In September or October 1987, I set off with my new husband, to a new land. The airline lost our suitcases for five days, causing a few in-the-moment challenges. Despite this unexpected start, we began the adventure of our lifetimes, making our home in Njombe, deep in the southern highlands of Tanzania, on a wattle plantation.
If anyone has had the pleasure of reading Lennart Hagerfors’ book, “The Whales in Lake Tanganyika”, I really did feel like Livingstone – I was young, full of energy and curiosity; I had no fear. My parents, on the other hand, did. This beginning of married life together, this wild choice we made in 1987, set the tone for how we live our lives now, how we have parented our two children, and how we continue to work on the relationships with our adult children and their partners.
I knew that there were giraffes and elephants and maybe lions where we were going. I knew that there were no telephones, no shops, no TV, and the only language spoken was Swahili. That ‘god-forsaken-place-in-the-middle-of-nowhere’ (as my mother called it) was the catalyst for my life’s journey and two of the most challenging, exciting, and formative years of my life. Today, as I write, I’m 30 years older, and my ‘baby’ girl is twenty-eight, and taking almost the very same step I did. She’s recently married, setting off to a new life, a new commitment to a new husband in the highlands of Zimbabwe. So, what has changed?
I have so much compassion for my mother now. I finally appreciate how difficult it must have been to watch her only daughter leave for a ‘foreign land’, so alien to her – where stories of savage beasts, disease, famine were rife, and, at the time, the AIDS pandemic was in full flow. The film ‘Out of Africa’ was my mother’s only reference for visualising where I was moving to. And even though the film was based on a 1937 memoir by Danish author Karen Blixen, it was still an accurate portrayal of life in Africa when the film premiered in 1985.
As I prepare to drive my baby to the airport, I’m excited for her. I’m hopeful and, deep down, I’m relieved. I know that she’ll message me when she arrives, communication in the 2020s is easy. For me, her destination is already familiar. I know it intimately (we lived there when she was young, and I often visit dear friends who remain there). I can picture her arrival. I can see the faces of the singing, smiling customs officials welcoming her and looking for change to give us as we she tries to pay for her visa with large bank notes. I can picture the road she’ll travel to her new home, the sunsets, and the bustle of the people around the market towns she passes through as they wrap up their busy day before the sun sets and all light disappears. You see, they still have no electricity.
What makes it easier for me to wave her off on her travels is that, unlike my mother, I know I will see her later this year, in December., I can picture her house on the banks of the Save river and her doggies, who will greet her. It’s all familiar because I visited only a few months ago.
I reflect with many clients at this time of year on what we refer to as ‘empty nest syndrome’ and think of the comparable situation I find myself in. What makes it bearable when your children leave home, and you find yourself with an excruciatingly loud silence in your home?
I ask myself questions:
There are so many opportunities for me to do ‘a little work’ on how this experience is impacting me.
Goodbyes are always tinged with a little sadness, and I do many of them. My father-in-law has a great positive outlook on goodbyes – he says that once that sad goodbye has passed, you have the next meeting to look forward to. Those goodbyes in my twenties and thirties were really sighs of relief from hectic visitation timetables of relatives only seen once a year. As I grow older, those goodbyes seem a little more unsettling, tinged with sadness even.
However, in the words of Paulo Coelho, “she is an adventurer looking for treasure”. HER treasure. This is key, Nature and Nurture are too deeply entwined to pit them against themselves. We brought her up to be curious about the world, cultures people and places. We encouraged her not to be afraid to look, first-hand, at the world, and not just to sit comfortably behind a screen, formulating opinions based by reading about other people’s views and experiences.
As parents, we have no-one but ourselves to thank for how we feel now about our children (for they are always our children) leaving home and finding their own pathway through life. I hope that maybe this article will simply encourage a myriad of thoughts (not judgments) for any reader who is a parent of a child, an adolescent, or a young adult. I encourage you to sit with these feelings, be compassionate towards yourself, and take time to accept that the choices you have made in parenting will impact on how you FEEL and COPE with the departure of your children from the family environment.
