As parents, all being well, we must face the day when our children fly the nest towards new horizons and we are left with, what is now commonly known as, an empty nest.
Empty Nest is described as ‘a feeling of grief or loneliness a parent or guardian may feel when their children leave home for the first time’. But it is not as simple as all that. It is not all bad, it is not all good but it is complicated. There are some wonderful benefits to children leaving home such as the loo rolls will now seemingly last forever, you can have noisy sex and the food stays in the fridge for more than half an hour. At the same time, it is actually possible to miss the mess, the noise, the chaos and, what can feel like, unreasonable demands on our time.
The relationship we have with our children is one that goes through enormous changes. We go from changing their nappy to teaching them to drive within a relatively short period of years. There is no other relationship that has to adapt so much and so quickly. And this doesn’t stop when they leave home. The relationship continues to evolve with the changes brought about by new experiences had by both parent and child.
As a parent, I found Empty Nest to be more of a process rather than a single event in time. There is so much more to a child leaving home than waving goodbye at the door/station/airport/university. There are, for example, several years when a young person is likely to be back and forth to the family home and bring with them a whole set of new dynamics that everyone has to adapt to. They bring partners home with them, they make life choices that may not congruent with our own and use the house as a storage space. It is all part and parcel of them slowly setting up a life elsewhere.
It is, though, becoming increasingly hard for young people to leave home. The financial demands of running a home means that this is out of reach for a lot of people. Remaining in the family home may be solely due to lack of an alternative. It can be hard not to take this personally! It does not mean, though, that the relationship between parent and child cannot evolve even when you are sharing the same living space. Empty Nest is largely about letting go of the identity of parent in the way that it has always been and starting to embrace the identity of parent in a whole new way i.e. backing off. This can be done whether they leave home or not. Seeing your child for the person they have become rather than remaining stuck in old dynamics.
As the years have gone by, and we have adapted to the changes that have come about, my relationship with my son has changed. It has moved on, as many relationships have to if they do not want to get stuck. When he was 23 we actually went away for a month together as I wanted to get to know him again and I wanted him to get to know me. It is something that has served us well and it is also something that I would recommend to any parent if they have the chance to be able to do this. It doesn’t have to be for a month but even just a couple of days together to acknowledge the fact that the relationship has changed and time needs to be set aside to continue to get to know one another.
Whenever my son comes home to visit I am still always stunned by the rapid disappearance of loo rolls and food. Whenever he leaves again there is still always a mixture of missing him all over again and relief at not having to fill the fridge up every five minutes. There is also that feeling that time is marching on for me and, while I rejoice in his youth and optimism, I know that the time has come to stop seeing my child as a child and to start seeing him as the adult that he has become.