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Is it all tears when kids fly the nest?

Two Belfast Telegraph writers recall the day their own children spread their wings ... and how they dealt with their sense of loss

With the new academic year about to begin thousands of children will be leaving home – many for the first time – as they set out on that great adventure we call life.

For them there will be a feeling of excitement, away from the strictures and rules of life with mum and dad, a chance to explore all those previously forbidden fruits and to meet new friends.

But what about mum and dad, left behind in the empty nest as they children learn to spread their wings?

Empty nest syndrome is a recognised condition, a visceral wrench of emotions.

After years of children being at the centre of their life what do they do now?

There are constant reminders everywhere of the children who have left which may well reduce mum to tears, while father retains a stoical demeanour.

Sure, the parents will have more freedom and more space, but does the emptiness remain?

Here a mum and a dad give their differing perspectives on life without the kids.

'I was suddenly a mother without children for first time'

Joanne Sweeney is a Belfast journalist and mother of two girls, Eleni (21) and Anna (19), who both studied in England. She says:

It's that time of the year when some women in Northern Ireland come down with something that sounds really quite nasty – empty nest syndrome.

While it's not an actual clinical diagnosis, the Mayo Clinic describes it as a phenomenon of grief and loneliness that many parents suffer from when their last child leaves home.

Note the use of the word parents for, while it's not just restricted to women, mothers are probably more likely to admit to feeling it and then do something about it.

With teenagers heading off, or about to head off, to university or perhaps leaving here in the graduate brain drain to find work across the water, we can expect a sharp rise in those experiencing the syndrome.

So this week or next if, by chance, you see an otherwise sensible-looking woman howling in tears, clutching a packet of chocolate Hobnobs in Tescos, just give her some space – maybe even a comforting pat on the shoulder – and walk on by.

It's just a case of empty nest syndrome. I'm not joking about a woman crying or reaching for a packet of biscuits and then sobbing as she put them back. It had absolutely nothing to do with the recession. It has suddenly hit her that she no longer needed to buy the biscuits because her only son was away at university.

And no, it wasn't me. It was a highly intelligent friend of mine who warned me that I might experience a wobble when my youngest daughter left for university in England last September.

Perhaps I need to say here – my name is Joanne. I am a recovering empty-nester.

Not only am I recovering, I'm flourishing with the sheer freedom of not being a mother 24/7. My breakdown moment came – wait for it – when I was sorting through a jumble of (clean) knickers, bras, socks and tights in the utility room.

I literally convulsed into a knicker gusset, or two, inexplicably crying as I realised that my two daughters weren't around anymore to wear them.

And I hate trying to sort out laundry for myself and my daughters, who will insist on wearing mis-matched socks. But at least my breakdown was in private. At least it wasn't in Tesco's.

That was last year when my daughter Anna had just left for her first year at Lancaster University and my eldest daughter Eleni was going into her final year at uni in Newcastle.

I was suddenly a mother without her children, the first time since they were born. Think about that – a mother without her children.

It's like bread and jam, two things that are meant to go together, mothers – and fathers – with their children.

As a divorced mother and single parent for the last 11 years, there were loads of times when the girls stayed with their father and I was without them.

Then, in the early years, the feeling of separation was so intense that I often took to my bed, only to dress and tidy up just before they came home. I felt redundant without them.

I remember how we would quickly bond again, by wrestling and play-fighting on the stairs, in a tumble of arms and legs, a lioness with her cubs. If I could have devoured them whole, I would have.

So it wasn't the first time I was sans-enfants and had learnt to cope with their leaving and our coming back together again.

It has to be said that I did encourage them to think about going away to university as the thought of them coming home to me mid-week after student nights out wasn't welcome. And while I love the bones of my girls and relish nothing more than thundering to them when there's a small crisis, there comes a time when three feisty women cannot live together full-time.

Now when I shout about the mess, it's all down to me so suddenly it's acceptable. The petty thievery rate of make-up, hairbrushes and tops has reduced amazingly. Things are still where I have left them. The food bill has been slashed and the previous mountain of washing and ironing is now a mere hillock.

While my nest is empty again after the summer, I'm about to start a Open University course studying the 19th Century Novel en route to a honours degree.

