What 50 looks like now: the empty nest syndrome

Sarah Long

Have your children left home for university and you're feeling a bit blue? Don't despair! Author Sarah Long offers some useful advice that'll help you snap out of it (and no, it doesn't involve collecting stamps). 

If sexual intercourse began in 1963, Empty Nest Syndrome came a little bit later. Hard to say when, but possibly between Penelope Leach and Gina Ford. Certainly a long time after our own parents waved us off to adulthood.

They would be mystified by this medicalisation of a normal life stage. Do you want them living with you forever? Of course not! Children move out and you feel a bit sad. Get over it, snowflake.

Easier said than done. Like any feeble modern parent, I’ve done my share of weeping on motorways after abandoning a child to Freshers’ Week. Three times in fact. Worrying they’ll panic about work, become comatose on a pub crawl or, worse, won’t be invited.

You tell yourself to man up, but then you arrive home to find the scuffed trainers by the front door, like a relic from an Egyptian tomb and you get the physical ache of missing them.

The house feels weird and empty, then you go into their bedroom and see the wardrobe door swinging open to reveal dresses that didn’t make the final cut and an abandoned pair of knickers on the floor that makes you want to cry.

 

 

"No surprises that divorce rates peak at this time"

 

 

Empty nesters tend to weep alone but they are quite easy to spot. She’s the woman absentmindedly filling the supermarket trolley because she’s forgotten there’s no one to cook for. By no one she means her husband. Then she remembers, and puts back the family-size tray of chicken thighs.

 

The blank look on her face is brought on by the thought of sitting down to a quiet dinner for two every night for the rest of her life. No surprises that divorce rates peak at this time.  

You may find yourself behind her in the queue at the post office, holding a lovingly assembled package containing his favourite recipe and some ras el hanout, because the spice range is limited where he is. Also in there is a hot water bottle, socks, and a flask that will fit in the mini-fridge so recently unloaded into the corner of his monastic room.  

She’s trying not to bombard him with texts but she’s added his address to her Amazon Prime account and sends something every few days, just to let him know she’s thinking of him. She wanted to book an Ocado delivery to his hall of residence, but her husband put his foot down with firm words about mollycoddling.

 

 

"But really you are crying because while this is the beginning of your child’s real life, it’s the beginning of the end of yours"

 

 

The need to be needed does not disappear and Empty Nest Woman will often acquire a puppy. It’s a way of making friends in the park, the way she used to with the pushchair. She even buys nappy sacks for his poop because the smell reminds her of the baby years.

She’ll invite people round to meet the new member of the family who is enthroned on her lap in a mess of soft blankets and toys with bells. Puppy photos will dominate her Facebook timeline, gushed over by other empty nesters.

Grieving is provoked at odd moments, like when you can’t operate the TV without your young adviser. Or you remember your first day back at work after maternity leave and how you burst into tears when someone asked you who was looking after the baby.

Different hormones, same feeling. Or you go into the shrine of his bedroom and get a bit teary when you discover a mouldy cup and half-eaten pizza under the bed (though maybe the tears are because it reminds you what a rubbish mother you were, allowing such slatternly habits.)

But really you are crying because while this is the beginning of your child’s real life, it’s the beginning of the end of yours.

But stop! Enough of the self-pity, it’s not as if there isn’t a terrifying amount of stuff out there to help you cope. Search your "empty nest" condition online and you’ll be overwhelmed by a sea of earnest middle-aged faces urging you to take up a hobby and work on rekindling your relationship with your partner.

I have double beef with this. Firstly, I didn’t realise people had hobbies anymore, I thought they died out with stamp collections and pinning dead butterflies into an album. Secondly, who wants to work at a relationship? It’s either there or it isn’t, you can’t treat it like some kind of fitness programme.

This advice is obviously wrong. What you should do is start behaving like the spoilt teenager you’ve finally managed to get rid of. Drink gin and tonics in front of rubbish telly, followed by a tub of salted caramel pecan ice cream and call it dinner.

Eat pizza in bed and leave the remains mouldering for someone else to pick up. Go on a selfish holiday and post gloating photos so your child can see what a fab time you’re having without him.

Don’t get a puppy—why would you trade one dependant for another? Do what a friend of mine has done, and celebrate your freedom by getting a tattoo instead. There’s nobody to tell you you’ll regret it, the way you told your child she’d regret it and probably pay a fortune to have it removed one day.

And finally, don’t think this freedom is forever. As sure as night follows day, and just as you’re getting comfortable with your indulgent new life, the cuckoo will be back. Take it from me. 

 

Sarah Long worked in publishing before giving it all up to move to Paris with her husband and three children. She is the author of And What Do You Do? and The Next Best Thing. Following several years of the Parisian experience, she now lives in London. Invisible Women by Sarah Long is published by Bonnier Zaffre.

 

Feature image via BringingUpBabyAbroad

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