Sarah leaves home
Maggi Stamp, laterlife's counsellor on human relationships shares her story about Cathy and how she coped with the Empty Nest Syndrome...
Cathy had been wandering round the house starting
things she felt needed attention but never sticking with them long enough to finish any
This was most unlike her, normally so thorough. Nick, her husband had commented on the
changes in her and around the house in a general kind of grumble. He didn`t mention that
he had noticed she seemed less interested in him, that she didn`t tell him about her day
or her funny stories about her part-time job.
Often the evening meal was not ready and the house was
unkempt. As for sex, it was virtually non-existent between them. Nick was aware of
Cathy's indifference to his attempts at love making. Wanting it to be a shared
experience not a selfish one, he kept quiet and made few sexual approaches towards Cathy.
He couldn't talk to her about it as through their busy years of marriage they
hadn't done much talking about personal stuff'.
Nick was confused.
He had imagined that when they finally had
their home to themselves after years of it being full of children's noise and
toys, and teenager's music and moods, they would be able to spend so much more time
together and please themselves about what they did with their leisure.
When they arrived at my door Cathy looked tired and
had an air of dull detachment about her. We talked for a little while and before long,
on the mention of her youngest daughter, Cathy broke down and sobbed. She had been going
through every day thinking about Sarah, what she was doing, how she was coping with her
studies and accommodation, if she was eating properly and the kind of friends she was
Cathy missed Sarah so much she had become depressed
and unable to tell Nick how she felt. Nick in turn was unable to tell Cathy something
rather similar. His way of dealing with the
sadness was to become busier and more brisk in an attempt to block it out. Not only did
they feel they had lost Sarah, their 'baby girl' to adult life away from them,
they had also lost their main source of strength - each other - to help sort things out.
Bringing up three kids, they had established a
strong family routine and now that the last one was finally off their hands, at least
during term time, they had long lost the habit of sitting down and 'going
heart-to-heart' as Cathy put it. And Nick considered that kind of deep conversation - 'contemplating your navel' - wasn't very useful.
They came to me as both felt the other had lost
interest in them. This had begun to pull them down as they had relied on each other so
much over the years, good ones and bad ones, and they felt terrified that this could mean
the end of their marriage.
By the end of that first session they were able to
start thinking about how big a change and adjustment is needed when the fledglings fly the
nest, when `Mum and Dad' revert to being husband and wife. This is a time of
change and of loss. When we grieve, for whatever reason, we can become depressed if that
grief and loneliness is not acknowledged. When the loss is one that seems like just a
normal part of life, kids growing up and moving away, we are often reluctant to give this
the full attention it needs. We don't allow ourselves to admit to feeling rather lost
without the family. It's supposed to be a normal life event after spending 18 years
nurturing and caring for children as babies and teenagers preparing them for this very
event - becoming an adult.
How to handle the
Empty Nest syndrome
If you are waving a tense goodbye full of warnings and
last minute reminders to your eager or apprehensive teenagers embarking on their journeys
to independence, here are a few last minute reminders for you.
Give yourselves time and space to adjust to your lives without them.
- Don't feel bad about sad feelings, these are entirely
natural, talk about them with each other.
- Letting go of our child is a big event but there may also
be worries about this time of life which brings other changes as well: job/pension
worries, physical change, ageing parents. Try not to ignore these, talk about them, decide
together how to face them.
- For some people, like Cathy and Nick, it is an opportunity
to start building a different way of being together, helping to get back to a normally
loving relationship. For other couples,
seeing the youngest leave the nest may reveal
that they have lost more of their relationship than they had realised, a fact that has
been hidden by the presence of children. This
too needs to be acknowledged and attended to before the distance and damage becomes
- For a lone parent, this time is particularly painful,
often carrying extra feelings of isolation, responsibility and even anger towards the
absent parent. Seek the support of a good listener, a friend or relative, or a trained
counsellor if you feel it would be easier than talking to someone close to you.
- To bring your child to this stage of independence is one
of the toughest and most important jobs there is. Congratulations!
Soon you will feel the benefit and reward of deciding what to do for yourself in your new
stage of independence. And you will also discover
the rewards of adult, mature children whom you can enjoy as friends rather than as
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