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 firstname.lastname@example.org for her to respond in the column.
IT COULD BE YOU….
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,
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
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
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 email@example.com
for her to respond in the column.