When you're finally left in an empty nest
What’s it like when parents are left alone as their children head off to uni or go to make their own way in life? Two writers reminisce about how they felt, while Kerry McKittrick talks to three NI personalities.
Lindy McDowell: 'I do miss them but there is an upside to it'
When I was asked if I could write a few hundred words on how it feels when your dear children finally grow up and quit the nest, leaving you all alone with only memories of those precious times when the family were together under one roof, I said actually I could do it in two words.
I don't wish to sound unmaternal (maybe I am a little) but while I love my stepdaughter and two sons to bits and while, yes, of course, I do miss them, I can assure any parent currently clutching a soggy hankie as they wave farewell to departing offspring and a strange silence descends upon the family home, that Empty Nest Syndrome also has its upside.
Time to yourself. Food in the fridge. A cooker that, remarkably, stays clean for days.
And the silence I mentioned, which in time you will come to realise isn't so strange at all. It's just how the normal world sounds without a non-stop backing track of ear-splitting, screechy 'music'.
Faye was the first of ours to move out. I missed her so much. She was the girl of the household. An utter joy to have around.
There were never any teenage strops or huffs with Faye. Her trademark reproof was (and still is) a cool stare and one raised eyebrow. This to signal, "Are you entirely insane?"
She moved to Devon in England and now lives very happily there with her partner Jarrod and gorgeous children, Niamh who's 18 and Ewan (16).
Faye has such a great sense of humour (in our family you have to have.)
When Jamie came along I think she found him a bit of an irritation at first. He was a long and skinny child and she and her friends christened him The Bionic Rib. The Bionic Rib was surprisingly happy with this. To a six-year-old it possibly sounded flattering.
There was another bit of a gap before we had Micah (we lost a little girl in between) and maybe that difference in all their ages is why they all get along so well. We didn't have to cope with sibling rivalry in our house. They all stuck up/covered for each other. A bit too much, sometimes.
Jamie, who moved out when he went to university, is married to our beautiful daughter-in-law, Lucy. He is witty and funny, the kindest soul and amazingly helpful. I do miss him around the house. His cooking maybe not so much.
He and Micah had a disturbing penchant for late night (or early morning) cuisine.
Jamie is a music fan and I'd like to say that when he moved out the decibels went down a bit. But Micah manfully took up the slack.
Our three are all party animals. In his early teens Micah had one of those house parties that they write about in the Daily Mail. We were away. He was supposedly staying with friends. But he had the house key ...
Thankfully, it was in the days before social media. But still, bad enough. They came from far and wide. An entire busload (I'm not making this up) came from Donaghadee.
In deference to his no-frills approach to life, Jamie used to refer to his brother as Easyjet. In time this was further downgraded to Ryanair.
Micah arrived back from university in England one time without any luggage whatsoever. "Have you not even brought a change of underwear?" I asked.
"Mum!" he admonished, "I'm only staying until Thursday!"
This, on a Saturday.
We moved out of the rambling, big house our family grew up in just last year. It was such a happy place. It was noisy, it was chaotic, there were always people coming and going.
We had great parties where all their friends used to pile in. The loveliest young boys and girls. I can honestly say, hand on heart, there wasn't a bad one among them.
I've watched them grow up into fine young men and women. No longer just Faye's friends or Jamie's or Micah's. I'm proud to say, they're now our friends too.
Those days in that old house will always be with us. Great days, glorious memories.
The hellish scramble for school in the morning. Bedrooms that looked like they'd been targeted by Kim Jong Un. Finding someone had used an entire bottle of my expensive shampoo as body wash. And that the steak I'd bought for (husband) Jim had been eaten by some overnight teenage guest. The distinctive odour of late-night kebab and discovering half a dozen youths kipping on the living room floor.
Inviting friends round for dinner and having to sellotape the fridge door shut in the interim with a Post-It Note warning ‘Touch any of this food and you’re dead meat!’.
And then discovering that the bottle of vodka I’d opened a few days before was now mysteriously fuller. But oddly much, much weaker ...
All that is gone now. We have downsized to what the estate agents call an apartment, Jim calls a flat and I call a shoebox.
It’s a small place. It’s quiet. It’s clean. I love it!
We’ve kept the big table from the last house, though.
It’s a monster. Way too big for the space.
But it was the centrepiece of their childhood and their youth down all those years, the wooden hub of our family life.
