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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships 60    

                                 April 2007

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.


Facing the inevitable

“Edie put her hand out, took a breath and slowly, slowly pushed open his bedroom door. The room inside looked as though he had never left it.”

Joanna Trollope’s novel, Second Honeymoon, published last year, explores one of the toughest times for many parents - the period following a grown child’s departure

When the last of the children leave the family home they set out on the busiest and most eventful times of their young lives, but for their parents this is often crunch time. After several decades of working hard to see the children safely through infancy, childhood, teenage and beyond, parents find themselves morphed once again into a couple who singularly inhabit what used to be a family home.

It still looks like a family home. It has bedrooms like Ben’s, described in the novel,
looking as though the young occupant has gone out for the night. It has chipped paint on the front door where bikes have been wheeled in with little care or awareness. It has a kitchen full of amusing mugs brought for the ‘Head Cook’, ‘The World’s Best Mum’ or proclaiming ‘Don’t even think of speaking to me until I’ve emptied this’. Like the family in the book, the garden shed - or the garage or loft – contains the trappings of childhood, old tricycles, train sets, dolls etc.

Somehow, the fullness of the house masks for a while how empty life can feel when the whirlwind of family life abates. We wait for emails or phone calls. Some young people are very good at this but most will call when they remember - or need something. They are too caught up in their full and complicated new life to find time to chat with parents. “What would they know about clubbing, wine-bar or pub etiquette anyway? Far too old. They’ll probably say I spend too much of my time and money on the wrong things”, goes the reasoning.

Parents fear the son or daughter won’t be able to cope and the children, in turn, assume parents won’t understand just how full and absorbing life can be. Young people find it hard to imagine their parents having a youth. But most of us can remember some of the fun, the risks, the thrills and the mistakes.

With the emptiness comes the challenge. The couple now face meals alone together as the norm rather than a novelty. They have the choice of where to go and what to do with their time. They have the remote control back. The trap can be that they do nothing to reclaim their home to re-establish it as theirs, choosing instead to carry on as though nothing has happened.

Something very significant has happened. It is time to make adjustments that give a couple the chance to change the old pattern of doing things and introduce new activities and routines that centre around the couple alone, encouraging them to find new pleasure in each other’s company.

For Edie, the wife and mother in Second Honeymoon, her grief at losing motherhood and her sense of purpose appears unending. She seems inconsolable. But with time and the patient acceptance of her steadfast, if sometimes sad and bemused, husband, she eventually reaches a point where she is able to acknowledge that the children really are independent, that she no longer needs them around her to define who she is. She can go back to her former career, and, ultimately, and can even bear to part with the family house.

Discussing her inspiration for this novel Joanna Trollope explains, “The young leaving home now are in such a different situation from their parents and grandparents, and the world is a more complicated and alarming place, bedeviled by infinite choice, than it used to be, never mind the impossibility of buying somewhere to live.

“I also think that because of the greater (and in my view to be applauded!) informality in families now, the ‘loss’ of children can be a wrenching thing, especially for women who, working or not, have to surrender a powerful, vital, society-approved role as well as the knowledge that they are so needed. And of course marriages aren't where they were when they started twenty or thirty years previously. I do think the feelings of loss are commonly coupled, confusingly, with a sort of guilty relief...”

It can be very hard to struggle with this sense of guilt and regain a sense of individuality after many years of, willingly for the most part, being there for everyone in the family, caring, listening supporting, teaching, nursing, guiding children and spouse.

When freed - for as Joanna Trollope mentions, there is a sense of freedom, with or without guilt - from the direct role as homemaker and parent, it is worth making the effort to mark the event by changing your surroundings, even if you don’t move to another house. Redecorate abandoned bedrooms. Encourage offspring to sort and take with them the things they want to keep and discard what they don’t want – or put them in bags and take them to their new home.

I must confess that I sorted through the discarded pile
and rescued items are now very much-loved playthings of grandchildren when they come to stay - and they give their original owners huge pleasure. They couldn’t see a future role for Rupert Bear, Lego, Moomintroll books, a clattering dog on wheels or old cuddly toys when my children were eighteen and throwing off their childhood, but love to see these things now in the hands of their own little ones.

In general, they took the opportunity and risk to build their own lives and homes, and we can do the same. The difference is that we, the parents, deeply feel the loss of our children, experience the gap they leave in our lives and need time to adjust. Once we have done that, changing our surroundings can refresh and enliven our outlook on many things and give us a new focus, more suited to life after children.

“She looked back, at Ben’s bedroom. It was his bedroom but it was also the past and there was, suddenly, excitingly, frighteningly, no time like the present. Not, that is, if you wanted a future. Edie closed the door behind her, and trod carefully down the stairs.”

Second Honeymoon by Joanna Trollope is published by Black Swan, price ?6.99

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

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