When my youngest child left home I felt physically sick and winded. I could not eat for a couple of days and barely slept for a week. His departure for university was the end of a very happy period of my life, of being part of a family and rearing three children. I felt the loss of my first keenly. I told people it was like losing a limb, but the departure of my last child felt like losing an internal organ.
It was an extreme reaction but not uncommon. I was suffering from Empty Nest Syndrome: a mixture of loss, sadness, emptiness and anxiety that strikes parents when their children leave home. It’s not a clinical diagnosis but a term used to describe the peculiar form of grief you experience when waving a child off into the world.
The paradox of parenting is that you bring your children up in the hope that they will become independent, capable adults – and then miss them terribly when they do. The easier it is for them to leave, the better the job you have done and the harder it is without them. Being a good parent is a process of making yourself redundant from the best job ever.
You miss your children and you miss your role as a parent. Once the kids are gone so too is so much of the structure and activity that goes with family life.
The days feel long and empty without the comings and goings of teenagers – the fridge heartbreakingly full. You miss coming home and finding and the living room strewn with youngsters you don’t know and that all the bread has been eaten. You miss the mess, the noise and even the arguments.
My latest novel is about two parents struggling to cope without their only daughter. On the cover is a phrase that neatly encapsulates the plight of the empty nester. “The hardest thing about love is saying goodbye.”
But for every door that closes, others open – in time. Gradually, I readjusted to a different way of life, one that yielded opportunities to meet new people and do things I had not had time for when family life took all the spare bits.
I began year round sea swimming, explored new avenues as a freelance journalist, finished a book and wrote a new one. And I started to look forward to coming home and finding the house just as I left it and the cupboards still filled with food!
When my son returned at the end of his first year at university, it struck me that the time he had been away was the same duration as that of a pregnancy. Those initial nine months allow not only for a baby to grow and develop but also for its parents to get used to the impending life change. At the other end of the scale that time serves a similar purpose: it allows you to grieve and readjust, and to learn that while you keep championing them but from the sidelines, there is great joy too in watching them spread their wings and fly.
After Beth by Elizabeth Enfield is published on August 6th, 2021 by Michael Joseph.
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