The end of days
And just like that they’ve flown. After 25 years of family life our nest is empty and it’s the moment I’ve been dreading since my boys first arrived and filled our home with love, mischief and laughter. I distinctly remember holding each one of them for the first time and feeling so many things: joy, awe, responsibility, love… all tinged with an awareness that I was heading on a journey that would be over before I’d ever really managed to get hold of it. Because for many of us mothering is, in a way, the ultimate paradox. You put your whole self into helping your children become the best, most complete adults that they can be and yet the badge of achievement that you’re awarded in return is them leaving you. And the irony is that it’s what you’ve been preparing them to do since the day they were born – but oh my goodness, how it hurts.
(Of course not every child can leave home so this isn’t the only measure of successful mothering and for lots of reasons your experience might not be the same as mine).
This summer has been filled with emotion for Mr MC and me; I haven’t said too much about it on here because I didn’t want to bore you but we’ve swung between highs and lows that have had a distorted, nightmarish quality. Every so often I’ve found myself silently keening a suppressed wail of loss. It’s the loss of the security of our daily life with the boys, the ongoing supply of love and warmth that makes up what it is to live as a family. And of course this year has had other changes forced through by Covid too.
Like so many others we didn’t have our usual family holiday and I missed having that time together as a five to fill our tank until Christmas…
… instead the older two have been away for most of the summer and the youngest has been off living life as it should be lived here – climbing mountains, camping and wild swimming, going to parties and spending evenings on the shore. He and his girlfriend have headed off on city breaks and that’s forced us to practice living in an empty house for a few days at a time. Neither of us found it easy at first and we soon realised that the boys provide the rhythm in our lives. Without them here there’s less reason to finish work on time or pop up to the house and take a break for lunch. There’s no buzzy conversation to look forward to over dinner because we’ve been chatting to each other all day at work so we’ve already shared most of the news we have. And at weekends there’s nothing we need to work around – no lifts or shifts, no late night pick-ups, no laughing at their hangovers as they share stories and bacon butties on a Sunday morning. Just us… and Ted… and the cats.
Slowly though we started to adjust and that was when we caught sight of the highs that we hope hang on the tail of this period of change. Both in Newcastle and at home we’ve been trying out living our own lives without the limitations we’re so used to and it’s been unexpectedly romantic. We’ve both been surprised by glimpses of the heady feeling of falling in love again, when you look at each other and completely lose your breath for a moment. We’ve laughed, we’ve danced and we’ve reached sporting bests so we know that there are new kinds of good times waiting round the corner.
But first we have to get through the painful process of change and we seem to be finding it harder to let go of the days of being a gang of five than a lot of other people we know.
I’ve been trying to understand why and I think it’s because we’ve both always been primarily driven by family life; it’s helped us to hold it close and keep it true. Early on we agreed that the most important value for us would be time and so we willingly sacrificed our big London careers and moved up here to a place where state schools are outstanding, property is affordable and the great outdoors lies at your feet, ready to entertain growing boys for free.
Because our new lifestyle didn’t require as much money as the one we had in London, we were able to work flexibly and on our own terms. I guess we were pioneers of the change that so many families are making now, post lockdown, as they move away from cities for a better way of life.
It’s said that we’re currently living through the biggest socio-demographic adjustment since the Industrial Revolution and so if you’re thinking of making a shift towards a rural life I think it’s important to say that it isn’t all the best bits of The Archers. There are many things that I miss about having a city on my doorstep – really good music, theatre and art; restaurants and takeaways; retail and a diverse mix of people who are up for open minded conversations about anything and everything. There’s no denying that the simplicity of country life has its own beauty but it can get boring, even if you live near a provincial city.
Making the choice to work for yourself in order to have more control over your life isn’t an easy one either. In many ways we’ve had to work harder than we would in paid employment and there have been times such as during the recession and lockdown when it’s felt truly terrifying because the only safety net we’ve had is the one we’ve woven for ourselves over the years; there’s no employer to fall back on and no state support. You can lose your livelihood at the stroke of a finance director’s pen and the boys have often seen us struggle, working incredibly long hours, usually as they slept but the result is that it seems to have given them a strong work ethic too. In the end it’s one of the best things we could have taught them because if you’re willing to really graft, you can usually (hopefully) work your way out of tough times.
So although it may sometimes appear that we’ve had a charmed family life with our boys, it’s partly because we decided early on how we wanted it to be, made a plan and kept on working at it. We walked away from a life that held much more sparkle, glamour and security but as I look back from the particular precipice that I feel I’m standing on at the moment, I believe more than ever that it was the right move for us. You see as my boys are moving away from me, I know that I’ve had the priceless commodity of time – just to be with them as they were growing up. And of course that’s what’s so hard to let go because it leaves me with a vacuum, wondering what’s next.