It was where tears (mostly mine) were shed over homework and stern lectures were delivered — “Sit down there boy, ’til I talk to you a minute.”
It was where Jamie and Lucy told us they were getting married and Micah filled in the application for the job that took him to London, where he now lives.
It was where Faye and I used to catch up over a wee vino when she came back home and where, as toddlers, Niamh and Ewan made their clay figures.
It was where friends and family gathered for so many parties. That poor oul’ table has endured so many tuneless sing-songs it could probably give you The Mountains of Mourne all by itself.
But life moves on and that’s a good thing. Our three have found their way in the world and brought into our lives so much joy and fun.
Our family has been made bigger and better with Lucy and Jarrod and Niamh and Ewan.
So my advice to that parent with the soggy hankie is that Empty Nest is only a comma in life, it’s not a full stop.
If yours are anything like ours, even when they move away they will always be close.
The first you can call on whenever you need their help.
The first to call you when they need a wee tap ...
They’ve only moved out. They haven’t gone away, you know.
Laurence White: ‘It was not the Nirvana it seemed’
It was just a couple of days after my son Laurence’s wedding, as he had left on honeymoon with new wife Roisin, that it suddenly hit us — for the first time in our 40 years of marriage, my wife Eileen and I were on our own.
Our house, which in the intervening years had been a hive of noise — we have six children — was unearthly quiet. There was no one there but us.
All our children were now making their own ways in life. We were surplus to requirements, or so it seemed.
Comedian John Bishop, in an interview in this newspaper yesterday, evoked the feelings of many parents when he spoke about his own children leaving home. He felt depressed, even though for years he had hoped they would all move out.
He added: “We’ve adjusted to it now but there is still part of you that thinks ‘Wow, you only get one go at being a dad and that go was their childhood’.
In a strange way that paralleled my own feelings. Being a parent, however inadequate, (Eileen was the real glue in the family, the person who laid down the rules and who made our children the fine people they are), was a real purpose in life.
In their early formative years children need you, but your support becomes more and more a convenience as they learn to stand on their own feet.
Our eldest daughter, Grainne, was first to leave home to study, then work in Dublin and eventually to marry and settle in Fermanagh. Her sisters, Michelle and Fiona, also fled the nest to study — one in Coleraine, the other in Bournemouth. The boys, Damien, Laurence and Declan, all remained in Belfast but at times found their own accommodation.
But during all those moves the house was never empty, until that day. Suddenly we had the freedom to do as we wished, go where and when we wanted, surely the dream of every parent. Yet it was not the Nirvana it might have seemed.
The great thing about a family, especially a big family, is sharing experiences. What’s the good of coming home from holiday if you have no one there to tell how great it was, or wasn’t? Sharing in a child’s achievement is best done face to face, not in a congratulatory phone call.
You won’t be there to see a grandchild — we now have nine — speak its first words or take its first steps. Those milestones of your own children are indelibly engraved in the mind, you don’t need a video of them.
But Eileen and I are lucky. All of our children and their families still live in Northern Ireland. We see them regularly. We can be babysitters for the grandchildren when required — I saw a notice on holiday recently which read ‘If we had known grandchildren were so much fun, we would have had them first’ — and Sundays usually see at least some of the children around for lunch.
On those days the house is alive and buzzing, sometimes so too is the head. We wonder how did we cope in those days gone by when all our children were there and all needing our attention. But then we remember they were among the happiest days of our lives.
And the nest is no longer empty. Laurence and Roisin have moved back in while waiting to buy their home. Rooms have been reconfigured to create separate space, but it’s great to hear other footsteps in the house.
And it’s great to have someone who knows how to operate a smart TV or explain how to get on WhatsApp or Facebook.
I hope they have it all worked out for us before they move again, otherwise Eileen and I will simply have to talk to each other.
‘I have been emotional about it’
Sarah Travers (43) is co-partner in Bespoke Communications. She lives in Portrush with her husband, Stephen Price, and they have two children, Jack (20) and Evie (14). She says:
Jack is now 20 and has just left for Ravensbourne University in London to study broadcast engineering.
It came about because my husband works in the media too and Stephen teaches a course in the Northern Regional College.
When Jack finished his A-levels he suggested he do that course at technical college to see if he liked it and then go on to university. If you want to work in film and TV or design then Ravensbourne is the place to be.
