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.
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.
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.