Empty Nest?

Are you a paid up member of the “I hate change” club? If so, welcome to the majority – you are far from alone. The comments around losses I’ve encountered in the last few weeks reflect the fact that many of us dislike change.

Specifically, a number of friends are experiencing the departure of a child to college or university (and yes I know they are not strictly speaking children, but it still feels like they are). Cries of “I’m lost without them” resound in the heads of parents at this time of year. Hasty goodbyes in cramped, strange smelling spaces are combined with squished kisses somewhere between the eye socket and hair line and mum’s look away to hide moist eyes. Last minute pleas include, “Don’t forget to eat” and “When shall we speak?” Returning home the house can seem eerily different and empty of the energy and presence you took for granted. VARIOUS

Have you experienced a young family member moving out? If so you may be struggling to reconcile how your most treasured offspring will survive in that featureless, one room or noisy ‘halls of residence’. Those with a half full ‘nest’ may find the remaining siblings notice the difference too as the dynamics of the family experience a seismic shift. For better or worse, everyone feels the losses along with the pull to accept, adjust and adapt.

Most subtle are the emotional changes; for example, one friend noticed her youngest son had pacified and distracted with humour, when things got tense at home; she wasn’t aware of this until he’d left. Most of us have a role in the family system, maybe the yeller has departed; who will ‘carry the can’ and voice the family’s anger now? This could be a positive outcome of course, when a sibling and parent are alike they sometimes clash and it can be a relief when one of them has gone. That’s not easy to admit to anyone let alone yourself.

Parents usually find it challenging when their kids leave home for the first time because it is a big deal, and many changes require many adjustments. When the transition includes moving cities, or even countries, it is HUGE for the student too and in your heart you know it could be very tough for them. Speaking as a parent, I’d say that can be scary … I know expats who’ve ended up with themselves on one continent and two offspring at colleges in two others! What a lot to handle practically and emotionally.

Meanwhile, my friend Roz (a cup half full kind of gal) has just dropped her eldest son off to live in Bath, where he will begin three years of college life. She sees the positives; excited for him and his new life-style. With two other children in her care, she feels the positive impact on the domestic scene. Let’s face it when the first one goes there is the prospect of less washing, cleaning, ironing, arguments, not to mention one less tummy to fill. Roz sees a future filled with opportunities for her son and engages with the changes in her life like a pro surfer riding the breakers.

It’s not always easy to be philosophical though, most of the mothers I’ve spoken to have known for years their child will leave, and yet when they do actually go, it’s still a wrench. When an only child or the last one departs, those mums (and dads) know they had a role and now it’s gone forever.

Perhaps you too are experiencing another kind of change, but feel it came along too quickly or you could be adjusting to a sudden turn of events; one of life’s ‘curved balls’.

Regrets

Accepting it is the end of an era is key when you consider your son or daughter’s childhood is now over. This knowledge can come with a sense of regret. How do we get past those nagging thoughts? I wish I had spent more time with them, listened more, and disciplined them more and so on.  It is not for me to provide absolution, but I believe there is no such thing as the perfect parent; we are always going to get something wrong, as ours did for us. Most parents try their best with the personal resources they have available to them at the time, emotional and financial.  As Alexander Pope wrote in 1711, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.”

Time

Give yourself time to grieve the loss before putting yourself under pressure to move on. Keep in mind that releasing emotions is an important component of any healing process. It may help to focus on any positives about the new situation, even if you have to dig deep to identify them.

Positives

When young adults leave home you can take credit for having raised your child in such a way they are now ready to go out into the world without your daily intervention. You have reached the goal of every parent – well done you!

We never stop being a parent and maybe the relationship will benefit from some distance.

If you have more time at your disposal, try focusing on how you would like to use it. Perhaps you can take up a new hobby or with the new found freedom in your schedule, you could at less feel less pressurised. It may help to recall the days when your children were very young and you longed for a few hours off!

Communication with College Kids

Agree with your offspring how you wish to communicate; email, text, phone or skype etc, and get ready to respect their new found privacy and space. Many parents are alarmed at how little they hear from their son or daughter and worry that something is wrong. Although it is important to check-in that everything is okay, don’t expect daily contact, they are starting a new life and will be busy.

Take heart, your son or daughter may turn out to be one of the ‘Boomerang’ generation; nowadays sixty percent of kids move back home eventually – best not to convert their den to a guest room just yet!

Do you have any experience or ideas that you could share? Please go ahead and comment.

