by Sandy Burgham
So they left within three weeks of each other. Poof! Vanished, these human beings who took up so much of my oxygen during the last 23 years — one to Mexico, the other to Wellington. As they left on their respective adventures, they expressed concern. “Will you be ok Mum? I mean there is Dad, but . . .” i.e, they had low expectations for him helping me with what they thought would be crippling loneliness and a sense of redundancy, as they imagined their bereft mother wandering an empty home, crying into their pillows and smelling their old t-shirts.
A mother’s love is primal and indeed I remember the day each of them was born, those days when all I thought about was my babies, and when I started mourning the day they would leave me. I loved them fiercely and they adored me so much that they would fight over who got to sleep facing me, breath to breath, when they crawled into our bed in the middle of the night, the other one relegated to spooning my back like a Klingon. But of course that was years ago, in the days when I hadn’t quite got back to being a fully formed human being, with an identity separate from being someone’s mother. I still love my children deeply of course, but there are aspects of their characters I don’t like at all (the ones not from my side of the family). So forget what you’ve read about the sad echo of empty nesting. Au contraire, it’s fantastic! The food bill’s plunged, my husband has emerged from his cave, and life has already assumed a lovely, gentle pace which sees us spending a lot of time in our new spa pool at the bach, relaxed in the knowledge that no-one is stealing our booze back home.
The only thing that can ruin this new sense of freedom is the nagging concern that it’s become commonplace for young adults to boomerang back and forth from their parents’ home, during a prolonged state of adolescence that can run right up to their 30s. While the housing market is thought to be fuelling this trend, I see it actually serving a lot of parents who consider their kids as friends, and love hanging out with them in an effort to prolong the delusion of their own youth. I’m more inspired by the strategy adopted by our friends, who, as parents of three 20-somethings, unceremoniously kicked each of them out for good soon after their 25th birthdays. They also employed the clever tactic of using the family spa pool naked, to really hurry things along. Looking back on our collective parenting skills over the past couple of decades, I would probably award us a B- and occasionally a D+ if we take into account lapses of judgement when we’ve been a bit too absent. The kids would say that indeed there were moments of slackness, but these were balanced out by extreme bouts of both helicoptering and subversive U-boating, when I have tried to fix them up to talk with “someone I know”.
This has no doubt fed their concern that I would have debilitating separation anxiety, brought on by a mix of regret, guilt and what they call out as control freak tendencies. In fact, my son was quick to enact effective boundaries by telling me that I was only allowed to phone him at his hostel once a week, but other than that I should “feel free to text”! What a cheek — that’s the sort of line I use with people if I am going to be in a conference all week. When I called him last week, feeling like a detainee using up their one phone credit, he announced all was well, except he really needed underwear and socks. He had no money to buy any, he said, due to his student loan not yet coming through (note that he had packed for this semester away only a few weeks prior). I was going to get him to wait it out, but I buckled on this one for health concerns. He’s never been big on doing laundry. Meanwhile, I started receiving messages from the daughter, professing she missed me. Cynically, I thought she wants me to send money. I wasn’t wrong. I suggested she lived on tacos rather than margaritas, and come up with another plan. I await the next phone call.
Possibly the worse thing about empty nesting is that you suddenly realise it was all a bit of blur. And now that you’ve come up for air, you’re aware you’re 55 and facing your own mortality. Empty nesting is truly the start of the Second Act, and one in which, if you’re lucky, will mark the start of a new adventure. So kids, I can’t make any promises your father and I will be somewhere with cell coverage, but do feel free to text.
— Sandy Burgham
This article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of The Hobson Magazine.