Empty nest – when all your children have left home

Whether you’re the one leaving, or the one left behind, the inevitable separation of parents and children as the latter grow up and move on can be exciting and painful, for both sides. As the last of her three children prepares to leave home, Raffaella Barker pauses to listen to the silence and ponder what happens next


Empty nest - when all your children have left home

My oldest child was born when I was 23, and he is now 25, so I’ve spent just over half of my life as a mother.

How did that happen? It seems as if I’ve just spun around from peering into a sink full of his and his brother’s muddy football boots, from negotiations over homework versus Warhammer battles, from shopping trolleys laden with bread, bacon, sausages, peanut butter, Granny Smith apples and ketchup every week. One minute there I was, protecting the larder from the onslaught of teenage boys, the food devoured in minutes, the fridge door swinging open and reproachful, the house battered by a constant assault of football matches, Playstations and BB Guns, the next minute – silence.

Everything is alarmingly tidy. No mud, no sports section of the paper open all over the table, no pairs of trainers and myriad differently sized sticks and balls for every kind of game, no snoozing tumble of son tucked up in bed with the pug triumphantly snuggled in on a sunny morning when I think they should have been up for hours. The boys have left home, their sister is poised to follow, and I have the sinking feeling I used to have at the end of the summer holidays, that this golden time is gone.

The difference is, this time it’s gone for good.

I don’t want to get maudlin, or overplay the loss, which is a healthy rite of life’s passage – I wouldn’t want it any other way. But that doesn’t stop it being sad. And it’s ridiculous what a shock it was to realise I am no longer top provider of food, wisdom, sympathy or even cash. Brutal that, after all the blood, sweat and tears, we’re dismissed. The dismal truth is, the better the job done of raising children to become independent adults, the less a doting mother will see of them once they’ve flown the nest. They must live their lives, and it’s a great compliment to our parenting if they kick up their heels and all but vanish to find their way.

I’ve spent all my adult life as a mum, so fitting around my children, or them fitting around me wasn’t an issue – it was just life. I had no preconceptions about what bringing up children might be like, I’d never thought about it, and we muddled through the years and the experiences, loved some, loathed others and had times of boredom, joy and grief, often in the same day. To find myself now without the framework of a young family is like learning a new dance, or a language. I want to be able to do it, but I don’t know how.

At first, I couldn’t understand cooking for two. Peeling potatoes to make mash for a couple is absurd. But we adapted. Made less bangers and mash, more smoked mackerel paté and other items formerly spurned by the family. I’m getting the hang of the next stage now. It’s long distance. Literally. I’m off to visit the oldest one in Beirut next week. Quality time has taken on a whole new meaning.

Raffaella Barker’s novel From A Distance (Bloomsbury, £8.99), is out in paperback on 7 May

Photograph: iStock

More inspiration:

Read Letting go of grown-up kids by Diane Priestley on LifeLabs