It is that time of year that young people prepare to leave for college and university. Exciting, for them and their parents, but sometimes devastating too for the erstwhile caregivers left behind. I used to wonder, when my friends lamented the emptying of their nests, why they made such a big deal of it. As a fraught, exhausted single parent I sometimes rather envied them their new-found freedom. I loved my adolescent children, but was worn down by the relentlessness of parenting. The thought of precious hours to myself became a guilty pleasure. It couldn’t be so bad. They would keep in touch, come home for holidays. What was all the fuss about?
Then my eldest left to study in a far-off city and my heart broke. I didn’t see it coming. She had been gradually distancing herself in her eagerness to escape the rural captivity she had outgrown, and I’d been letting her, smugly conscious that this was necessary; a transition for us both. I did not expect the searing grief, the primal need to follow her, the torture of my inability to do so.
Her younger siblings were still around, and they needed me. She kept in touch, we developed a routine of phone calls and hand-written letters, in purple ink like Lewis Carroll used to use. It wasn’t long before she came home, for a weekend half-way through the first term, then for the Christmas break. A new routine developed. The term-times passed, the holidays brought their own challenges, as we both struggled to be together in a way that accommodated her new reality of self-sufficiency. She did things differently now she lived away from me. She couldn’t revert to the person she had been and I sometimes found it hard to accept the changes in her. We would circle each other for the first few days, exploring compromises, acclimatising, finally enjoying each other anew. Then as the next term approached we would start to distance. Not consciously, but essentially. We had to be ready to let go all over again.
Too soon she gained her degree, got a great job, and the long holidays were no more. Another stage of empty, as she moved in with her boyfriend and they began their life together. But I still had other children. I adapted, as I had to do.
The leaving home of the first child may be fraught with grief and loss and excitement and ultimate acceptance. The leaving of the last – the final emptying – is often something far more shattering.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have a full, rich life when my youngest left for univeristy. I had recently married a wonderful man. I had a career that stretched and challenged and delighted me. I’d been through all the uni preparations before; I was an old hand. I knew it would be tough. My youngest girl and I were close. I hadn’t been as vigilent about letting her go as I had the others, aware that every stage she went through was the last I’d experience with a child of mine.
The day she left, my husband and I took her to her far-away city, a different one from her sister’s, even further. We made a weekend of it. When I left her with her new house-mates I was delighted to have witnessed her beginning to form friendships, making her room her own, putting her crockery away in the shared kitchen. Hubby and I had a nice evening exploring a beautiful, unfamiliar place and I looked forward to visiting it often. It was only after we had said goodbye again, the next day, and were on the long drive home that it hit me. A request on the radio, for some other mother’s student son who had just started university. I can’t remember the song, but I was in pieces by the end of the introduction. Then on and off for the next two years, in between life going on as – almost – normal.
Just like the beginning of motherhood – the intensity of feeling, the highs and lows, the joys and fears – nobody can prepare you for the final emptying of the nest. Who was I if not Mother first? My marriage, my career, my interests, my friendships were wonderful. But, when it opened, chasm-like, as it so often did, nothing could fill the gaping wound that formed around the lack of children in my daily life.
At the same time, there was a blossoming sense of opportunity. So much time and energy to spare. What might I do with it? Liberation can be daunting. It was necessary to take time. To acknowledge the possibilities and park them, to grieve, to rest, to heal, to simply “be” with this huge rite of passage.
Gradually, I ventured forward. My daughter hadn’t disappered, and we kept closely in touch. The holiday routines followed a similar pattern to her sister’s. It helped to know how they were likely to pan out. I visited her occasionally, staying sometimes in her student house (a colourful anthropological experience), sometimes booking a twin room in a hotel and inviting her to stay with me. We would go out for meals, and talk for hours, adults together, getting to know each other on a whole new plane. Loss and gain walked hand in hand. Grief for the lack of a dependent child who needed me for everything huge gratitude for this young woman who wasn’t with me out of need, but because she chose to be. Because she liked me, loved me, valued and appreciated me, as Mother, and as something more besides.
I travelled. I’d already been twice to Japan, where my eldest daughter had been living (a whole new level of letting go there – and another relationship evolving beyond Mother and Daughter). Now I journeyed to Africa, alone and independent, full of nascent joy. I would return there, with Younger Daughter in the summer, Husband the next year, but that initiation as lone discoverer of a new continent was symbolic of the new me. I saw elephants and lions in the wild. I happened upon a wildebeest giving birth. I lodged with an African woman who has become a dear friend, welcoming me and later my family, sharing the intimacy that is unique to women who know their own souls, beyond race and culture and experience.
My children are all independent now, and more beloved to me than ever. When my youngest graduated earlier this year, and gained her dream job near the far-away city she has made her home, there was another wave of grief amid the celebration. And then my son, who has been living abroad, suddenly asked if he could come to stay for a few months, and here I am with an adult child at home, and loving it, while still enjoying my freedom as I hope he is enjoying his.
The empty nest is a fluid thing. They leave, and yet they don’t leave. They live forever in our hearts, they come and go within our lives, their realities merge with ours, then separate, then merge again, and we learn to adapt, as we have since they began their journeys in our wombs. We women are amazing creatures. Our bodies are designed to grow new lives and let them go into the world. Our hearts are made to do the same, and we do both beautifully. Our grace and courage lend us wings to fly above the pain of it.
The new life that exists beyond the chrysalis of motherhood is rich and splendid. Sometimes we need a guide to help us reach the heights, but the heights are there, awaiting us. It has been my privilege to guide women on their journeys and each has brought new richness to my own ongoing adventure.
Emptiness is the breeding ground of possibility. Allow your tears to fall, and know that they are watering that ground to make it fertile for the wonderful new life on the horizon.