Empty nesting: the long goodbye


Today is the first day of the last term of parenting as we know it. For the past 12 years Monday morning has seen early alarms, kids yawning into their Weetbix, frantic searches for school shoes, a quick peck on the cheek, and it's out the door and off to school.

They’ve been happy times. Yes, there’s been a great deal of shouting, squabbling and shoving - I’m not for a moment claiming a tranquil scene of family serenity - but that's all part of family life, and I have tried, over recent years to relish it for the temporary era that it most assuredly is.

Next term, Ed (our eldest) will be heading off to Uni and Paddy will be alone with us in the house. The frantic early morning breakfast dash, and years of jousting, will be well and truly over; the cacophony of childhood silenced once and for all.

Many years ago, in Ed’s last week of primary school, I took a photo of half a dozen jade Sumner School shirts on the washing line.

Hanging together, in three different sizes, they struck me as poignant symbol of our children’s togetherness. As I gathered them in, the transient nature of life - at how quickly we all move inexorably on – really hit me. Last week, bemoaning the fact that another Monday morning found me in the laundry, folding and hanging, it struck me again. I stared at Ed’s school shirts, knowing that in just a few short weeks I’d never be washing and hanging them again. The end is very much in sight.

I’ve cherished these family years: living together, all under one roof, has provided so much pleasure, enough to outweigh the (at one point daily) mornings of madness, frequent frustrations and pointless rows. I hope I will never forget the numerous times, returning home from an early morning run, I’d get out of the car and smell the toast from next door and smile inside at the thought that Rachel was up dishing out the breakfast and love at her house already. I’d open our front door to see them all there: three of them lined up around the kitchen bench, the boys in their black and white stripes, Abi in jade and then later navy blue. In earlier years they’d be arguing, fighting over the toaster, Paddy spilling the milk, Abi pushing her food around the plate, Ed generally hating mornings. Then the scramble for lunch boxes, school bags, shoes and bus passes; adolescent breakfasts have been quieter, and the last minute searches for laptop chargers, phones and car keys. Then suddenly, they’re all gone and I stand alone with the marmite, left over eggs and silence.

All good things must come to an end. All children must flee the nest. I get that. As mothers it is our job to feed them, nurture them, and send them out the door once they’re ready; all part of what we signed up for 17 years ago. We’ve always known that. But awareness and preparation, in this instance, don’t lessen the blow. They are going, leaving us behind, the two of us alone together, back to the beginning we go. All those years of building the nest, and now the emptying induces a peculiar kind of grief. My heart aches for those frenetic family years.

Good parenting entails developing a sense of secure attachment in our young. Decades of studies have proved that, as parents, our role goes beyond offering food to our off-spring, and that it the provision of security and safety that produces children sufficiently confident to go out into the world and find their own way; going on to develop loving, caring and nurturing relationships of their own. Forming secure attachments is a crucial and fundamental aspect of human development.

Knowing this helps, but only so far. We are going to miss you Ed. When you started primary school I remember someone commenting how they imagined those early years had flown by quickly. “Those were the longest five years of my life,” I scoffed in return. Those early childhood years were tough – the endless feeding and bathing, the nappies and shit - but then came the primary school years, three kids down the road together, the playground laughter clearly audible at lunchtimes. Someone once told me to appreciate them as the zenith of parenting. They were right in many ways, but I’ve loved the teenage years too, bringing with them the bittersweet appreciation that we won’t live together all under one roof together forever. Watching my sister’s kids leave home taught me that, and I appreciated my three sitting around the kitchen bench long before Abi died.

So, now we’re almost at the end of it. And new beginnings, I know. Such sadness knowing his towel won’t be there on the floor each day, that I can run the tap in the sink without him storming out of the shower to admonish me, that the house will be one person quieter, again.

It’s been good family life: started slow, but finished too quick.