Empty nest?

When your children leave home, your sense of self leaves with them

Talent broker and Governor of The BRIT School, Madelaine Cooper, works with people in transitional phases of their lives. Here she talks about how sad and disorienting an empty nest can be.

“Of all that I’ve done in my life, I’m most proud to be your dad”.  Pretty much every parent has felt that about their children.  Malia and Sasha Obama had the rare privilege of being told that on a world stage by their amazing dad in his farewell speech a few days ago.

Barack is probably feeling pretty bewildered now that he’s left the personal and professional home that he’s occupied for the past eight years.  But in the light of that deeply touching statement about how important his daughters are to him, how much more bewildered is he going to feel when the girls leave home in a few years’ time?   In one of those unlikely scenarios which puts me one step ahead of President Obama, I can tell him that he’s going to feel pretty sad and disorientated.

Of course he’ll be pleased and proud all over again that he and Michelle have nurtured and guided two young women towards an independent and productive adult life.  Proud and pleased that their children can turn on a washing machine, nourish themselves with food beyond tinned and take-out and be funny, kind and thoughtful human beings.  That’s certainly how I feel about our son.  But blimey I’m also sad.  I’m sad that I’m no longer “mum” in the same way, that the stage of my life, which was largely defined by bringing up a child is now over.

Like Barack and Michelle I’m in my late fifties (just about to turn 60 – but that’s another story that I’ll tell you about on a different day).   It’s a time of life which makes you question all sorts of  aspects of your identity anyway: your role in the world, your looks, who your tribe is, how you’re going to fit in all that you still want to do … and then this huge re-alignment of the role in life that’s been absolutely central to your being for 20-something years.  The role of Mum.  It’s tough.

So our son moved into his own flat a couple of months ago and he’s absolutely fine.  I, on the other hand, have had a hollow feeling inside me from the moment he made this move.  It’s the emptiness that you feel when the algorithm of your life has to be completely recalculated.  When you’re no longer certain whom you’re important to or who really needs you.

I’m hoping that my husband and the dog both still need me but honestly, we all know that it’s different isn’t it? Because neither of them were a tiny baby held in my arms and completely dependent on me for everything.  They haven’t caught my hand in love and for reassurance as they approached Big School.  Nor have they been a constant shadow in my life, attached one to another by an invisible thread of shared love since the moment that blue line appeared in the pregnancy test window.  Not in the same way that a child attaches to the deepest part of your being.   Blimey it really is sad that he’s not here anymore.

Of course he’s a testament to something valuable in my life – proof that at the age of (nearly) 60 I really have got something to be very proud of when so many other things can start to feel a little, well, irrelevant at this point in the age process.

So what am I going to do about it?  Am I going to carry on feeling continually sad, mourning a part of life that was so happy and which just won’t come back again?  Hell no.  That wouldn’t make me feel any better and it would probably make my son sad and troubled too – the very emotions that we’ve been so keen to protect him from for the past twenty years.   That would be no good at all.   No, I’m going to open a new adventure in life and will be working really hard to reconfigure the algorithm of our lives.  It won’t be the same.  And I will still miss him terribly.  But there really is life in the old dog yet…

Madelaine will tell us more details about her next steps in Part Two