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"I stopped being seen as the bad cop": The 9 surprising truths of empty nesting.

Last year, before COVID-19 shattered the peace of many middle-aged parents like me by sending our adults kids back home, I experienced a brief, magical interlude of empty nesting.

When my daughter moved to the city to take up her first proper job, and my son began to cohabit with his partner, my husband and I found ourselves alone in an echoing house with a grieving dog and an excess of clean towels. There was suddenly a surplus of food in the fridge, petrol in the car, and a noticeable silence each time we lost our internet connection.

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I had always had purpose in my life, i.e. I had never allowed my children to define me, nevertheless it was with some trepidation that I approached our first foray into empty nesting. 

Friends had warned me about Empty Nest Syndrome, and it was hard not to notice the way many of them looked wistfully into the distance each time I asked them about their kids. Hence, while I was nervously excited about the prospect of greater freedom, I wasn’t completely convinced I was emotionally ready.

I was wrong.

These are the surprising truths I discovered about empty nesting:

1. I had more time to myself.

It was an interesting experience to discover middle-aged me once I had the time to really think about my own self-care and the ways I wanted to shape the next stage of my life. The woman I left behind when I began my parenting journey is not the woman I am now, and she is also not defined by children.

2. The house was tidier.

I’m a great believer in the need of order for an ordered mind, and my stress levels dropped considerably without the additional work that comes from two extra people in the house with very different views on tidiness. 

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3. I slept better.

Any mum knows that you don’t sleep until your last child is safely tucked up in bed, and after a decade of waiting for the sound of my daughter’s Uber in the street and my son’s return from his hospitality shift – I was exhausted. The improvement in my sleep enriched every aspect of my life.

4. My relationship with the kids improved.

I noticed that our relationships were fresh each time we saw each other, and we made more effort. It’s clear that our children learned to appreciate us more living out of home, and while I’m under no illusion that my daughter’s priorities during her home visits are anything other than the beach and the dog, I’m okay with that.

5. My partner and I reconnected.

Empty nesting can be a make or break moment for many couples, and there is an inevitable period of adjustment. Luckily for us, it brought us closer. We’re still not swinging from the chandeliers, but we do have more time to talk and have learned to appreciate each other again.

6. We saved money.

You don’t realise how much adult kids cost you until they leave home. Once they left, we were able to downsize - which reduced our living costs substantially; the alcohol and petrol didn’t disappear as quickly, and we were back in control of the air con. 

7. We had more space.

We converted our daughter’s room into a guestroom/study, which has improved my self-discipline when it comes to work. We keep a drawer for her in the bathroom (for the collection of beauty products she leaves each visit!), and one in the bedroom for any other personal stuff. While we have tried to make her feel that our home is still her second home, we have contained her.

8. We didn’t have to cook three different meals each evening.

With one carnivore and one vegetarian, I spent the previous decade trying to adapt dinners to their needs and ours. Finally, we were able to eat what we wanted.

9. I stopped being seen as the bad cop.

During the teenage years, my role as mother seemed to metamorphose into a new role as bad cop, and I hated it. Teenagers need boundaries, and (working part time) it fell to me to enforce most of them. In hindsight, I think those years are nature’s helpful way of giving our kids a gentle nudge out of the nest. It’s been wonderful to discover that I’m not really the “delusional nag” I was accused of being.  

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Empty nesting won’t be the same experience for everyone. I know that several of my friends miss their kids viscerally, and for some that sadness can even lead to depression. 

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Annie says: "I miss the company; I miss someone being there as a buffer zone; I miss having someone on my side." But on a brighter note, she has embraced the opportunity to explore her own passions and she enjoys 'the increase in the bond between her and her girls.'

I should mention that Annie is one of those friends who wistfully looks into the distance I mentioned earlier. However, she has assured me that they were symptomatic of feelings of relief and happiness, not despair.

Mothers of boys can have it especially tough, particularly when their child commits to a partner and they find themselves torn between the responsibilities of their new relationship and their duty to their parents. My mother-in-law devoted her thirties and forties to raising her boys, and I remember the emotional turmoil she experienced when they left home. Fortunately, it is much easier to stay in touch these days, the importance of which has been highlighted during COVID.

Emma says, "I can’t say I hate anything. I felt very sad when my youngest son moved out as he was the last to go. Walking past his empty room left me with a sense of finality about a part of my life I’d known for years. However, that feeling was soon replaced by a sense of pride that all three boys felt ready to become independent. And I love how our relationships have changed for the better. Now when we get together there is no tension about behaviour, cleanliness, worries about what they’ve been up to, or when will they be home. It feels right and a natural progression."

I was surprised to find only months into my newfound freedom as an empty nester that the hole in my heart wasn’t quite as painful as I expected. I love my kids, and there were times when I missed their company. But I was ready for that stage of my life to end. And in turn, their new independence changed them, improving the quality of our relationship moving forward. 

Nora Ephron is quoted as saying that "The empty nest is underrated" and I have to agree. Change is always a bit scary. Initially, I really missed the gatherings of my daughter’s friends in our home, our spontaneous chats, and my son’s impromptu musical performances, but I approached the empty nesting experience with a positive mind. 

I recommend it. I won’t lie - I loved dressing the Christmas tree exactly the way I wanted it.

For more from Louisa, visit her website. 

Feature Image: Getty.

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