Belfast Telegraph

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After three sons and 20 years of busy family life, how we're coping with... our empty nest

Caroline and Paul Bradley, from Belfast, found it tough finally being home alone.

By Stephanie Bell

As national representative in Northern Ireland for the charity Care for the Family you could say that Caroline Bradley has the inside track on what it's like for parents when the last of their children finally leaves home.

But even from a position of being able to advise others facing the anxiety of Empty Nest Syndrome, Caroline has spent a tearful few months coming to terms with the fact that the last of her three sons, David, has also now left home for good.

In fact, her journey to being home alone with her husband has lasted for 10 years from the day she settled her first son into university.

Parents the world over face Empty Nest Syndrome when they find they are no longer central to their children's lives.

And it's an issue with particular resonance at this time of the year as young people prepare for the adventure of university life. For while they are excitedly packing up their possessions to head off to pastures new, their mums and dads are gloomily facing the prospect of saying goodbye to their sons or daughters and hello to a new and very different lifestyle.

They may have moaned before about the wash basket that never empties or the fridge that always seems to need filling, about being an unpaid taxi driver or constantly picking up after their offspring.

Yet as soon as their child is gone, the sudden absence of what seemed thankless chores can come as a major shock as mums and dads adjust to being alone again in what can feel like a lonely household.

And though she gives regular talks around the country on preparing parents for Empty Nest Syndrome, Caroline (51) found herself having to draw on all of her professional training to cope when her own home became empty of kids for the first time in May.

She and her husband Paul (57), who works in a bank, have been married for 33 years and have three boys, Stephen (27) and 25-year-old twins David and Jonathan, all of whom are now married.

For Caroline, who gave up her career in a bank to raise her boys, the grieving process of Empty Nest Syndrome began a decade ago when she helped settle the first of her three boys, Stephen, into halls of residence at university in Glasgow.

Since then she and Paul have been preparing for the day when they would find themselves alone again after more than 20 years of hectic family life.

Despite her preparation, however, Caroline was surprised by just how big a wrench it was when that day finally came in May.

"I have to be honest and say when David finally left in May this year on his wedding day it felt like an abrupt end," she says.

"I'm not a weepy emotional person, but my journey began with me weeping my way through dinner in Glasgow 10 years ago, wondering would my boy survive in the world without me after we had settled him into university.

"Then in May, the day after David's wedding, I surprised myself when I couldn't stop crying because David was gone and the house felt silent and empty without him. I cried for a few weeks.

"Little things triggered it; things like his thoughtfulness in stripping his bed the morning of the wedding, knowing it would make me sad to do it for the last time the next day, or even setting the alarm at night knowing he wasn't coming in, or forgetting and setting too many places at the meal table."

She quotes Rob Parsons in his new book The Sixty Minute Grandparent in which he writes: "Grief is not something that only attaches itself to death, but it also applies to the loss of the presence – even temporary – of somebody (or even something) we love dearly."

Like any couple during their 33 years of marriage, Caroline says she and Paul have faced many challenges and days when their love was definitely a choice and commitment that took effort.

Having their three boys was, she says, one of their greatest joys and satisfactions.

The boys were all born within 22 months of each other, with the identical twins arriving just as Stephen was coming up to his second birthday.

Caroline says: "Truthfully, as they were growing up I used to have momentary daydreams wondering if I would ever get them up to manhood and what life might be like when they were grown and flown because family life, as you can imagine, was often mayhem.

"Like most women of my generation, I gave up my career to raise the lads. I didn't really have much choice as there was no childcare provision like today and no-one really wanted three lads under two. Besides, having lost our first baby, being there with my boys was so special to me.

"My world became totally immersed in them and I juggled part-time jobs only if it worked around them."

Despite trying to prepare herself for the day when her first child would leave home, Caroline found it a terrible wrench.

As she and Paul helped Stephen move into the halls of residence in Glasgow she couldn't help feeling that her son seemed too young and vulnerable to be left for the first time in a city he didn't know.

She says: "My mind was racing. I was wondering if I had done a good enough job being a parent? Would he manage by himself? Had I taught him enough about how to do the mundane everyday tasks like cooking, washing clothes, shopping and feeding himself with the occasional nutritious meal?

"Had I equipped him to stay safe, know who to trust, know what are good choice and bad choices?

"At that moment it is a really immediate revelation that the parenting days are drawing to a close – you move from being controller and trainer to being a coach and consultant who cheers them on in their growing independence."

While it was hard, Caroline still had two boys at home and could look forward to Stephen coming back home to Northern Ireland for regular breaks over the next four years.

When Jonathan left a few years later it was another blow, but by that time Caroline felt better prepared.

Looking back, she says now: "Perhaps we had built up some resilience and knew better how to do it.

