Empty nest? Not a chance
My youngest is leaving home but have I done enough to prepare him? By Saskia Sarginson
Finally, one of my adult children has been prised out of his childhood bedroom. Zac, the youngest, is leaving for university. The baby of the family is flying the nest – for now. Because of course, the other three all went off to art college or university, too. But then they came back.
His older siblings supervise his going-away preparations with gimlet eyes. We have the list of essentials the university sent, and I begin to tick things off diligently, but Zac’s brother and sisters have other ideas.
“He doesn’t need a bathmat,” Jake says. “He’ll never have a bath. He’ll probably never get washed.” Jake snorts at the next item. “Look at this! Under ‘bedding’, it says ‘two sheets’!” He scribbles a line through the sentence. “Don’t bother. He’ll never change his sheets. He never has in his entire life. And if he did, he wouldn’t know how to use a washing machine.”
Jake’s right. I’ve failed. I’ve done far too much for my youngest. He really has no idea how to perform domestic tasks. He is, I realise, hopelessly unprepared for this.
“He’ll be fine,” Zac’s father, Ed, reassures me. “Most of the other students will be exactly the same. Don’t you remember how you were?”
I open my mouth to protest, but am immediately overwhelmed by ancient memories of me as a student living off boiled eggs and Mars bars; sleeping in gritty sheets in a damp room.
At least for the first year, Zac will be warm and dry in halls. But a new coat would be good. After a fruitless shopping trip, he chooses a waterproof parka from the internet.
“Mum, you’re being ripped off,” Jake says. “He should get something from a secondhand shop.”
“Yeah, he could easily find a cheap coat if he bothered to look,” Lily agrees.
“I want to buy it for him.” I am stubborn. “It’ll be winter soon. I need to know he’s got a proper coat.”
“He’s so spoilt!” They shake their heads disapprovingly.
“Maybe he is,” I retort. “But he’s the youngest. The youngest always get spoilt. Plus, he’s had to put up with you lot telling him what to do for years. I think he deserves a new coat.”
And then the moment comes when we drop him off. As I walk to reception with Zac to join the queue for registration, he remarks: “This is weird. All these people doing the same thing. Abandoning their kids just because they’re 18. Like those tribes that drop their kids in the forest to see if they’ll survive without food or water.”
“Um. Yes,” I say, taken aback. “But you’ll have meals. And you have a new coat to keep you warm. And,” I blurt out, “you can ring me if you hate it. I’ll come and get you.”
He gives me his best poker face. “Yeah. Right, Mum.”
So we drive away, abandoning our youngest to the wolves in the forest, and it feels as if my heart has been hit with a sledgehammer. “Will he be all right?” I ask Ed every five minutes for the duration of the journey home.
“He may not change his clothes for a term,” he says. “But he’ll be fine.”
NAll these people abandoning their kids, like those tribes that drop their kids in the forest to see if they’ll survive without food
ow we have one less young adult in the house. A bedroom stands empty, colonised by dust and cats. One less mouth to feed. One less pair of feet stamping up and down the stairs. Perhaps I should celebrate. Isn’t this what we’ve been working towards and hoping for? But at the moment, I’m missing him too much to do more than worry.
The phone rings. I snatch it up, in case it’s Zac. He’s hardly spoken to us since the day we left him there. It’s my sister, calling from the countryside.
“You know that Tom’s starting a new course in London this term?” she says, speaking of her 18-year-old son. “I’ve had a brainwave – he can stay with you!”
“He can … what?” I stutter. “Stay with you,” she repeats, cheerfully. “It makes sense, now Zac’s room is free. Lucky timing.” “Very lucky,” I croak.
I tell Ed. He gives me his best poker face. “One out. One in,” he says.