Perhaps because we have travelled and lived so many places in our ‘baby’s’ lifetime, we have a clear definition of what ‘home’ is for our family – it’s a place where we are; where we offer safety, security, and happiness. It never seemed to centre around a place, a building, or the need to be near to family. In some ways, it feels to me as though she is going Home, in as much as it is the place where we felt most connected to Life. I send her with confidence, with love and with the wings that she might fly but also know she can always return
I have been a mother since we were blessed with the arrival of our first child in 1991 – and since that time, I have also worked. I identified very early on that I was not that mother to be around very young children (under 5s), on a full-time basis. Yet, as soon as they were curious, I wanted to share everything with them; the highs and the lows of our choices and decisions that impacted on them – and so I felt that I became more available to them as they grew. This was unexpected, and I now realise, extremely important. As they mature into adults, I’m now blessed to share wonderfully different, yet close, relationships with my adult children, and love to hear their interpretations of decisions I made in their childhoods, from their perspective.
Some are difficult to hear. When listening to their perceptions, I can sometimes hear a voice in my head saying, ‘how could I have got it so wrong?’. It leaves me wondering how I might, with the gift of knowledge and age, have made different choices, and yet, it was ok. Maybe, just maybe, their gift of confidence and their own subconscious was already kicking in and helping them make different mind-body connections that ultimately helped create the independent thinkers that they are today – way beyond my development at the same age.
I often relay a story to distraught mums at this time of year when their youngest sets off to university with their own duvet, survival package and teddy hidden somewhere deep in their boxes.
My youngest (a girl, and I think gender is an important point here) called me, in a furious rage, from her university city of Manchester in the Autumn of 2012. I’ll give you some context…
She had headed to Manchester from our home in Malaysia, having spent her teenage years in the city of Kuala Lumpur. My husband (her dad) had moved to the Middle East for a job opportunity, and I had decided it was time to do something radical – to build and open a non-clinical therapeutic retreat centre (and perhaps yoga!) in the South-West of France.
I arrived with a dog, a cat (who ran away after 6 months), and a suitcase and began probably the most challenging project of my lifetime. When my daughter had to fill in registration forms for the University, she realised she had no idea about our ‘home address’. Reflecting on this now with her has been interesting – there doesn’t seem to be any anxiety around this not knowing. It was more to do with a lack of efficiency and practicality. It also helped that by 2012 the world of mobile phones and instant messaging was well underway.
Again, how you FEEL about this situation may teach you something about how you are going to cope in the empty nest scenario. I have always ‘joked’ that when your children leave home, you should, as parents, never leave a forwarding address! I think this was to cover my own shame at not being that organised parent who gave them a file with all vital information in it. Now I realise that I may be chasing them for addresses as they lead their lives! And that is just OK with me.
We live in a world now that is so changeable and that makes it really hard to let go of our children, whatever their age – but let go, we must. To do that with confidence, we must fill them with confidence (even in times of adversity) and help them trust in their own decisions and dreams, even if we don’t understand them entirely. As parents, we need to realise that what we SHOW our children is as important as what they HEAR.
Somewhere in my childhood, I was shown enough confidence and security to make some huge decisions that influenced my parenting skills and my children. There is no empty nest here – simply immense pride and excitement to watch their journey.
I am grateful for my parents and for my children, the lessons, the mistakes, and most of all, the ongoing influence and communication.
Your experience of empty nesters may be very different from mine. I have experienced so many different circumstances, across many different cultures, in my thirty years as a psychotherapist. As our (last) child gets ready to set off on their university adventure and whatever the circumstances parents often arrive at the same point and with the same feelings – abandonment, loss of purpose, and direction. My experience at the time my youngest child left for university was definitely a little different and perhaps distracting but maybe that is what I am experiencing ten years later. I have heard the same statement so many times from mums as they find themselves in an empty home – ‘ there’s nothing else I can do now [for work], I have been a mum for too long, I have no skills. In my experience, that simply isn’t true and with a little help, I have seen the most fantastic mothers start to find their own new path of freedom and renewal. If you need support in coping with empty nest syndrome, I would love to help you. Feel free to get in touch – it’s such empowering and fun work to do on ourselves.
We’d love to hear from you about how you are feeling about your empty nest. If you have time, take a moment to share with us in our social groups.