"We understood what to expect with our emotions, how we would feel and how to keep links – maybe because we had his identical twin still at home because he had decided to stay at Queen's and that made it easier."

For the past 10 years the couple's nest emptied gradually, with their kids coming back and forth from university in what is known as the boomerang generation – university, jobs and a general coming and going until they met their future wives and, one by one, got married.

Caroline says: "Paul and I are really thankful that we had great relationships with all the fiancés which I know must have made the emptying of our nest easier.

"But you can't get away from the hard fact and reality that you know as they walk out the door that morning to head to the church to make their vows that life will never be the same again.

"It felt different to the back and forth at uni and work – you knew this time it was final and complete. That was a sweet and sour moment – you are pleased for them as they fly the nest and for the new opportunities it brings to you, but you also feel sad and are grieving the loss of their presence in your everyday life.

"Relationships all round need to re-adjust and you're into the territory of being in-laws and trying to get it right."

After months of tears, Caroline and Paul are now starting to enjoy life again as a couple no longer focused everyday on the needs of their children.

Having the house to themselves for the first time in almost 28 years was the end of one phase of their lives but they have put effort into making sure it is also a bright new beginning.

Caroline has gone from feeling pain at the loss of her boys from their home to appreciating the difference it makes not to have them there.

She says: "Now, two and a half months on, the tears have stopped and I am relishing this new phase.

"I love that the bathroom stays clean and tidy and I don't have a selection of underwear and sports kits to step over before I reach the bathroom.

"I love having the TV controls in my grasp, I love the lack of empty cereal bowls, cups and glasses that used to be displayed across the house like ornaments.

"I love the less full laundry basket and the fridge that doesn't require filling every other day."

Wisely, too, Caroline had the foresight to prepare for a time when she would have less family responsibilities.

When her sons were in early adolescence, she started to study for a new career.

She completed a degree in social policy and has spent the past few years working in the charity sector and the community before joining Care for the Family 17 months ago.

She says: "I wanted to shape a new future for me that had potential after they had grown and flown, rather than be left with the feeling my job was done and not knowing what to do next.

"I think it is important that parents find something that is right for them – it might be volunteering, learning a new skill or travelling. The important thing is to acknowledge that one day your role will change and you can take steps to fill that phase positively."

Investing time in each other was also important for Caroline and Paul.

Even though their marriage was strong the couple felt they wanted to reconnect on a new level and both decided to read the book Love Languages.

Learning what makes each other happy through this bestseller, Caroline says they have each become more proactive in their kindness to one and other.

Caroline says: "It's so easy to lose each other when you have kids and don't have a huge amount of quality time together. We wanted to find something we could do together.

"I've been a member of Belfast Community Choir for years and I love it and I've managed to talk Paul into joining and we are really excited to be going out and doing something together and having a shared interest. Paul and I are still on a journey and planning lots of investment in our marriage and what's next for us.

"We are in a place now that we are able to celebrate the post-parenting years and trying to enjoy the calm before the next phase of grandparenting is upon us in December."

'Our lives revolved around the girls'

BBC Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Kelly and his wife Helena were devastated when their daughters Sarah, now 34 and Claire (32) left home in their teens for university.

Gerry says: "The day that we left Sarah in her room at the halls of residence in University College Dublin will be forever imprinted on our minds.

"We were never the type of couple who wished our kids would leave us and we still would have both back home.

"We laugh about it now but when Sarah went to university it was such a momentous occasion in our family life.

"After we left her, we drove the whole way from Dublin to Newry with tears in our eyes and unable to speak a word to each other.

"When Claire went to Queen's University, Belfast, a couple of years later it wasn't just as bad because we had experienced it with Sarah and Queen's wasn't that far away.

"We kept in constant touch with phone calls and we still do talk to the girls by phone every day. You never remember the time living together before you have children; our whole lives revolved around them.

"When they leave it really is an empty nest. There is a gap there that isn't filled, but gradually it dawns on you that you have to let go and that you are feeling sad for yourself and they have this whole new life in front of them.

"You eventually recreate your own lives again. The girls are still very much at the centre of our lives and we can go and visit them."

Preparing for a big change ...

Empty nest syndrome is a feeling of grief and loneliness parents or guardians may feel when their children leave home for the first time, such as to live on their own, with others, or to attend a college or university. It is not a clinical condition.

Symptoms include depression, stress and feelings of rejection. Though in most cases it is the mother who is affected, men can experience it too.

Care for the Family has the following advice for parents who are worried about no longer being part of their child's everyday world:

Expect emotion that your role has ended – it will be different but it doesn't have to mean bad

Try to see it as a positive thing that you have done your job and given them roots to grow and live successful, independent lives

Allow time to grieve, space to adjust – if feelings persist and become depression seek help

Plan early to create a life post-child-raising by studying for a new career or hobby

Make time for your partner – it's an opportunity to renew/revive your relationship

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