I’ve done that very rare thing of following my own advice and met up with some lovely parents since uni drop-off day to catch up with how everyone has been getting on. An entirely different occasion happened to be my high school reunion (30th – ouch!). Not only have these been fun evenings out (and easily planned – one of the empty nest’s massive bonuses!) but I also learned a lot:
- I learned that the empty nest experience is a universal one, given that my high school reunion was in Germany, where I grew up. Combined with the fact that most of our year group was or will be reaching the big 5-0 round about this time, general consensus was that it was ‘a strange time in life’. Yes, even a group of burly six foot North German alumni, unaccustomed to my adopted Anglo-American way of dealing with things by ‘sharing’, confessed to finding it ‘tough’.
2. I learned that hugging burly six foot North German alumni is an excellent way of dealing with a little emotional empty nester moment.
3. I learned that not being family prize-nagger any more is actually very nice. Somehow I still find myself being family travel agent, postal service and admin assistant but I am hoping to either relinquish those roles in due course or at least negotiate a pay rise. The nice thing is that they suddenly learn about all the stuff you did for them as you can see from these text messages!
4. I learned that contrary to years of living the life of an alarmophobe, my son can operate and respond to an alarm clock. Okay, an alarm app. But still. Gets himself out of bed before midday and everything.
5. I learned that for spontaneous, practical and very often plain hilarious family conversations for the scattered family, you can’t beat whatsapp or facebook messenger group chat. I don’t care what anyone says, snapchat just isn’t the same, it’s simply less interactive
6. On a girls’ night out, I learned once again that there is rarely a better time to be a woman than in a female friendship group chatting about similar experiences. I don’t know how men get through life without that kind of camaraderie, advice, humour and empathy.
7. I learned all about freshers’ flu. It may have struck your child already, or it is about to. The number of freshers or even 2nd year students making it through the first term without illness is in the minority. Lecture halls resonate with the sound of coughing in the back rows, students are squinting through conjunctivitis in their eyes and and barely able to speak because of their sore throats. In fact, most of them feel like they have never been so ill.
The reasons are plainly obvious: lack of sleep, terrible diet, probably a fair amount of alcohol abuse in hot and sweaty party places with lots of young people sharing their germs freely and washing their hands infrequently, followed by more sleep deprivation and the stress of managing life on their own in new surroundings will chip away at our freshers’ immunity systems very quickly.
Why does it make them feel so much worse than the colds and sniffles they had at home? Because this is probably the first occasion where they have to look after themselves when they are unwell. And whilst it is nice to get a ‘get well’ text from mum, it just isn’t the same as being tucked up at home with cups of hot lemon and honey and mum’s chicken soup and sympathy (even if this tended to run out on day three at the very latest).
What can we university parents do about this? Not that much, as that is also part of the whole growing up malarkey I have been blogging about, but we can be helpful along the way. In very real ways by making sure our kids know how to deal with over the counter medication and are equipped with a thermometer. If not – then maybe include that in my next suggestion: the care package. From the hairy-arsed rugby player to your strong independent woman there isn’t a fresher in the world who doesn’t appreciate a care package from home at mid-term. Include food items, vitamin C supplements, a note, anything they’ve forgotten (I was asked for washing up gloves, just in case I had forgotten how middle class I really was) and my personal favourite: sage tea to gargle away that sore throat (it’s a miracle cure, try it, just don’t drink it, it’s very bitter).
Despite all this I learned from other parents that it is probably too early for your child to come home for a visit, even if the fresher’s flu is compounded by homesickness, and a craving of any kind of decent food and a hot bath. Instead it may be a good time to visit your child at uni, bring some forgotten items, bring food and some enthusiasm for their university town.
8. I learned that non-communicative boys can make the empty nest a place filled with worry – or blissful ignorance! Meanwhile, communicative girls can tempt us to try and resolve issues for them – when the whole purpose of moving away from home is to work out how to function independently. I learned (from a dad) that the way to deal with this is to listen and empathise. His words: commiserate but don’t facilitate. My new mantra!
Jimmy and Doug. Empty nester dogs. Milking it.
9. I learned that the only sign my son shows of having a bad day at uni is when he asks for a picture of the slobbering Labradors.
10. I learned in these conversations that many of us were comparing all this to our own experiences when we left home, many of us at age 18 – 19 without ever moving back. The hidden meaning behind these comparisons is that leaving home and working out how life works detached from our parents made us the more or less capable grown-ups we are today. The implication being that not doing it that way will result in adults who throw their hands in the air at the slightest challenge and expect a solution to be presented on a platter. I learned from talking to friends and other parents that even though we are all aware of this, we find it hard to keep out entirely. We like being helpful. Another indicator that this time is a huge learning curve for everyone involved, students and parents alike. I’m learning all the way…