Empty nest? Not a chance

Saskia Sar­gin­son goes away, know­ing her adult kids can cope. Then the emails and texts start …

The Guardian - Family - - Family | Family Life - Some names have been changed

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.

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