I once heard a wildlife expert on the radio gently calm an irate caller who rang in to complain about the noisy, blustering behaviour of a squadron of cockatoos who were perching on a neighbour’s verandah. Her frustration crackled down the phone as she recounted their destructive tendency to eat the wooden window frames and doors, to antagonise every other bird in the neighbourhood. They never shut up.
Just think of them as teenage boys, the expert advised. They’ve just left home and are still hanging around the ‘hood for a bit. Unsure of where they fit in the world, and with no mates to distract them, they gather in large groups and make a lot of noise to amuse themselves.
I’ve been thinking of those cockatoos quite a bit.
It was twelve months ago when the tantalising option came up for me to move to Melbourne. Physically, it was an easy enough proposition to relocate, albeit 1000 kms away. Emotionally it was a fraught decision. The first people I asked for advice were my children, then aged 19 and 17. When they said yes Mum, go! I asked my Mum. I asked anyone I could think of. I desperately wanted someone to tell me it was the wrong thing to do. I wanted people to tell me to stop being selfish.
My son had moved out a year before and was flatting with another chef near the beach. My daughter still lived at home but it was a warzone. We were at loggerheads, fractiously navigating the tightrope between teenage wilfulness and parental concern. For months she had pleaded with me to let her move in with her dad. Now the opportunity was presenting itself.
Not one person objected. Several, including my mother, tearfully gave their blessing and quiet encouragement. “This time,” she said presciently, “Make sure you live on your terms”
So I moved, living on my own for the first time in my life.
Twelve months later, after the jubilation of having a bright and shiny new place all to myself, I have moved into the next stage of being an empty-nester. Bare Naked Terror.
I’ve seen women prematurely age when they are in this stage. They lanquish, unsure of how to be or what to do. Wrapped around the interests of their children, they go through such a profound disconnect it can feel like a mid-life crisis. They take up tennis or bridge or they send back pictures from their walk of the Camino de Santiago. At their most extreme, they silently pray (or worse, hint loudly) for weddings and grandchildren.
I don’t want grandchildren any time soon and tennis has never appealed, but I understand the need to fill in my time. What will I do now I don’t have homework and after school activities to deal with? What will I occupy my brain with now it no longer holds all the Useless Bits of Information and Reminders (gold-coin mufty days, the big homework project, car rego renewal, last-minute birthday presents) for my family? How will I re-define myself?
When I fall into this catastrophising scenario I add salt and envisage the worst. Turfed out of the ‘hood, still unsure of herself, what would a soon-to-be-50 year old single woman in a new city do?
I’d rather look on the bright side. Like cockatoos, I quite like the thought of hanging out in the sunshine, chattering brightly with other friends, commenting on the world around me, remaining vital, curious, sociable. It means taking up the invitation to go watch an Audrey Hepburn double at the lovely old arthouse cinema nearby. It means saying yes to a social get together and potluck dinner with a bunch of people who are a good twenty years younger than me. It means saying yes to exploring new neighbourhoods, friendships, laneways, books and TV shows. Goodbye, The Simpsons, hello Arrested Development.
Most terrifyingly it means being willing to be alone with my thoughts, to embrace the silences and not being afraid of what I might find there. Amazingly, this has proven to be far harder than I would have thought – after twenty years of putting myself right at the end of my to-do list, I have to remind myself that putting myself first is not selfish but self-loving.
One year on and my children are regular visitors. My daughter navigates her way on trams like a local. But it’s the in-between moments that have proven to be some of the best of my parenting life – long late night interstate phone calls, shared jokes, phenomenal hugs, active listening and shared conversations.
Slowly, gently, the long distances between me and my children have made us a more tightly-knit family. It’s healing a large and deep chasm in my spirit marked ‘despair’. It’s energising and life-affirming. It’s redressed a long imbalance. It feels like I’ve come home.
Have you ever lived alone, or away from your family? What’s your living situation like now?