Having assumed for years that the empty nest was only about sad Fifties housewives who needed to get a life, we have at last woken up to the realisation that it’s a phase most parents have to reckon with. It makes little difference whether you have a brilliant career or you’ve given it up to be a housewife or househusband; when your children leave home it changes your life.
These days, understanding is less about pathologising what a few depressed mothers go through as ‘empty nest syndrome’, with its associations of reaching for mother’s little helper, than acknowledging that this is an understandably challenging transition. The empty nest is a very different experience for us – the vanguard generation of working mothers and hands-on fathers – than it was for our parents.
Hardly surprising, then, that we haven’t seen it coming. Working mothers, who are used to a degree of control over their lives, are often taken aback by such unexpected emotional upheaval. Meanwhile, even the most involved fathers are still reluctant to see the empty nest as intrinsic to their mid-life crisis. But they’re catching up. As fathers get stuck into childrearing, they are just as likely to feel at sea when the kids go (even if they don’t admit it).
There are other reasons why the empty nest is now being taken more seriously. As the generation gap narrows, today’s empty nesters are closer to our sons and daughters than previously – or at least we like to think we are. Technology makes it easier to stay in touch and involved in each others’ lives, even when we’re on opposite sides of the world. Our offspring remain dependent on us financially and emotionally well into their twenties. Yet they have less deference for their parents, while we parents rather like being treated as equals.
All this conspires to create a continuing closeness and intense involvement that seems at odds with our offspring’s (and to a lesser extent, our own) natural inclination to separate. The sociologist Frank Furedi argues that modern pressures on parents, which erode their confidence, lead to them living their lives through their issues. This surely makes the whole business of separating even more complicated.
So there’s a growing debate now about the infantilisation of adult offspring and concern that we might be creating a generation of mummy’s boys and girls. At the same time, many psychologists, including the distinguished Cambridge don Dr Terri Apter, argue that children on the threshold of adult life make the difficult transition much more successfully if their parents give them the support they badly need.
Separating, she says, is not the main issue. What’s required is managing a new kind of enduring connection.
This is confusing for parents whose nests may be empty one minute and full the next; whose adult ‘kids’ boomerang in and out as they veer from one emotional or financial crisis to another.
One mother with two 20-something sons still at home says: “There’s no doubt that being back at home infantilises kids. I’m still playing out the old maternal role of saying ‘Why have you left your junk out in the hall?’ and adopting a kind of naggy refrain. But I think my sons play to it: at some subconscious level they think, ‘Mum’s still there to look after me’, whereas if they were in their own places the process of growing up would happen faster.”
Like most parents, that mother feels torn because she wants to support her kids through financially challenging times – it is any parent’s natural instinct, after all – and admits that she rather likes having them around. Her confusion is echoed in boomerang households up and down the country. We can’t quite make up our minds whether the younger generation is having it much tougher than we did because of escalating graduate unemployment (one in five) and hefty student debts (averaging £16,000-plus and rising fast), or just being a bit too picky about starting at the bottom of the ladder.
There’s also the sneaking suspicion that parents are suckers to bankroll their sprogs’ grand tours of South Africa and Thailand before, after, and even during university. It certainly feels a bit cock-eyed that young adults who are admirably self-sufficient and even rather brave when they’re in far-flung locations can’t even do their own laundry back in Blighty.
It may well be our fault for giving out mixed messages. One minute we’re bailing them out and bending over backwards to make life so comfortable that it’s almost impossible to leave. The next we’re going on about how in our day we put up with any amount of squalor and the worst jobs in the world to get away from our parents. We sometimes forget about full grants and signing on in the long vacations and that the main reason we left home back in the Sixties and Seventies was actually not so brave or independent, but to have sex (and all the rest). Today’s young adults have no such impetus.
So it’s not surprising that they keep bouncing in and out. Eventually nests do empty, but it generally takes longer and you can never be quite sure when the kids have gone for good. The emphasis has shifted: the empty nest has always been about forging a new direction of one’s own and getting the most out of the next stage. Now the challenge – and it’s a tall order – is to develop a new kind of relationship with your fully-grown fledglings at the same time.
The Empty Nest: How to Survive and Stay Close to Your Adult Child by Celia Dodd is published by Piatkus, £12.99