Why, hello there, empty nest, I’ve been expecting you. Or at least I thought I had. I was in that group of parents who felt sure that their children’s departure from home, either to university or other trajectory, would be a liberation, I would be feeling “free again” .
Don’t get me wrong, I love being a mother, it’s the best thing that ever happened to me and my proudest moments are inevitably connected with my children. Nonetheless, I was certain, that similar to pregnancy, where Mother Nature makes the last 4 weeks so physically uncomfortable that instead of being afraid of the birth, you positively welcome it – the final couple of years of living with your teen are so stressful and emotionally draining that again, you can’t wait to load up the car with all the stuff that’s been strewn over the house and take them to uni come September. I remember being a little cross that my son’s uni seemed to start later than anyone else’s. So imagine my surprise when I found myself crying intermittently and without apparent reason the days after dropping him at uni. In amongst the sadness and feelings of pointlessness I think I mainly felt confused!
I then did a little research and discovered that even though it felt a little like that, I was certainly not on my own. Lots of friends felt the same way, but, lo and behold, so did Madonna, of all people. According to Hello Magazine (so it must be true) the original material girl found herself crying on Lourdes’ bed after she had left for college. (More here)
And then, even more surprisingly, I found Rob Lowe’s testament to similar feelings! Yes, my teen crush and later best part of The West Wing (after Martin Sheen) said these incredibly moving words about his son leaving to go to college: “Today is my son’s Matthew’s last night home before college. I’ve been emotionally blindsided. I know that this is a rite many have been through, that this is nothing unique. I know that this is all good news. (…) But looking at his suitcase on his bed, his New England Patriots posters on the wall, and his dog watching him pack, sends me out of the room to a hidden corner where I can’t stop crying.” (Rob Lowe, Love Life, Simon & Schuster, 2015) And yes, I rushed out and bought the book.
It helped to find myself in good company but I still felt, well, a little empty. Instead of feeling “free again” I ended up wondering: “what now?” most unexpectedly. Somehow it was good to learn that even people with rather more successful careers such as Madonna and Rob are humbled into feelings of loneliness and confusion (“I felt bereft”a friend of mine in a similar situation said) by their offspring’s first steps into independence.
Children leaving home tends to coincide with other milestones in our lives giving cause for reflection – for example, I will turn 50 next year, my husband and I have now been married for 25 years and I have realised that the career hopes of my twenties will definitely not come to fruition any more. But even parents with successful careers are prone to plateau feelings at this stage. So it’s no wonder we are feeling thoughtful as we drive an unloaded car home from Readingham University…
It has now been nearly a year since my second child left for university and all going well my youngest daughter will follow in the others’ footsteps and also start studying this autumn, and there really will only be us and the slobbering Labrador during term time. I won’t kid myself that I will be skipping all the way to her halls of residence to unload the car but I hope that I won’t fall into quite the deep hole I fell into last year, either.
There were some hard-earned Dos and Don’ts that emerged for me and my friends which may be helpful to others, too:
- Meet up with people in the same situation as you. Remember how helpful your ante-natal class was not for the birth advice but for the social exchange with people who knew what you were going through? The same principle applies. Some other mothers and I met up a few times for a glass of wine and a general exchange about our kids’ settling in (or not) at uni. Feeling you’re not alone is one of society’s great healers!
- Start the family whatsapp group (or similar group chat). How did families cope before whatsapp? So much gets done via our family whatsapp whether it is travel plans, moaning about exam loads, sending the latest funny picture of your slobbery Labrador, discussing football results – although the latter has now been banned to a separate father – son football whatsapp. (I’m not being gender-stereotypical, that’s just how it worked out in our family)
- before you do anything else, do something positive. Introduce a health and fitness regime! I did this for my husband and I and we were able to stick to it because no children were around pleading for lasagne or worse, Chinese take away. It will also stop you from making any rash decisions and you feel better about yourself! Winning!
- Plan family meals when kids are home. Sound too simple? Trust me, it isn’t, to get everyone who may be working, meeting with their mates/bf/gf around the same table takes real effort but it is worth it. Looking back I can see why my parents worked hard at this.
- Think you’re the only one feeling a bit pointless at this time in your life, you’re definitely not. If people like Madonna and Rob Lowe are feeling overwhelmed by the empty nest, then it’s also okay for the rest of us. Just because it is yet another thing that our parents didn’t talk about doesn’t mean you’re over-emotional. After all, they also neglected to tell us how knackering babies were, didn’t they?
- Forget all those things you put on hold while you were busy raising your kids. If your ‘good art’ was killed by the proverbial ‘pram in the hall’ then now is the time to rediscover it. Maybe even fill those empty rooms into hubs of home industry, the group of 50something entrepreneurs is growing rapidly.
- Rush into anything. It took at least 18 years to raise your children, give yourself time to explore your options now for the next stage. I made a couple of hasty blunders which only set me back and I wish I had been more thoughtful.
- Ignore those who are not off on new ventures: your partner, your parents (if you are lucky to still have them around) and that slobbering Labrador! Yes, at first it seemed a bit strange to just have my husband and I sit at a table for 5 but we overcame the initial confusion of being able to speak without interruption, and now we are really enjoying it.
- Be too hard on yourself. Self pity is never great, but you’ve probably not thought much about yourself in the past 18 plus years, so there may be some pent up demand.
It may take time but eventually remember and recognise that you have an identity which is not tied to your kids. Scary? Yes, but also exciting.
So there may be less of this:
and maybe more of that