Why Empty Nest Syndrome Isn’t Funny

by Georgie Watts

We have a tradition in this country for humour, dark humour, gallows humour – it is the bedrock of what keeps us together in our darkest times…our own particular brand of humour is what gets us through, we can rely on it.

However there is also a tradition amongst British people for burying our feelings, pretending that the true raw feelings that rip through us in the middle of the night aren’t happening. When our body wants sleep but cannot stop telling us that something absolutely devastating is about to happen, we awaken from fitful sleep at 3am wanting to scream ‘Noooo’, sweating, ears ringing and feeling so very alone, the very soul of the baby we birthed is to be severed from us.

Extraordinarily it seems like you only brought her home yesterday, you can remember it so very clearly. You help her get sorted practically, you offer emotional support so she can to adjust to independence and you all agree rationally that this is the best for her and for you to get your life back on track. Whatever that track is suppose to be. But if you could stop it all and have her live nearby if not in your own house again, you would. Some days you wish it was all a bad dream. Certainly it feels like a night terror. It really is very cruel to a mother but yet you have to pass through this torment which threatens to consume you and everything you thought you were before.

And yet we jovially say, ‘My baby is leaving.’ and people who haven’t been through it look at you like you are some sort of desperate cow and can’t see what the problem is. They smile and say things like ‘She’s not moving to Australia’ or ‘It’s not like she’s dead is it?’ and that old classic, ‘you can live your life now’ and the discussion is halted before you can even begin to explain even a fraction of how you feel. Or punch them in the face. Family members who are insensitive will joke about you being lonely and taking your sorry bereft and perimenopausal arse to Costa for a coffee and cake to console yourself, apparently just like your mother did. Like the cake helped you fucktards.

My own mother who isn’t apt at sympathy texts me and tells me she knows how it feels and I am shocked, since I didn’t actually ask for sympathy or mention any feelings whatsoever. I just assumed I would not be taken seriously so I had remained matter-of-fact about the whole thing. Also, because if I started talking about how I actually felt, I knew I’d lose my mind and my mother is in her 70’s and probably doesn’t need her 43 year old daughter in hysterics down the phone. Nonetheless, I was relieved that someone out there knew how I was feeling. I did however lament to her that it was alright for her, because when her baby left home, I had just given her two grandchildren, and I lived nearby, so she could at least not be lonely and distract herself with us.

I have me, no grandchildren distractions, my writing, one husband, one cat (who is half-feral but I appreciate her increasing attempts at affection and bullying for food), art when I can be bothered, volunteering and I walk everywhere angrily like I’m ferociously late for a bus. I’m still waiting for the rest of society to open up after the pandemic so I can restart collage club and trying all those new things people keep mentioning to me.

The rub is this, not only am I very close to my youngest child anyway, but we have spent the entirety of lockdown being together, being each other’s listening ear, movie night commentators and bellowing karaoke entertainment for one another. I know they say you shouldn’t be friends with your children, but whoever ‘they’ are can go fuck themselves. If you get on with your children you plain and simply get on.

So you see the wrench of her leaving is worse than if we had been screaming at each other most days. I already had a screamer, and I really thought that when she left for Uni 7 years ago, I’d be relieved. And even though there were enough hormones to poison an entire ship and argued with each other almost continuously, the minute I got back home from settling her into the flat, on entering her empty bedroom at home, I broke down. Overwhelming feelings of loss and regret filling me and the sense that the whole things had happened so quickly and now she was gone. For three hours I sat in the middle of that floor sobbing and shouting at people not to come in the room and ‘leave me alone.’

If the truth be told as I tend to, I didn’t quite get over it actually and have found it very hard to adjust from busy house to emptier house and vice versa when she stays and goes back to her house for special occasions.

Before lockdown, we had planned to have more regular get-togethers as we do get on alot better now but what with unpredictable things like a global pandemic, it all went up the shitter.

So even though ‘things’ are getting back to normal, now I’m left at the end of a nasty time in history, wondering if I’ll only see both children 6 times a year max. It’s a terrifying thought and I can’t stop feeling like I’m dying inside. I know I’m being irrational and logic tells me that that will not happen and we will get into a new routine, improved relationships, where we don’t get in each other’s way, on nerves and can do what we want in our own houses. But it still hurts. And we will see each other regularly right? I hope so. But we all know that with new partners, jobs and other commitments, older parents get left behind. We know this, because we’ve all done it ourselves haven’t we? In our striving for our own independence, even if we got on with our parents, we left them behind abit didn’t we? We didn’t want to think about mum’s feelings because we didn’t want her feelings to get in the way of us leaving. We tried not to care, even though we did, because we needed to live our own lives.

BUT DID IT HAVE TO BE SO FAR AWAY??????? – Mum’s cry everywhere.

Well yes, sometimes, unfortunately.

So given all this pain and upset, why do people joke about empty nesters? Why is it seen as trivial when what you are experiencing is true grief. Nobody laughs at grief when it comes in any other form of loss, so why the hell is this seen as trivial? Empty nest grief isn’t only about the physical loss of closeness to a child that you have nurtured, but it is the grief of losing your role, the death of your role as care-giver to that child and psychologists know that any sense of personal loss of role in of itself is extremely challenging to anyone.

When your youngest child leaves, even if you’ve been a less hands-on parent, it shifts your view of who you are and your role in life. If, however, like me, you’ve devoted your very existence to your children (which again ‘they’ say is wrong but can also go fuck themselves because being a mother is about nurturing and putting your kids first as well as teaching them how to get on in life), you will find this possibly the worst thing to have happened to you, apart from a loved ones actual death.

And I’m telling you, I hear your pain. You’re reading this right now because you are either feeling this extremely acutely and/or you are beginning the journey of this transition in life and I’m feeling every part as you are right now. Even if other people make jokes or trivialise the situation, or even say they ‘can’t wait for their own kids to leave.’ I know what you are on about lady. I know what it feels like. And so will everyone else one day, should they be lucky enough to have children.

When you feel you can’t go on, you must go through, there is no other way. We have to pick ourselves up off the floor and eat something, write on a piece of paper how angry we are feeling, how lost we feel, how empty and tiring it feels. We must try not to show the child how bad it is for us, but if they see you upset, forgive yourself. It would be really WEIRD if you WEREN’T UPSET wouldn’t it?

We have to try and distract ourselves from the hurt with the good…there is good, there are advantages to having your home back to yourself, you can do what you like now, even if you might not feel like doing anything at all for awhile – you can do it when you feel stronger. Take your time, talk to someone you can trust about how you feel, a friend, a partner, a family member, your doctor, helpline, anyone you need to tell the pain to. Other women who have been through it are most likely to understand and point you through.

The only way around a problem is to go through it, we can’t get out of it. Even if we are thinking very dark thoughts indeed, we can’t just get out of it, of our role entirely, it will still be there to some degree. We are mothers – these adult children of ours will still need us at various points in the future and sometimes, despite all these horrid feelings right now, we will find their requests for help quite annoying! Think of the alternative, think of them not being happy and being ‘stuck’ with their parents for the rest of their lives, we wouldn’t really want that for them would we?

So you’ve had your cry and you will have many, many more of those, but you’ve also got your big girl knickers on and you know you’ll cope with this one. We all have to ❤

(and if you need to punch insensitive people in the face for joking about your grief, then do it) *

* I don’t mean this do I?

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