hun, woke up in floods this morning, feel I need to get a grip! guees have to let it out but dont want to upset DH or DS as well, so trying to do my sniffling quietly! she msgd last night that shes met fantastic people and she sounds so happy, shes worked incredibly hard all these years to get where she is so to hear her so happy Im trying to focus on that, thank you for your kind words and your blog is huge help! xx

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    1. I think that is exactly what makes this time so tricky is that on the one hand you are so excited for them and proud of them and on the other hand you miss their physical presence in the house. No wonder it takes time. I don’t know why but it made me feel better to know that others were going through the same thing. xx

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  4. Hi Susanne.

    I really like your blog. Lots of content. Nice posts but not to read them all so I think I follow and catch up with other posts later. Thanks for sharing

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  5. just seen this posted on MN, very apt.

    My local paper in the US has printed this every year since 2006 at this time of year (back to college time). It sums it up for me.

    “I wasn’t wrong about their leaving. My husband kept telling me I was. That it wasn’t the end of the world when first one child, then another , and then the last packed their bags and left for college.

    But it was the end of something. “Can you pick me up, Mom?” “What’s for dinner?” “What do you think?”

    I was the sun and they were the planets. And there was life on those planets, whirling, non stop plans and parties and friends coming and going, and ideas and dreams and the phone ringing and doors slamming.

    And I got to beam down on them. To watch. To glow.

    And then they were gone, one after the other.

    “They’ll be back,” my husband said. And he was right. They came back. But he was wrong, too, because they came back for intervals — not for always, not planets anymore, making their predictable orbits, but unpredictable, like shooting stars.

    Always is what you miss. Always knowing where they are. At school. At play practice. At a ballgame. At a friend’s. Always looking at the clock mid day and anticipating the door opening, the sigh, the smile, the laugh, the shrug. “How was school?” answered for years in too much detail. “And then he said . . . and then I said to him. . . .” Then hardly answered at all.

    Always, knowing his friends.

    Her favorite show.

    What he had for breakfast.

    What she wore to school.

    What he thinks.

    How she feels.

    My friend Beth’s twin girls left for Roger Williams yesterday. They are her fourth and fifth children. She’s been down this road three times before. You’d think it would get easier.

    “I don’t know what I’m going to do without them,” she has said every day for months.

    And I have said nothing, because, really, what is there to say?

    A chapter ends. Another chapter begins. One door closes and another door opens. The best thing a parent can give their child is wings. I read all these things when my children left home and thought then what I think now: What do these words mean?

    Eighteen years isn’t a chapter in anyone’s life. It’s a whole book, and that book is ending and what comes next is connected to, but different from, everything that has gone before.

    Before was an infant, a toddler, a child, a teenager. Before was feeding and changing and teaching and comforting and guiding and disciplining, everything hands -on. Now?

    Now the kids are young adults and on their own and the parents are on the periphery, and it’s not just a chapter change. It’s a sea change.

    As for a door closing? Would that you could close a door and forget for even a minute your children and your love for them and your fear for them, too. And would that they occupied just a single room in your head. But they’re in every room in your head and in your heart.

    As for the wings analogy? It’s sweet. But children are not birds. Parents don’t let them go and build another nest and have all new offspring next year.

    Saying goodbye to your children and their childhood is much harder than all the pithy sayings make it seem. Because that’s what going to college is. It’s goodbye.

    It’s not a death. And it’s not a tragedy.

    But it’s not nothing, either.

    To grow a child, a body changes. It needs more sleep. It rejects food it used to like. It expands and it adapts.

    To let go of a child, a body changes, too. It sighs and it cries and it feels weightless and heavy at the same time.

    The drive home alone without them is the worst. And the first few days. But then it gets better. The kids call, come home, bring their friends, fill the house with their energy again.

    Life does go on.

    “Can you give me a ride to the mall?” “Mom, make him stop!” I don’t miss this part of parenting, playing chauffeur and referee. But I miss them, still, all these years later, the children they were, at the dinner table, beside me on the couch, talking on the phone, sleeping in their rooms, safe, home, mine.”

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