I have spare rooms to offer friends free bed and breakfast for a girls' night out on the town. I have freedom to get up and go anywhere I want. That's been a long time in coming and I really value it.

To any other suffering empty-nester out there – now's the time to plan ahead and line up things that you're wanted to do for yourself, with or without your partner.

Get back to who you used to be. You might just find that you'll really like yourself again.

'We were shell-shocked leaving our son in such a foreign environment'

Alf McCreary is a Belfast journalist and author whose two sons Mark (42) and Matthew (36) went to university in England. He says:

When my sons went to universities in England at different times, I was glad that they were moving outside Northern Ireland.

Mark studied at Manchester University from 1990-94 for a degree in Modern Languages and Matthew went to the University of Bradford from 1996-2000 to take a degree in European studies.

I was glad they left Northern Ireland, not because of the Troubles, but because of the widening horizons of going to a university outside the province.

In the same way that I greatly widened my own horizons by coming from the south Armagh village of Bessbrook to study at Queen's University in Belfast in the early Sixties, I knew that it was only natural for the next generation to move outside Northern Ireland to broaden their own outlook. I cannot say that I experienced any deep "empty nest" syndrome when they left home, though their mother might have felt differently about that. I was still busy with my career, and we kept closely in touch with the boys.

I probably told them jocularly that I was glad to see the back of them, but in reality I was particularly glad that they had earned the right through their hard work at Belfast Royal Academy to move on to a university education ... and to discover the importance "of learning to learn", which lies at the heart of every university course.

For me it was very much a positive experience to have the boys studying in England. This gave us an opportunity to visit parts of northern England where we might not otherwise have gone, and the long trips ferrying them back and forward to England via Stranraer became family safaris, with exploratory days added on to discover some of the tourist delights of the north-west area.

That is not to say that there was no feeling of "severance" at all when our boys crossed the Irish Sea. Initially, I was slightly taken aback by the poor conditions in the first hall of residence where Mark stayed in Manchester and, at first, my wife Hilary and I were slightly shell-shocked at having to leave him in such a foreign environment and drive home. However, he soon settled in. I discovered this when I visited him some time later to watch a game at Old Trafford between Manchester United and Leeds United, and he told me that he had gained his place in a local football team. In that sense he had already developed a stake in the student life of Manchester, apart from his university education. (He also explained to me, reluctantly, the meaning of the rude chants of the Old Trafford crowd at the hapless referee – something which the tender ears of his father had not heard before!)

The day before the game we also sought escape from the bitter cold of Manchester and, hurriedly, I bought two matinee tickets for a stage adaptation of Pride and Prejudice which was one of the unexpected delights of my weekend visit. When you have children at university, you are also bound to learn something else from their experience.

My wife and I also visited Matthew in Bradford and we learned – as he did – about the atmosphere of a multi-cultural society. We also enjoyed a visit to Strasbourg when he was studying at the local university during the third year of his course on European Studies. I also admired his resilience in surviving so well in accommodation facilities that were not great, but no worse than some of those I experienced at Queen's when I was his age.

Obviously our boys' experience at different universities played a major role in their developing education, and also gave them the qualities of initiative and questioning which lie at the heart of their chosen careers in journalism.

Overall my experience of our sons' education away from home was entirely positive – apart from having to deliver the frequent 'sub' to help keep them alive.

Happily, they are now both settled in Belfast with their families, but if they had chosen to live permanently outside Northern Ireland afterwards, it would have been, for me, a real "empty nest syndrome" which I might have found difficult to handle.

The "empty nest" is now happily full of children and grandchildren and, as Shakespeare noted "All's well that ends well".

Flying the nest ... the aftermath

* Empty nest syndrome is described as a feeling of loneliness parents sometimes feel when their children leave home for the first time

* While not a clinical condition as such, it is nevertheless a recognised set of feelings that affects parents, most commonly mothers

* It is reportedly most common in autumn months, when teenage children leave home for college or university.

* While the symptoms are mostly confined to milder feelings of sadness, if they become more severe – such as excessive crying or severe depression – you should seek professional help

* In 2010, a poll of 2,000 parents whose kids had recently left home, found the majority of mums and dads, among other benefits, felt 10 years younger, were about £600 a month better off and felt that their relationships had improved.

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