It was great having him home for an extra two years because I think he matured a lot. He was also able to use the skills he was picking up to get employment in the local area.
He hasn’t been away for long but I was very, very sad last week. I’ve been a lot more emotional about it than I thought I would be. I was talking to a woman whose daughter has just left for uni and she was telling me that it was like a grief — she would walk past her daughter’s bedroom and cry. I’m not quite that bad. His leaving just happened to coincide with a girls’ trip to Palma for me, so I’ve had a good distraction.
We’re Facetiming and he actually wants to, which is nice. At home I would hardly see him but now he’s away he wants to chat.
I think it’s great to get away and it’s very good for people from here to leave for a while. I went to Nottingham University and it really makes you appreciate Northern Ireland when you come back.
London is very expensive and it’s a big place but it is the best place to gain qualifications for his chosen career. In saying that, I’m relieved that he’s a bit older — the difference between an 18-year-old fellow and a 20-year-old one is quite staggering.
It’s also nice that he’s sharing with two people who were on the course with him in Limavady.”
‘It’s nice to see them living their lives’
Alison Clarke is director of the Miss Northern Ireland contest and runs the ASA Model Agency. She lives in Portrush with her husband, Darren Clarke, and has two sons, Stuart (30) and Phillip (25), and two stepsons, Tryone (18) and Conor (17). She says:
My boys are long gone — they’re actually both working in the US at the moment. Stuart took a year out and went travelling and then went to university in Newcastle. The funny thing is that when Stuart finished he came back to Northern Ireland while Phillip went off to university in Manchester.
Stuart did a Masters at Queen’s and lived at home while he did it. I don’t think it was too bad for me — although my house was their principal residence, they were with their dad some of the time so I never had them 100% of the time.
I was happy for them to go. Stuart went first and I was worried about him because he went out to Canada and had a few issues with accommodation but it all worked out in the end.
After Manchester, Phillip went to work in London and is currently in the US on secondment in Virginia for a few weeks. He works in management and Stuart now lives and works for Invest Northern Ireland in San Francisco.
Tyrone, Darren’s eldest son, has now gone to university in Florida but Conor is still at home with me. As soon as mine went then I had Darren’s boys — there’s always been some boy there to look after! Even though you bring them up the same way and teach them the same values, the two sets of brothers are both very different from each other. One will be very neat and tidy but the other will leave plates lying around and shoes by the door; I can’t say which one is which or they won’t send me a Mother’s Day card. It’s just the way they are. It was nice to see mine go and have their own life. I love having them visit but it’s also nice to return to normality when they go. We can all keep in touch easily these days — I’ve visited them both in London and San Francisco. I tried to teach them independence from an early age. They’re both entertaining and social and great cooks.
I miss that they’re not around the house but I don’t miss the additional washing and cleaning and food-buying that comes with them. That said, you’re always responsible for your kids, no matter their age. We don’t have to speak every day but knowing that I can speak to them whenever I want makes a difference.”
There's a point when it's time for them to go
Wendy Austin, who presents Radio Ulster's Inside Business on Sunday afternoon lives with husband Frank near Dromore, Co Down. She has has three grown-up children, Niall (33), Kerry (32) and Clare (28). She says:
My three all left when they went off to university - Niall and Clare both went over to England. He went to Newcastle and she went to London. Kerry went to Ulster University's art college, but she lived in Belfast.
It is strange when they first go - it's quite a long time ago now, when I look back.
Niall was mad keen to go, very excited about it, because some of his friends were going to the same place.
It can be a bit like nursery when they're wee - there's a point when it's time for them to go and you're glad to see that for them. Of course I missed them and we kept in touch.
Niall came home lots too but I have enjoyed seeing them getting their wings and flying.
I certainly didn't pine for them when they went away.
Of course I missed them and you do worry like mad. But then you worry like mad anyway - and at least you're not lying awake waiting for them to come home.
Niall was quite good about looking after himself. He would ring my mum to ask her how to cook things - he rang her one Christmas and asked her how to cook a 20lb turkey.
Clare was the last one to go away - she went to Imperial College in London and stayed in the South Kensington halls which were right next door to the Royal Albert Hall.
It was all very grand and quite intimidating for both of us. London is so much bigger than Belfast, and right in the centre of it you don't have the same kind of student community that Niall found in Newcastle. I don't think you should worry too much when your kids fly the nest - if you give them the proper tools before they leave home, then they'll be fine.