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Author: Don Obrien

How to survive an empty nest


Parenting and families updates

The dread moment has finally arrived. The nest is officially empty. The spawn have crossed the pond. Last week, the boy returned to college and, by the time you read this, the girl too will be launched on a new life of late nights and student debt.

We have not yet reached the stage where the spawn are visitors rather than residents but, driving home after the drop-off, we know we will be returning to a different house and that we have begun the transition from being a headquarters to merely a branch office in their lives.

The absence is emotional as much as physical. Still, we should not get too maudlin. They may have left the building but they are still on the payroll.

The boy already regards home as the place he comes to decompress when the mix of late nights and essay deadlines demands a period of recuperation. We are The Priory to his candle-burning lifestyle except for the fact that when he checks in, it is our bills which rise.

The girl has prepared us for her departure with several years of social distancing. But one always had the sense of her about the place. It is like having a poltergeist in the house. We hear strange noises in the attic room, food disappears from the fridge and things move around the house. But at least it is a friendly spirit.

This separation is a form of emotional Brexit. Article 50 has been triggered but there are several years of negotiations about the future relationship and the status of the loft room may require a separate protocol.

Many friends and colleagues insist they loved having the house to themselves again. They relish the freedom to walk around in their underwear or dash off on impulse holidays. This has always seemed a curious argument. I can’t see why excursions were not already possible with teenage kids, and surely the joys of everyday underwear can fade over time. (I want to apologise to readers and, indeed, my editors for placing this image in your minds.)

Others say it marks a new third act when you no longer live vicariously and embark on new pursuits. This is true, though I suspect those most able to switch off from their parental existence probably did so while the kids were still at home. It feels more like a move to light-bulb parenting, with long periods of inactivity but where duties and responsibilities can be switched on again at any moment.

We did prepare ourselves in advance for this moment: we bought a dog. This fulfils a desire to be needed without the insistence on being read We’re Going on a Bear Hunt three times a night.

But the core issue, apart from simply missing the spawn, is that this marks the end of a primary purpose in your life. We have plenty of other things going on but perhaps some new roles are needed. New shared pastimes are often recommended, though I’m not convinced the world needs any more middle-aged badminton players.

So we should probably find a cause, maybe one of those performative protests that does not actually do any good but makes the demonstrator feel better. Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion seem the go-to people for those of my age and social station. What’s not to like about one of those consciousness-raising environmental protests that makes ordinary people so angry they want to buy a diesel car or despoil an Amazonian rainforest in revenge?

Then again, I’m not sure I’m cut out for lying down on cold motorways. I wonder if there is a campaign to force all coffee shops to offer skimmed milk and artificial sweeteners? I’d definitely be up for a few sit-ins.

There are some things I will not miss. The added competition for the toilets, for example. There really should be something akin to the Disney FastPass for bathrooms, available on payment of an added fee, which I like to think of as the mortgage. I will not miss the rows with people who are now adults and chafing over the rules of the house. Even so, there is no important aspect of the spawn’s departure that I like.

In truth, however, the lurch is less extreme. We have been eased into our new state over several years, during which we lost complete control of the family diary and found ourselves forced to negotiate where once we directed. Technology has turned family existence into island living so that only the kitchen is a true communal space. We will miss them being around but even college is part of that process of socialisation, as they’ll be back soon enough. And in our moments of self pity, we need to remember it’s actually a happy day.

We train them up and wave them off. This is the order of things. Meanwhile, can anyone direct me to the M25? There’s a slip road that needs obstructing. Or failing that, an artisan coffee shop.

Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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