My youngest daughter left home for university just at the same time that her older sister finished her 3 years in Manchester and flew off to work in Mexico for a year. So there I was, emptynesting, approaching 50 and feeling rather at a crossroads. Many of my friends were at a similar stage of family life. Whether you have worked or not, bringing up children is a minimum 18 year job. And when it stops it takes some adjusting to.
We were all really missing our kids, and felt slightly unsettled at the impact it would have on life at home, and what we were going to do with our new free time.
At home the routine of school life, family meals, and the noisy comings and goings of teenagers through the house suddenly stopped. There was just us plus the dog – a completely new dynamic. The house seemed oddly quiet and tidy, and the fridge retained the food I put in it for longer than a day! The trails of dirty clothes on the floor, wet towels on beds and dirty dishes that never quite made it into the dishwasher evaporated. Meals were without strops and traumas and we could eat food other than chicken! There were no more dirty mugs and half eaten apple cores left lying around, and suddenly we had no arguments over who watched what on TV. I could go on (it’s a long list!) but you get the drift. My husband and I discovered that there are actually quite a lot of plus points to emptynesting!
On the sad side, well I guess one of the things I missed most was when my girls came back from school, and we would chat about the day’s news over a cup of tea. I also missed the fun of seeing them and their friends swapping clothes and make up whilst they took hours to get ready to go out to a party, and I missed their impromptu cuddles too.
There are 3.7 million emptynesters in the UK whose children have left home in the past five years alone.* Unfortunately many of us, like me, start to empty our nests just as the menopause gets going. So add greying hair, a thickening waistline and a few wrinkles into the mix doesn’t exactly help. But on the plus side an empty nest presents lots of opportunities for new life experiences, and after the initial period of adjustment, I am pleased to report that feelings of liberation soon start to bubble up. Everyone says 50 is the new 40, and I firmly believe it is true.
Life with just the two of us at home took some adjusting too – especially at meal times. When the kids piled in from school there was always a lot of activity, snacking, sorting out of smelly sports kit for a quick turnaround, and of course the rush to get supper on the table and feed hungry mouths. Husbands at this point, probably very sensibly, seem to take the route of disappearing into a comfy chair behind the newspaper until the food is on the table. I found I needed to get my husband out of this habit, lured by a glass of wine and the paper in the kitchen or a quick blast of a Radio 4 comedy programme. Then cooking became so much easier anyway, as we could eat what we wanted without any ‘yuk, I’m not eating that’ comments, so I got really into my recipe books and out came all kinds of things from stuffed peppers to tabouleh. In fact my husband showed such renewed enthusiasm that he even offered to cook a meal once a week. Sadly this has turned into a once every three weeks effort, but it’s a start, and I’m not complaining.
I hadn’t appreciated that becoming an emptynester would mean having to rekindle a relationship as a couple too. After 21 years it took some getting used to. There was something liberating about not having to arrange our lives around the comings and goings of the kids. No more late night pick ups from parties, impromptu meals out together and the joy of being able to book holidays out of the school vacation period – half the price and half the number! I am pleased to say though that the sniff of a free holiday is still enough to make them prick up their ears, pack their bags and join us for a week in the sun. So maybe we aren’t too boring yet.
I did plan for my new found free time too, as friends had rightly said that when the kids leave the frequency with which you meet up with friends drops too – not for any reason other than I guess we mums are just not out and about as much. Supermarket trips and general chauffering around fall off. So with that in mind I got some things in the diary. I joined the CAB to train as an advisor, started learning Italian at Adult Education classes, organised some outings with girlfriends and signed up for the Moon Walk which involved lots of social walking with friends. Having always worked – first in the City, but later with a girlfriend selling home interior accessories, I then started my website www.emptynesting.co.uk to support other mums. Getting to grips with websites was quite a challenge for a computer dinosaur like me.
Then of course every now and then they boomerang back home. I love them to pieces, but when they dump their life’s possessions in black bin bags and boxes at the bottom of the stairs – using the well practiced art of random access to find anything they need, I do rush for a calming cuppa. It’s usually at short notice, and invariably involves piles of washing. It always makes me chuckle that they look appalled at the thought that we might actually have a social life too, and have not been keeping our diaries free on the off chance of their home coming!
So for me my empty nest has been a life rejuvenating experience. I’m 50 and feeling much fitter than I was when I was 40. I have for the first time in years been able to put ‘me’ first, and although the grey hairs are encroaching and the knees are starting to sag, life is exciting and busy.
At the end of the day, the fact that our kids leave home happy and confident, with hardly a backward glance as they embrace their independence is, after all, exactly what all parents strive to achieve over 18 years.
So regard it as a job well done, and make the most of it before they boomerang back again! You will be so thrilled to see them and they will be so appreciative of home life and a cuddle when they get back.
Sue is editor of www.emptynesting.co.uk . Whether you want to know where to stay in university towns, are thinking about going back to work, or want a ready made music list to exercise to, its all here. You can book up a cookery course or find a fitness boot camp, and check out how to cope with the menopause or identify osteoporosis.