When the house falls quiet . . .

Vir­ginia Fal­lon’s twin teens are leav­ing home and she’s sud­denly hav­ing to con­front life as an empty-nester.

Sunday Star-Times - - Focus -

Even when you know this is what they’re meant to do – to stride off into the world and make it their own – it’s a vis­ceral, gnaw­ing hurt.

She’s leav­ing and she’s tak­ing the dog. Three years ago I bought my daugh­ter Han­nah a puppy and even on the day we col­lected the lit­tle brindle ball, I was elic­it­ing prom­ises that when she moved out the dog would go with her.

Since then, we’ve had a sort of shared cus­tody. We both walk and feed Kate; I pay her vet bills and when Han­nah isn’t home Kate sleeps on my bed. Even then, over the years I re­mained stead­fast in my rule that the dog would go flat­ting when her owner did.

Now Han­nah is leav­ing home and bug­ger me, she’s tak­ing the dog.

In the next few months my twin teenagers will leave our house and I will be­come a 40-year-old empty nester.

I’ve never been a hov­er­ing, grasp­ing par­ent but the ex­pe­ri­ence has floored me; the idea of liv­ing alone in our fam­ily house is some­thing so alien that I don’t know how to con­sider it.

I knew this day was com­ing – ev­ery par­ent does – but I un­der­es­ti­mated just how it would feel when my youngest chil­dren left. ‘‘It feels like some­one has reached in and pulled your guts out, doesn’t it?’’ a col­league of mine com­mis­er­ated the other day, eyes welling at her own rec­ol­lec­tion. That’s ex­actly how it feels.

Even when you know this is what they’re meant to do – to stride off into the world and make it their own – it’s a vis­ceral, gnaw­ing hurt. A pain you feel ashamed of. Other par­ents I’ve spo­ken to are thrilled with their re­cent or loom­ing empty nest and tell me I should be the same: now’s my chance to revel in a child-free life.

The thing is, I quite liked hav­ing them around.

They’ve been leav­ing for months now, mov­ing out by inches. Han­nah has been spend­ing most week­ends with friends at a bach and, not want­ing to be clingy, I text her about the dog. ‘‘Is Kate OK at the bach?’’ ‘‘Yup.’’ ‘‘Would she like to come home? I can come and pick her up.’’

‘‘No thanks Mum, she loves it at the bach.’’ Shortly, she’ll move to the bach per­ma­nently and I find my­self say­ing things like: ‘‘I don’t think it’s a good en­vi­ron­ment for Kate to be in,’’ and, ‘‘per­haps Kate should come home while you work’’.

Her twin brother is much the same, barely home in the past few months as so­cial­is­ing, study and work oc­cu­pied his time. This year he’s head­ing away. I’m go­ing to buy him a pounamu to wear around his neck; there’s pieces that mean safe trav­els, or love, or courage.

I’m look­ing for one that means: ‘‘I don’t know how to let you go.’’

Empty nest syn­drome isn’t a clin­i­cal di­ag­no­sis but an ex­pe­ri­ence where par­ents feel sad and lost when their last child leaves home.

While the best part of par­ent­ing twins is the dou­ble-blow of happy oc­ca­sions, the flip side is the dual tough times. The good­bye at kin­der­garten is all the harder when it’s two-fold. The worry when learn­ing to ride bikes, or the first walk un­ac­com­pa­nied to school, dou­bly dif­fi­cult. And I fear that’s what it will be with the empty nest – just that much more empty be­cause they held so much space.

Per­haps it will be a bit like when they were five and glee­fully raced off to school with nary a back­wards glance at their snif­fling mother. Then, re­turn­ing to the empty house, I wan­dered through the rooms in be­wil­der­ment, some­how root­less, sud­denly point­less. Maybe that’s what it will be like when they leave for good, ex­cept this time there’s no 3pm.

I’ve been through this be­fore and know that just be­cause chil­dren leave, it doesn’t mean you stop par­ent­ing, it just changes. My el­dest son boomeranged be­tween the fam­ily house and his flat a cou­ple of times be­fore soar­ing away but – to my de­light – still oc­ca­sion­ally needs me.

There is also plea­sure in know­ing that when he con­tacts me it’s be­cause he wants to, not be­cause we can’t avoid each other in the hall­way. Last week, when the im­pend­ing empty house was all a bit much, I turned to my own mum for com­fort – some­thing she’s good at.

‘‘Be­ing a mother is a bit like be­ing a step­ping stone in a river,’’ she said. ‘‘When chil­dren get big enough to not need you to help them get across, it doesn’t mean you’re washed away. You’re al­ways there in case they need you again.’’

Then, 23 years af­ter I left home, she wrapped her arms around me.

ROSA WOODS / STUFF

Andy the bull ter­rier will take up some of the space Vir­ginia’s chil­dren leave when they move out.

The twins and their elder brother have meant Vir­ginia Fal­lon has had chil­dren at home for the past 22 years – so she’s learn­ing how to let them go.

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