Sunday, 17 September 2017

Home alone parents: the empty nest


Boys you are men
And I know that
But when I get back
From dropping you off at university
You are standing up in your cot
Still needing me.

It’s that weekend again. The one when cars are loaded up, pets are petted one final time and young people are driven to cheaply built student halls to start a life without you.

It’s what you want for them, but how did it come round so fast?

When we dropped our older son off, I was bright and cheery, in brittle denial. Then I saw a Dad hugging his daughter and I was suddenly, inexplicably, in pieces.

‘Are you going?’ he said as we got up to leave. And we did, knowing his new life wouldn’t start until we had gone.

The next morning, a text arrived. He’d gone to find his new flatmates. They were brilliant. He loved it there. They’d all been up till 3am.

It’s a whole new challenge when the last one leaves. After we dropped off our younger son, I had troubling dreams. Time had slipped from its moorings: he was adolescent one moment, then morphed into an infant before my eyes.

I didn’t know what he was any more – or what was expected of me.

Eventually I recognised the feeling for what it was: a struggle to adjust – with a side-order of grief. We had been a family together for twenty years. What were the home-alone parents meant to do now?

I wrote an article about the experience for Juno magazine, and with it the poem above. I dug them out today and  they both still make me cry. That’s terrible isn’t it, like laughing at your own jokes?

If it’s you packing the car up this weekend, the poem is for you, as are these snippets that I hope will be helpful.

The way through it, I found, was to ditch the denial and let myself feel whatever I was feeling – the waves of sadness, but also the sense that, despite a full life and fulfilling job, I didn't know what I was for any more. 

If you can, avoid dumping your emotion on the ones who have departed – they need to spread their wings. This doesn’t mean pretending you’re not sad they’ve gone – but it does mean not expecting them to fix you.

On the plus side, the moment of upheaval can motivate you to make positive changes. Years of catering for the needs of others can prevent you from wondering what you want for yourselves.

Your child is embarking on a time of adventure and opportunity. You might find this makes you wistful. You have come out of the cocoon you formed with your family – and the world is still out there waiting.

I hope you’ll find a new and rewarding place in it, once you’ve got over the trauma of the university run.