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Such sweet sorrow, The National, 20.10.09

Growing up and leaving home is a time full of adventure for children, but parents – full-time mothers especially – can find it difficult to adjust to the sudden hiatus in their daily lives. Jo Wadham investigates the ‘empty nest syndrome’

Whether you are up to your elbows in pureed food, or spending your week chauffeuring your children to all their various activities, the chances are that now and again you will gaze into the middle distance and think longingly of the day they leave home and you once more have some time for yourself.

But the reality of children leaving home for university or boarding school, or to get married, can be difficult and challenging. Parents, and most often the mother, may experience sadness, loneliness, loss of identity, and sometimes even depression. So common are these emotions that the phenomenon has even been given its own name: “empty nest syndrome”.

“I thought my world had come to an end,” says Veenu Mali, whose son left Abu Dhabi earlier this month to go to university in Canada, “It was hard for the first couple of days, I couldn’t start a conversation without bursting into tears. It was as though something really drastic had happened. I was at a complete loss really.” In their close-knit family of four, Mali’s children have only been apart from her and her husband for short school trips, so her son’s departure was a huge wrench for her and she found herself phoning and texting him frequently. “I just want to know the answers to simple questions: ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ ‘Have you washed your clothes?’”.

Mali, a dietician at the Corniche Hospital in Abu Dhabi, has a daughter who is still in her final two years of school. “Right now I’m half-occupied,” she says, “Having my daughter at home is keeping us more sane.” She realises her reactions are not rational but feels there is little she can do at the moment, “I get so upset when he hasn’t spoken to me. I am edgy and take it out on everyone at home. It’s very hard for me to control. Once I have spoken to him, my day goes fantastically well. I am so excited, so happy.”

The clinical psychologist, Dr Roghy McCarthy, at the Counselling and Development Clinic in Dubai, says that mothers, and particularly those who gave up careers to be homemakers, can find a children’s departure gives rise to questions about their self-worth and role in life. “If they gave up their career, they have two roles: a wife and a mum. When there is no mother role to play, they feel they are not useful anymore. They feel they gave a lot and now it is very difficult to let go.”

Women’s difficulty adjusting to this change could also be compounded by physiological changes. “A lot of women will be in their early to mid-fifties when their last child is leaving. This is coincidentally the time when menopause begins, adding the problem of hormonal imbalance.” 

Empty nest syndrome is not as common in all cultures. In some families, children stay until they get married, and even then may still remain at home bringing the new spouse to live with them. The size of the family has an impact too, McCarthy explains. “In cultures where there are big families, by the time the last child goes, the grandchild of the first child will be already there.” Conversely, in small families such as the Malis, the effect can be heightened, “We tend to find empty nest syndrome affecting nuclear families very badly.”

Children can provide a means for mothers to meet people and make friends. When children go, making friends is harder and some women feel a loss of identity. Anita Signorino’s youngest child, Darren, left Abu Dhabi to go to university in Australia last February, following his sister who left five years earlier.

“You have to rethink who you are,” explains Signorino, “I was Darren’s mum. He was the head boy at school and the captain of the rugby team, so everyone knew who he was and who I was. Now I have to find a new role, and that’s what I’m finding really hard.”

She works as a teaching assistant at the school her children attended, and says working has definitely helped her through this time, giving her some routine, and the support of her colleagues. “This year, five of us in our team are all seeing off children to university. They have been very, very supportive. Everyone is in the same boat.”

However, working at her children’s old school is not without its drawbacks. “Sometimes I come out of class and see the boys on the pitch at rugby practice and I think there’s Darren, but then I realise, no, it’s not, he’s not here any more.”

McCarthy argues that empty nest syndrome can give rise to a mid-life crisis, particularly in men who may be less willing to discuss the emotional upheaval. “Not only are they losing their children, but they are facing the aging process.” The key, she explains, is to see this stage in a positive light, to “be proud” at having brought up a child who can leave and look after him or herself. “It shows the child has been brought up in a healthy way.”

Signorino says her relationship with her children altered gradually as they became teenagers. “Even before they leave, they are out a lot, busy doing their own thing,”

For others, empty nest syndrome can occur earlier and with less preparation time. Gitte O’Toole and her husband, both long-term residents of Abu Dhabi, decided to send their children to boarding school in the UK.

“It was a very hard decision to send them, but they are both very happy there,” she says.

 “I hadn’t thought about empty nest syndrome before they went, but I definitely felt a bit lost at first. After a flurry of activity with the kids around, all of a sudden they are not there. From one day to the next it just stops.”

Her son was the first to go three years ago, at the age of 14. “He had been very busy with sport in Abu Dhabi, I was always driving him here, there and everywhere. When he went, I had all this time so I put it on my daughter, Mia, and it took a while to realise she didn’t want it.”

The following year, Mia joined her brother leaving a very quiet house.

Although she finds it difficult every time the children leave, O’Toole consoles herself that unlike mothers whose children have finally flown the coop, hers still come back for their holidays. This does mean, however, that she can’t embark on a major change of direction for herself yet.

“I don’t work. I want to be able to be there for them and go back when I can, for exeats, half terms, and parents’ meetings.” But, she adds: “I love it. I think you have to embrace this freedom. That all of a sudden, you can turn the focus away from everyone else to yourself.”

Another aspect of an empty nest is that it can throw the husband-wife relationship into sharp relief, but if the marriage is good, this can be a fantastic time.

“All of a sudden it’s just you and your husband,” says O’Toole. “You are back to the couple stage you were at pre-children. That can be a little bit of a rediscovery too. We can just do what we want to do.”

With email and SMS it can be easier to keep in touch with children once they have gone. McCarthy advises parents to “keep contact with your children, but don’t control them from afar, asking them all the time ‘what did you eat?’. Accept the reality.”

She counsels against making the children feel guilty for having left home, and warns parents to be prepared for changes when they do see them again.

“Once they leave home they are more independent, more self confident, they know how to look after themselves. They will enjoy their mum’s cooking, but they will miss their friends, their own social life.

We should expect them to be independent, not to revert to their old son or daughter role.”

The vacuum the children leave when they go is huge and can take a while to get used to. Signorino’s son is coming back to visit her in November, and she’s already planning what they will do.

“It’s all I’m looking forward to,” she confesses. But she accepts the reality of the situation too, when she wants to drop everything and go to her children, “I sit down and think about it. Yes I miss them, but if I were to go, how much would I see of them anyway?”

Mali is steeling herself for the moment when her daughter leaves for university in a couple of years’ time.

“I told her, when you go I will get an admission at the same university.” She laughs, adding: “But I think I will live through it. We’ll just see how every day goes.”

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