How I learned to love having an empty nest: A silent house. Aching memories. But Radio 3 isn’t drowned out by hip-hop and the fridge hasn’t been stripped by locusts
00:35 GMT, 15 June 2012
Home alone: Jane today, after her son flew the nest
A mountain of long-discarded Lego went into the bin bag as my room-clearing mission gathered pace.
Next I threw in a revolting furry trench rat — a souvenir from a trip to the National Army Museum.
I was clearing out my son’s room after he had moved to Scotland to begin university in 2010, and was surprised that, so far, I hadn’t felt a single pang of nostalgia.
But then it came. At the bottom of the box containing all these relics of Alexander’s childhood, I found something I’d forgotten — a folder of yellowing paper covered in the red and blue painted hand and footprints of my then four-year-old boy.
Sitting on my son’s bedroom floor, surrounded by bin bags, I felt a piercing longing for the little boy who had made those footprints so long ago, and for the person I used to be: his mum.
These days he has designer stubble and towers over me, but suddenly it felt scarcely a moment since he was sitting on my lap while I read him a bedtime story about the adventures of Captain Pugwash or Babar the Elephant.
For years we’d had the paintings of Alexander’s hands and feet stuck on the wall beside the stairs. One night I woke, in terror, to the sound of a stranger’s footsteps on the stairs. A burglar was inside our house and coming upstairs.
As he reached the landing, however, something made him turn back. I’m convinced it was those innocent handprints, and the thought that the child who’d made them was asleep in one of the rooms he intended to steal from.
Back among the Lego, I thought about how every parent wants to steer their children safely towards independence, yet when the moment comes for them to leave home, it often feels like a bereavement.
Resident teenagers may drive you mad with their awful music and ghastly friends, the fridge that looks as though a plague of locusts has been through it only moments after you’ve filled it, and the ruthless borrowing of your treasured possessions. But somehow, when they’re no longer living with you, the absence of these things makes your heart lurch.
Jane with her son Alexander, when he was eight years old
Over the years, Alexander’s room had become silted up with ancient toys, crumbling Beano annuals and West Ham programmes. While he was living at home, I didn’t dare touch them.
But when he went away to university, his absence seemed to haunt the silent house, and I felt an urgent need to shift some of the clutter. The trouble is that letting go of the past means letting go of your identity as a parent.
The empty-nest phenomenon — widely recognised as one of life’s most wrenching emotional challenges — is more complicated now that later parenthood means children leave behind their threadbare teddies and doting parents just as their mothers hit the menopause.
For many women, this can be a dire combination of double loss: simultaneously saying goodbye to your child and your youthful femininity.
For me, the empty nest and the menopause arrived at almost the same moment, in 2010, when I was 52. But thankfully, instead of a sense of loss, I was filled with excitement and hope.
I was probably in a fortunate minority: for many women, the experience of their children leaving home is a melancholic experience.
We are so used to the invisible cord that binds our children to us that when it is broken, it is impossible not to wonder how they will manage without us. Will they be safe Will they be happy Do they need me any more What will I do with my time — my life now my children life independently
Of course, there have been times when one or all of these questions have come into my mind, but I can honestly say my new life living alone is in many ways as fulfilling as the old one, which was devoted to the health and happiness of my son.
I brought up Alexander alone, and those years were filled with an intense closeness: seaside holidays, family jokes and the inevitable rows, increasing in frequency and bitterness as the hurdles of GCSEs and A-levels loomed, and my son’s endearing vagueness about school work hardened into something closer to rebellion.
I was 33 when Alexander was born in 1991. Most of my friends had their children a little later than me, so I was usually the one reporting back from the front lines of separation anxiety on the first day at nursery school (I cried), infant school (I cried buckets) and big school (I cried so much that I couldn’t drive for tears).
Yet some time between Alexander’s GCSEs and A-levels, something changed. We still loved each other, but increasingly we found it hard to live together.
I’d seen a television wildlife documentary about a mother otter and her teenage offspring. The young otter longed to hang around with his mother, playing games just as he used to when he was a cub.
But now he was twice her size, and knocked her flying with every playful gesture. His ineptness made his mother furious, and as I watched her snarling at him, I thought: ‘I am that mother otter.’
At the time, I told myself my crossness was actually anxiety about Alexander’s exam results. Looking back, though, I think I was mourning the end of his childhood, and the fact that I’d never have more children, which was something I’d always longed for.
'I felt an overwhelming enthusiasm for
embracing the present as, for the first time in two decades, I got on
with my own life. To my surprise, I rather liked the silent house'
My son’s father and I had parted when I became pregnant, and I’d found that juggling work and motherhood never left time for another serious relationship. Now, irrationally and unfairly, I was furious with my boy — who is 20 now — for growing up.
At any rate, I convinced myself we needed time apart. So when I heard the roar of triumph when Alexander discovered he’d got the grades he needed for university, I felt a sense of liberation for both of us: for him, stepping out into his future, and for me, left to find out what the empty nest might hold.
‘I can tell you right now what will happen,’ my friend Julian said, when I said I was driving Alexander to university in Dundee, 500 miles from our home in London.
‘You’ll wave goodbye with a big smile on your face. Then you’ll pull into the first lay-by and sob as though your heart is breaking.’
The drive to Scotland was actually unexpectedly sweet. Now we knew we were about to part, the old intimacy seemed to resurface.
In Dundee, I helped Alexander unpack, gave him a big hug, and set off back to London, flooded with relief that I’d managed to steer him through childhood to this moment of grown-up separation.
That sense of pride in my boy’s new-found independence didn’t falter when I got back to the empty house, and it remained steady throughout his first term. He stayed in touch — after a fashion — and I learned that if I didn’t hear from him, it meant he was fine.
As for me, I felt an overwhelming enthusiasm for embracing the present as, for the first time in two decades, I got on with my own life. To my surprise, I rather liked the silent house.
At first, it felt like a luxury to be able to concentrate on my own work, or to go to bed knowing I wouldn’t be woken in the small hours by a phone call from Alexander needing a lift home.
It was heady stuff: rediscovering the joy of solitude, going out leaving the house tidy and the radio tuned to Radio 3, and returning to find it still serenely in that state, rather than apparently having been trashed by an invading army with ravenous appetites and a taste for cacophonous hip-hop.
I started going out in the evenings, where I’d run into friends who’d ask, sympathetically, how I was getting on. The implication was that I should be distraught at my newly empty life. In fact, I was having a high old time — relishing the feckless liberty of being free to do exactly what I chose.
Now, almost two years later, I think the secret of letting go is all about learning how to adapt. Barbara McKay, director of the Institute of Family Therapy, says families have to ‘reorganise’ their relationships with every period of change.
‘If more than one transition happens at the same time — for example, a child leaving home at the same time as the mother experiences menopause — the process of change becomes more complicated.’
Novelist Joanna Trollope wrote a perceptive novel about this phenomenon of the empty nest.
In Second Honeymoon, her heroine, Edie, goes bonkers when her youngest son leaves home.
She launches herself into personal and professional overdrive, until finally grasping that the only way to be happy is to embrace the present and let go of the past.
I’ve found, like Joanna Trollope’s Edie, that you don’t stop being a mother just because your children aren’t living with you any more. The relationship goes on, and it goes on changing.
It is possible my empty nest won’t be empty for ever, since jobs are hard to find these days. In a way, I’d love it if Alexander came back home to live, but, in another, I hope he doesn’t.
He’s started to find his own way in the world, which is what I always wanted for him. And I, too, am settling quite nicely and happily into my gloriously empty nest.