Other blog posts about college leavers

Wordgeyser.com – Collegebound Kids Twitter @Wordgeyser

HuffingtonPost.com – Starting College: A Guide for Parents 2013 Twitter @ HuffPostParents

PsychologyToday.com – Letting Go of College Kids Twitter @PsychToday

For information and sharing on parenting matters, check out:

ExpatChild.com Twitter @ExpatChild

Mumsnet.com Twitter @mumsnettowers ‘By parents for parents’

Book

The Global Nomad’s Guide to UniversityTransition’ by Tina L Quick

The Magic of Christmas, it Comes and Goes… (Article for Among Worlds Magazine 2010)

My family’s early bird approach to Christmas day might explain why it is the earliest memory I have of being tired as a child. Struggling each Christmas to subdue my immense excitement and go to sleep, I would wake up soon after sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 am the following ‘day’.

In the nano second that I hovered between sleep and waking up, I knew, even before I opened my eyes that it was Christmas day at last. It was still dark and my face would be cold, the only part of me exposed above the blankets. It was the 1960’s and we had central heating, but not the kind that turned itself on in the morning. Living in County Durham, in the north of England it was essential to emerge from bed with socks, slippers and a fleecy dressing gown tied tightly at the waist.

I would wait in my little mustard bedroom (a strangely fashionable colour at the time) imagining the scene downstairs; three piles of presents in front of the brick fire place in the living room; one for myself and one each for my older brothers. I willed my brothers to wake up so I could follow them down and begin unwrapping my gifts. I never really believed that Santa Claus had brought them – even though we had a chimney big enough to accommodate him. My brothers were keen to confirm what I suspected; that “Mum and Dad have done it all”.

I didn’t have to wait very long on those Christmas mornings; padding around the house in the small hours like cat burglars, one of us would plug in the tree lights while we surveyed the equidistant piles of presents. Crossed legged and quietly ecstatic in the half light, with pine tree smell enveloping us, I would carefully go through my pile and place each present in what I felt might be an order of priority (a technique I’d learnt to prolong the anticipation and fun I think).

Later on in my childhood I would be amazed to learn that some families opened their presents after breakfast, lunch-time or even later in the day – after the Queen’s 3 pm speech. I was in awe of the restraint this must have required and also a little sorry for those friends! In our house we would save the chocolates until after breakfast, but the board games, Jackie Annual, Etch-a-Sketch, poster paints and dolly’s paraphernalia had all become completely familiar to me by the time our parents got up. I liked it that way, after all, I’d already waited a year for that most sacred day to be counted off the Reader’s Digest calendar, why wait any longer.

My early Christmases were some of the most special – a common phenomenon, I imagine? After a relocation to the south of England when I was nearly eight, the festivities lost some of their intensity, that moment of innocence had passed. Much later, when I had my own young children I experienced again the special pleasure of Christmas, reliving some of my own family’s traditions and combining them with my husband’s; he cooks scrambled egg and smoked salmon for breakfast (not a particularly Welsh tradition, a place where simple food is valued and unnecessary mixtures scorned!).

With motherhood there also came the responsibility of making it all happen and a little cynicism around whether the massive input was worth the output. In Britain, like most westernised countries, our monstrously early build up seems to begin just after ‘summer’ subsides with Christmas cards and wrapping paper on sale for around a third of the year.

We are currently living in Houston – I suspect if it wasn’t for the hysteria around Halloween there would be nothing to stem the flow of Christmas crapola filling our trolleys even earlier. That said, on our first overseas posting to Singapore, I was surprised to find that the commercial build-up really did contribute to the overall experience of Christmas; a maddening discovery. Being a shining example of a culturally and religiously mixed society, demand for Yule tide goods was diluted in Singapore. As my first Christmas in Singapore came close, I felt quite panicked at the lack of festive items (no crackers) it was late November by the time stocks of Christmas goodies arrived. Presumably my over reaction to this was rooted in an unquestioning desire to yet again provide a near perfect crimble for my family.

That first Christmas was memorable for all the wrong reasons; we had recently arrived from the UK, naive about culture shock and without extended family around us, it was tough trying to cope with the other missing elements as well; the familiar TV specials, fresh Brussels sprouts, After Eight chocolate mints, going to church in mittens and a brisk walk before it went dark at 4:00 pm – I could go on.

By our second Christmas in South East Asia not only had I put into perspective what we didn’t have; we were fortunate to have grandparents staying with us and by a further stroke of good luck some old friends who had moved nearby. The wine flowed, the roast potatoes were cooked to crispy perfection and although the day was still strange by comparison, I made it through with dry eyes. What mattered was that we were sharing the experience again. And a turkey dinner eaten in the sapping equatorial heat, worked off in the condominium pool would certainly be something to remember, not something to forget!

On reflection it seems to matter more who we are close to rather than where we are on Christmas day. This year I will strive once again to focus on the fundamentals – remembering why we celebrate Christmas and enjoying and being thankful for the giving and receiving.

You can read more of my adventures in ‘An Inconvenient Posting: An expat wife’s memoir of lost identity’ published by Summertime Publishing.

Do you have any festive traditions, quirky or otherwise, you’d like to share? Click on ‘Leave a reply’ below.