EMPTY NEST ANGUISH
Two mothers reveal how it hit them like a sledgehammer
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