EMPTY NEST AN­GUISH

Two moth­ers re­veal how it hit them like a sledge­ham­mer

The Mail on Sunday - - News - DAISY BY GOOD­WIN

FOR the past 25 years, Septem­ber has been the most fran­tic month of the year for me – a time of name tags, new timeta­bles to be stuck to the fridge and heated dis­cus­sions about what ex­actly con­sti­tutes a ‘school’ shoe. But this year there is no bus­tle, no shriek­ing rows about how much midriff is ac­cept­able, or fights about who the phone charger be­longs to. My youngest daugh­ter Ly­dia, 18, has gone to uni­ver­sity and, to my sur­prise, I’m feel­ing ut­terly bereft. My old­est daugh­ter did the same thing ten years ago, but with a pre-teen at home, I was still firmly in mother­land.

But now Ly­dia has gone, ev­ery­thing has changed. It’s not so much that I miss their phys­i­cal pres­ence, the noise, the cig­a­rette butts, the trail of dis­carded bras and the av­o­cado skins in the bath­room, it’s more that now there are no chil­dren in the house, I feel as if my life no longer has a pur­pose.

But, of course, it does. I have work I love as the cre­ator of ITV’s his­tor­i­cal tele­vi­sion drama Victoria, my hus­band, three dogs, won­der­ful friends, a network of peo­ple and con­nec­tions I trea­sure.

But, to my amaze­ment, now that I am not pri­mar­ily my daugh­ter’s carer, I feel there is a chasm that I don’t know how to fill.

All the rhythms of my life – school nights, halfterms, part-con­fes­sional half-com­pet­i­tive con­ver­sa­tions with par­ents at school events, cake stalls, ‘check­ing’ course work – all those tiny, com­fort­ing rit­u­als have gone. For the first time since my early 20s I am a free agent, and I find the prospect ter­ri­fy­ing.

As s ome­one who has al­ways been a full- time work­ing mother, I never thought I would feel this way. Just last year I went on a hol­i­day with a lot of moth­ers whose chil­dren had just gone to uni­ver­sity and felt un­for­giv­ably smug when they talked about how dif­fi­cult they were find­ing ad­just­ing to their new teenager-free lives. I thought they had brought their lone­li­ness upon them­selves by giv­ing up their jobs. But a year later I am al­ready ask­ing my daugh­ters when they think they will be com­ing home for Christ­mas.

They are mys­ti­fied by my new need­i­ness. Hav­ing spent their child­hoods fight­ing for my at­ten­tion: hid­ing my phone, shout­ing ‘ Mum will you please fin­ish your sen­tence’ when I was dis­tracted by some in­com­ing work is­sue in the mid­dle of a dis­cus­sion about their home­work, they can’t rec­on­cile them­selves to a mum who sends them texts ev­ery morn­ing.

My younger daugh­ter sent me back a pic­ture of a he­li­copter, sug­gest­ing I’ve be­come a mem­ber of the he­li­copter par­ent­ing brigade who take over­pro­tec­tive or ex­ces­sive in­ter­est in the lives of their chil­dren.

I miss hav­ing a daugh­ter around to crit­i­cise a con­tro­ver­sial out­fit, or to rub in a bit of hastily ap­plied SO CLOSE: A de­lighted and beam­ing Daisy with Ly­dia just af­ter her birth foun­da­tion. I miss watch­ing any TV show with them and know­ing they will spot the plot twist prac­ti­cally be­fore the open­ing cred­its come to an end.

It seems such a shame that, just when my tiger mother du­ties have come to an end, I can’t have the mun­dane plea­sure of hav­ing a daugh­ter to hang out with while watch­ing Van­ity Fair or in­ter­net brows­ing, or sim­ply to chat to.

I can i mag­ine t hat moth­ers of sons miss them in a dif­fer­ent way, but my daugh­ters are my favourite companions, and hav­ing them around makes ev­ery­thing bet­ter.

Ra­tio­nally, I know I should be proud my daugh­ters have be­come f ull y f unc­tion­ing adults who need me less than I need them. That should be the whole aim of good par­ent­ing, to raise emo­tion­ally self-re­liant chil­dren, but self­ishly I wish my daugh­ters had found it harder to leave. Hav­ing grown up with the in­se­cu­rity of di­vorced par­ents, all I wanted for my chil­dren was for them to feel safe. My child­hood was dra­matic, I wanted theirs to be un­event­ful and se­cure. And I seem to have suc­ceeded. Both of them seemed com­pletely un­both­ered about leav­ing home, which is how it should be.

Some­times I won­der if I missed the memo about the dis­lo­ca­tion that hits a woman when the chil­dren leave. I say woman be­cause I don’t no­tice my hus­band wan­der­ing dis­con­so­lately around empty bed­rooms pick­ing up old lip­sticks, or sob­bing over the Ocado or­der. I keep for­get­ting to change the set­tings and ev­ery week I take de­liv- ery of a fridge­ful of food de­signed to feed my daugh­ter and her friends, not a mid­dle-aged cou­ple who could lose a few pounds.

My hus­band can’t un­der­stand why my eyes fill with tears ev­ery time I open the fridge and see a car­ton of pome­gran­ate juice. ‘You don’t even like it,’ he says. I can’t ex­plain the true sig­nif­i­cance of the un­opened juice, that it is my youngest daugh­ter’s favourite drink and now she isn’t here to drink it.

I am sure that my hus­band misses the girls, but I don’t think he feels as if his iden­tity is un­der threat.

I have been to see a ther­a­pist to try to make sense of the sit­u­a­tion. She told me that her mother had told her that, what­ever she did in life, she should keep work­ing so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain of an empty nest.

She told me: ‘I kept work­ing, but when my chil­dren left home, I felt be­reaved.’ I asked her if the feel­ing ever went away. She gri­maced and said: ‘Well, the pain lessens, but, no, it never goes away com­pletely. That is un­til you have grand­chil­dren, and that brings a whole new joy into your life’.

As my daugh­ters are not ex­actly ready to have chil­dren, I am go­ing to have to find an­other way to fill the gap.

A few months ago I met a fel­low screen­writer, a cou­ple of years older than me, at a party and I mar­velled at how much she was able to write in a year – ap­prox­i­mately dou­ble my out­put – and she smiled and said: ‘My chil­dren have left home. I have noth­ing else to do but work.’

At the time I didn’t un­der­stand the des­per­a­tion be­hind her re­mark, but now I envy her abil­ity to turn her empty nest into bril­liant TV drama. I just hope the time is com­ing when I wake up and, in­stead of moon­ing over the tidi­ness of the kitchen, I start work­ing like a de­mon.

I re­mem­ber when the girls were lit­tle and I was in a state of per­pet­ual ex­haus­tion, I used to find it en­rag­ing when older women shook their heads and said ‘en­joy it while you can, it goes so quickly. They will be grown up and out the door in a heart­beat’. At the time, the thought of hav­ing an un­in­ter­rupted night’s sleep seemed l i ke t he world’s great­est lux­ury; now I wake at three in the morn­ing hop­ing to hear a step on the stair.

So while I get used to the peace and quiet, my ad­vice to any­one with chil­dren about to go out into the world, who thinks hav­ing a ca­reer will pro­tect them from the im­pend­ing loss, is to take steps to soften the blow. Move house, get a hobby, book a trip around the world... and don’t for­get to can­cel the in­ter­net gro­ceries.

I’ve been to a ther­a­pist to try to make sense of it all

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