Empty nest? Not a chance
Saskia Sarginson goes away, knowing her adult kids can cope. Then the emails and texts start …
One of the useful things about living in a household of twentysomethings is that my offspring can now be left to run the house in my absence. I no longer fear that they will throw all-night parties, or provoke irate texts from neighbours. I am even fairly confident that the garden will be watered and the cats fed. My children are responsible adults. So I go away for a week with a light heart, taking the dogs with me. My partner, Ed, is away too. The children wave us off in our separate directions, with cats in their arms and smiles on their faces.
The first hint that something is amiss is an email from Megan: “I hate cats. I hate Jake and Zac. I’m exhausted. Call the boys – tell them they have to help – or I’ll murder them.”
I call the house. My older son, Jake, picks up. “What’s going on?” I ask. “Nothing.” He sounds surprised. “I’ve just got a confusing email from your sister. Something about the cats?”
“Ah,” he says. “Yes. One of the cats caught a baby bird. The girls took it to a rescue place. It took them three hours on night buses. They got back at 1am.” “At least the bird is in safe hands.” “But the cat caught another, so Megan is looking after it in the garden. She has locked the cats inside and is standing guard all day as it hops around. When Lily gets back from work, they put it in a box and stay up all night feeding it cat food every 15 minutes, on the advice of the sanctuary.”
“Every 15 minutes!” I allow myself a moment’s admiration for all bird parents, then ask to speak to Megan. “It’s wonderful that you’re trying to save it,” I tell her, “but …”
“Did you tell Jake he has to help?” “You know your brother better than that. There’s no way he is going to stay up all night feeding a bird cat food.”
She gives a muffled scream. “It could be another week before it flies!”
“You’re obviously hysterical from lack of sleep,” I say. “Take the bird to the sanctuary, then let the cats out.”
“I’m not letting them out! They’re murderers!” The phone goes dead.
It occurs to me that this extreme behaviour is down to her insecurity about being left in charge. Or maybe she just has too much time on her hands. If she lived independently with a full-time job, surely she would have to make the kind of compromises the rest of us negotiate on a daily basis?
The phone rings. It’s Zac, the youngest. “The house stinks of cat shit.” “Are they still locked in?” “Yup.”
“Do they have a cat tray? The red one from the shed?”
“They’ve got some posh one from the kitchen. But there’s mess all over the floor. It’s rank.”
“Hang on … you mean my best tray? The cream one I use for special occasions and breakfast in bed?” “I suppose.”
“Put Megan on.”
“Are you using my best tray as a litter tray for the cats?”
“Look, I haven’t got time for this,” she snaps. “I need to watch the bird.” The phone goes dead.
“Everything OK?” asks the friend
I am staying with. I give a grim smile.
AThe first hint that something is amiss is an email from Megan: ‘I hate cats. I hate Jake and Zac. Call and tell them they have to help’
nother email pings into my inbox. “Jake had his girlfriend round last night. He can stay up with a girl but not a bird. He’s a monster.” Text from Jake: “Megan is certifiable.” Text from Lily: “Megan and Jake are impossible!”
Text from Zac: “Gone to Jamie’s. Our place stinks. Everyone shouting. Cats meowing all night.”
I pack my bags, preparing to confront a Lord of the Flies meltdown at home. I am proud of Megan for trying to save a life. But expecting herself and her siblings to go without sleep has unleashed chaos. It makes me realise that, like the baby birds, my offspring have yet to use their wings to truly fly alone. Until that time, Ed and I bear ultimate responsibility, taking the stress away from the children. Which means that while they remain under our roof they enjoy the illusion of being in charge – when really, of course, they are not.