The Empty Nest really was agony. I still remember hearing their keys in the lock, cooking far too much food (still do that!) and crying at the sight of a tidy house. All the years of nagging them to pick stuff up and put dishes straight in the dishwasher and now I longed for something to trip over.
There is nine years between my girls (I swapped husbands in the middle) so when the eldest left for university, I still had my ‘baby’ at home, teetering on the brink of puberty. And that kept me busy!
It helped, but the loss was still enormous. I cried all the way home from York after waving goodbye. Bless her, she knew her Mum and rang up before we even reached home to say she was fine and meeting some great people.
The reassurance did help and I soon discovered that as long as I knew she was OK, I could settle. As long as I could trust her to call when she needed me, I got on with my own life. One happy girl led to one happy busy mum with plenty to do. One unhappy girl and Mum was pre-occupied and wanting to rush up to York to sort it all out.
Exploring the empty nest
Once I understood first hand what it was like to miss a child, I began wondering how other parents managed. I visited a number of women’s groups to talk about the Empty Nest and how they were doing. They sounded just like me – missing the noise, the mess, the endless cooking and washing; worrying what was happening and longing for the phone to ring.
But most of all, they spoke about what next
Of those in relationships, many were feeling adrift. Focus had been on the kids for so long that they’d lost track of each other as a couple. Many of the Mums had found purpose in being the carer, describing their partners as ‘just another kid’ to be attended to. One women told me of the day she wondered ‘who’s this old geezer I’ve got to look after?’
It wasn’t at all what I expected to hear. Even the career Mums saw themselves as primary carer, holding the string to all the different elements: stocking the fridge, knowing and checking on progress with the new boy/girlfriend, worrying about schoolwork, following fashion in order to make sure they stay decent, mopping up tears and anger when it’s all desperate. Some Dads are great at this; others leave it to Mum. And Mum can usually be trusted to know the score and be ready for the next challenge.
After all that pre-occupation a really big space opens up when they take their problems, delights and needs away to manage themselves. What then? What is life about once being Mum is no longer a priority. It’s a matter of identity and a major life change.
I had a double whammy when Miriam left. One weekend we loaded up the car and she moved to Drama School and the next weekend my eldest got married. Even though she’d left home long before, there is something symbolic about that walk up the aisle. Now she was really gone – now she was someone else’s responsibility.
I remember going to the physio in between those weekends for treatment on a trapped nerve and he told me that his primary patients in the autumn are empty nesting mums managing a ‘pain in the neck’!
Once all the excitement of the wedding was over, I was distraught. I’d lost my raison d’etre. Who was I, if not a mother? I know now that Mother is never done, but then I really thought it was all over. I cried and grieved. I longed to call, but knew I needed to give them both space to find themselves and their new way of living. It was a tough time all round.
Then we went on holiday to China
It had been planned for a while and it served me in a way I never expected. Having worked hard to keep Kleenex in business, I now set off for Yangshou, Xian and the Forbidden City. I don’t know if you’ve been to China but it’s the strangest experience to look at every advert, sign or poster and have not the foggiest idea what they mean. It was all incomprehensible – and that was perfect. By the time we came back, I’d recovered and was ready to start afresh as a very different sort of Mum.
In retrospect China, an alien land, was a wonderful mirror of life at home. It was totally unfamiliar, with no signposts to tell me how to manage. And it was just the two of us. We had to navigate together and explore together. The whole adventure brought us close again and we learned that we can manage anything as long as we work side by side.
Empty nest took one life away and let me begin another
I finally learned to allow the new life to emerge even while I grieved the old. For us it was very different because we had never been on our own. There had always been three of us. But for so many couples, the impact is the same: it’s just us now; and we’ve forgotten how to function as a pair.
The big question looms large – after all that care and focus on others, who am I now? And for those in a relationship, the big question – do I even like this other person when there are no kids to act as a buffer? And for the single Mums: do I want to be with someone else now or am I happy as I am? And if I do – what sort of person will be worth the effort?
The child sized gap is both a loss and an opportunity.
Just as the kids are starting a new adventure, so are you. Now you can explore being independent again, to take the trips you want or to learn a new skill. It’s your life now.
So give grieving your best shot – it has to be done – with as much wailing and gnashing of teeth as you need. Then draw the line and go exploring – alone or together – and begin the next stage of your life. It’s tough, unusual, demanding, but worth the effort.
What did I actually do?
I’ll give that some thought in case it will help you move forward. Watch this space!
Let me know how you’re getting on with your Empty Nest.