Somehow when our daughters were growing up, discussing the future had always implied the years ahead for all of us together. We moved to China together for one more adventure ‘en famille – before the girls would go off to university’ but somehow the reality of what would happen afterwards was never in my picture.
It was only when our eldest daughter started her third year of high school, that it suddenly dawned on me that the she might actually be leaving soon, that the college applications process meant that she would be moving on at the end of high school and that she would be going to university – far away – and that daughter number two would follow three years later…The realisation that our life as a foursome was not meant to last forever came as a shock…It was also probably around that time that I heard the term ‘empty nester’ for the first time.
Where I grew up, going to university meant that you could still live at home, a short daily commute being all it took to pursue your tertiary education. Nothing had prepared me for the separation across oceans that my family was about to experience.
During that last year of being a foursome I became more and more aware of the looming separation. I had talked with women who had gone through this separation and I could see how challenging it was going to be for me. The smallest, silliest things would trigger a flow of emotions – and my daughter hadn’t even left home yet! I would become nostalgic hearing a favourite family song, a tune on the piano and I would get teary opening the fridge and realising that she would no longer be eating my food – now I get the full meaning of: ‘Food is the language of love’.
Getting together with other mothers was very helpful in realising that I was not the only one going through this separation anxiety. At the beginning of their life we had had nine months to get used to welcoming our children into our heart, now we had to get used to ‘letting them go’ but it hurt.
In that last year of ‘life as we knew it’, my husband and I had hoped to catch some more family time. However we soon found out that what little time was left between studying, college applications and essay writing, sports and exams, had to be shared with “The friends that I will never see again..”. We had been relegated to the category of “You will always be around..” and we were no longer a priority – but that was ok, we had been warned by the school counsellors!
In our desire to equip our children for the step ahead and for living away from home, we fell into the trap of wanting to make sure we had covered all the topics (banking, cooking, health, boys, sex and rock and roll..) and we went on a slight overload of unsolicited advice, of “Don’t forget about this and don’t forget to do that”! This, coupled with the usual stress of transition, meant that on more than one occasions we were all ready to see each other’s backs.
I see this as Mother Nature’s way to help us part. That is what children do. They don’t belong to us, they must push us back in order to leave the nest and it is our job to let them go and support their wish for independence.
In his poem on children Kahlil Gibran said: “You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth” and this doesn’t feel more true than at a high school graduation.
When you have lived together as a family for 20 years, it is hard to imagine life without children. With each child leaving, the umbilical cord is stretched out and cut for a second time. I felt the pain of separation in my gut and I grieved for several days after each departure. I had anticipated the sense of loss and had filled my diary before hand with meetings and people to see. My lovely friends recognised my dark sunglasses as camouflage for my tears. Research shows that children leaving home is an often overlooked highly stressful time in life and that it is important to prepare for it. In women, when it is coupled with menopause it can lead to depression. Men are often emotionally unprepared and can experience feelings of lost opportunities when their children leave home.
I consider myself fortunate to have been able to stay home to look after our girls but it meant that now I had to learn to look at life through my own eyes, not those of my children and I had to redefine my purpose, find new goals, set up a new routine, make friends outside the school community. We had been warned about staring at the deserted kitchen table and the empty bedrooms, so we moved house.
My husband and I have entered a new phase of our life that doesn’t deserve the negative and sad sense of loss that the label empty-nester implies. So instead, in a more positive approach, I prefer to say that we have become ‘Second Honeymooners’.
Now we can make last minute plans that no longer involve finding a babysitter or preparing meals for the children, we can get together with friends and go out on dates just like we did before the children came along. Once a mother, always a mother. The fridge is less full, but the memories are plenty.
With a positive attitude we can open the door to new opportunities. Perhaps there is an old dream to revive, a language to brush up, some friends to visit around the world, a bucket list to tick off, a tempting new job. The children will be happy venturing out into their world knowing that their parents are alright and that home will always be home for them, wherever it may be. Both girls have left and we miss them terribly, but now we are making plans for our next adventure ‘à deux’ and that is very exciting!
If you are reading this at a time when you find coping with this new reality without children challenging or even depressing, don’t sit home alone. Google ‘empty nest’ and you should find a good number of helpful resources.
Best wishes to all of you!