Solo trek leaves moth­er­ship lost in space

Sarah Eb­ner knew empty nest syn­drome would strike one day – but wasn’t ex­pect­ing it when her youngest child was just two

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Family -

Ifeel bereft. My son has left me. My cheer­ful, gor­geous, golden boy has moved on, with barely a thought for how I will cope. He talks now of other women and has be­come so se­cre­tive that I have no idea what he’s up to (“I don’t know,” he re­peats firmly). He’s only two and a half, but it’ll never be the same again.

If I’m hon­est, I can’t be­lieve it. I had no fears about my son start­ing nurs­ery. I thought that as long as he was happy, I would be. But I was wrong. As Rob­bie skipped away mer­rily, I felt ridicu­lously emo­tional. While the staff were thrilled that he was so happy and un-clingy, I felt an al­most ir­re­sistible urge to rush into the nurs­ery, grab him and bring him back home with me.

He’s only at pre-school for three hours a day, so could I re­ally be suf­fer­ing from empty nest syn­drome?

“Yes,” says Jac­qui Mar­son, a char­tered coun­selling psy­chol­o­gist who spe­cialises in moth­er­hood. “It’s a def­i­nite loss and re­act­ing to it is com­pletely nor­mal.”

I have to ad­mit that I’m feel­ing pretty silly. When my elder daugh­ter be­gan at the same nurs­ery, I waved her off with none of the same emo­tions. But per­haps that was be­cause I still had a baby at home with me. Now that he has bounced off into the (be­gin­ning of the) adult world, I am strangely lost. The time, which is only rel­e­vant on the two days I don’t work, seems so vast that I worry about how best to fill it. How did he grow up so quickly? It’s as if he doesn’t need me any more.

That’s a feel­ing Jean­nie Ford can cer­tainly re­late to. Her younger son, Oliver, joined re­cep­tion class last Septem­ber but still doesn’t spend ev­ery day at school.

“There’s a very long set­tling-in and as­sess­ment process and we’re now at the stage where Ollie does four days un­til 3.20,” she says. “His teacher has said that he can now do that on the other day as well, but I don’t want him to. He’s my baby and I can’t face los­ing him for that fifth day too. Then it’ll be for­ever.”

Empty nest syn­drome was so termed to ex­plain the loss and sad­ness that many par­ents ex­pe­ri­ence when their chil­dren no longer live with them or need dayto-day care. It’s very com­mon, usu­ally when chil­dren leave home for univer­sity. But it can strike, as I now know, at any age. Par­ent coach Sue Atkins says that a re­cent client was wor­ried about her 25-year-old son, who was get­ting mar­ried. She felt she was los­ing him to his wife.

“Par­ent­ing is a con­stant let­tinggo,” says Atkins. “From the mo­ment you play peek-a-boo with your child, you’ve started them off be­ing in­de­pen­dent and let­ting them know that you won’t al­ways be there. Feel­ing sad is com­mon at any stage. There’s no right and wrong about it.”

I know I should be thrilled that my son’s so set­tled and se­cure but a hint of clingi­ness from him would, se­cretly, be nice. Maybe that’s self­ish. But los­ing your baby to the grow­ing up process is al­ways hard.

Alison Dish­ing­ton would agree with that. Her youngest child, Grace, be­gan school last year.

“I was very emo­tional and cried when I got home. I ac­tu­ally felt a lit­tle sick,” she says. “I was sad when each of my four chil­dren started but it got stronger with each one. With Grace, it was the end of an era and the house seemed so empty and quiet. I still find it ter­ri­bly quiet and al­ways have the ra­dio on.”

But Alison says that the feel­ings of sad­ness didn’t last. “I felt very mor­bid at the loss for a short while, but then I felt some re­lief too. Af­ter all, I now had time to empty those cup­boards I’d been mean­ing to do for months and space to do some things for me, too. I be­gan swim­ming again and took up yoga, which I love. So I have to say there is a pos­i­tive side and you can cer­tainly fill the gap.”

Jac­qui Mar­son agrees that the key is not to panic des­per­ately about fill­ing the time with more work, as I have done, but to take it slowly and de­cide what’s best for you.

“We all ne­glect our­selves when we have young chil­dren. So, with the re­al­i­sa­tion that you are be­gin­ning not to be the cen­tre of your child’s uni­verse, you have to work out how to be the cen­tre of your own uni­verse again. It might be that you turn back to your ca­reer but it might also be that you de­cide to take up pot­tery.”

Sue Atkins sug­gests that the key is to try to re­lax and to cel­e­brate the start of nurs­ery, school or univer­sity as a step for­ward for your child and for you.

“Fo­cus on the plus points,” she says. “Be de­lighted that your child is happy, hav­ing fun and learn­ing new things. You can’t live your life through your chil­dren and when your last one goes, they do leave a gap. You have to de­cide how to fill it.”

My new life has be­gun. What do I do now?

Home alone: Sarah Eb­ner had no fears about son Rob­bie start­ing nurs­ery. ‘I thought that as long as he was happy, I would be. But I was wrong’

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