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
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’