The thing is that mothering means something different to everyone. It depends on their own experience of being mothered and, if they’ve been a mother, their individual perception of mothering. For me it’s given me a constant sense of purpose and relevance. And that’s not because it’s been the only thing in my life, after all I’ve worked full-time all the way through. However it’s meant that whatever’s happened in my far less meaningful world of work, there’s still been a point to me because at the beginning and end of each day I’ve been needed in an utterly primordial way… when they were little but also as they’ve grown older.
On a personal level that’s what I’m losing now. I will no longer top and tail my sons’ daily lives and they’ll do perfectly well without me which I know is the ultimate proof of a job well done. However right now I feel as though I’m letting go of what’s been my fundamental purpose – my life’s anchor. I feel strangely exposed too – without my daily maternal responsibilities to cushion my choices suddenly the world is wide open. I can’t hide behind being needed at home any more. In this moment when it’s all still raw I feel untethered… but I know that at the other side lies a new freedom… just waiting. For now though I’m going to lean into the sorrow for a while, it feels like an important thing to do – I’m hoping that if I tend to it I’ll heal more quickly and a newer, fresher me will emerge. For this is the point in midlife when we have to really start living our own lives.
The empty nest and the last goodbye
On Sunday morning the lovely two said their goodbyes. I think this photo from our Newcastle break shows what a close bond they have. This parting’s going to be hard for them and I suspect that it’s the reason our boy chose to check in to his new life as late as he could.
Despite his protestations we set off early because there’s always ALWAYS a really bad traffic jam between here and Leeds – I swear it’s Yorkshire’s way of letting Lancastrians know they’re not welcome and sure enough it was a slow journey. We drove into Headingley to do a Sainsbury’s shop which has proved to be a rite of passage with each of my boys. They start the first term by filling the trolley with the premium ‘Taste The Difference’ options that they’re used to having at home and then when we go back after Christmas they’ve become loyal to the budget stuff, declaring anything else to be a rip-off. My bank card is always relieved by this adjustment!
There was just enough time for one last supper in the conveniently placed Pizza Express next door…
… and then we couldn’t put it off any longer, his check in slot was due. His halls are nice, he’s in a flat of nine with no en suite but that won’t hurt him and they make up for it by having both a dishwasher and a washing machine in their kitchen. Of course being the last one to arrive, almost all of the cupboards and shelves in the fridge had been taken but I managed to find him some space. My real worry was that it was very quiet – everyone else had checked in a day or so before and they were obviously out being Freshers. So we got on with unpacking his stuff and finding a home for everything while he connected his games console (priorities!).
And then we came to that awful point where every bag has been emptied, all the tech is connected and there’s no reasonable excuse left to stay. These are the moments that I hold in my box of most painful memories. Even though it’s my third time of doing it, it never gets easier. I know they come back but it isn’t the same, the continuum’s gone and of course when the last one leaves, they turn off the lights of the daily thrum of family life behind them. The eldest and middle boys have both often said they love coming home because it’s all still here – as long as the youngest was still at school the daily routine carried on just as they left it and they could step back into their childhoods whenever they wanted. Now it will change, Mr MC and I will establish a new routine in our empty nest and when they return it will be different. And so I know people mean well when they say “they’ll be back with their washing…” but that’s not the point. I know I’m not losing my children – we’ll always be a family but we won’t have a family life.
However loss is the price we almost always pay for love and I wouldn’t change a moment of any of it to save the desolation that I’m feeling this week. And I have to remember that this is what I wanted for them, they’re all building their lives around something they have a passion for – so far without compromise although of course that will no doubt come. This was the last hug, a mixture of love, pride and pain…
… and the last few words – you can see him nodding along, I suspect in his head he’s saying, “I know that Mum… I know.”
I had to learn at an early age not to cry and so we managed to drive away with a smile. After a few minutes Mr MC said, “I can’t go onto the motorway like this,” and so we pulled into the back streets of Leeds and found a grotty pub where we could sit with a coke and just be… I’m not sure what… just be.
The older two were brilliant, calling us one after the other as we drove back, entertaining us with their stories and each making plans to come and see us soon. And now we’re back here in our empty nest, both reeling slightly with days that have no punctuation and end in nights of turbulent dreams. We’ve sighed with relief as the first few texts have arrived from the youngest with tales of the size of the student night club, new friends, Freshers’ antics and all kinds of events ahead. As we thought he would, he seems to be settling in fine.
How we’re coping with the empty nest
So what’s next for us in this empty nest of ours? We both feel as if we’re sitting not at the beginning of a new chapter but actually a whole new notebook. I never like starting a new notebook because I always feel as if the first page should hold something spectacular written in my best writing. And so, in that vein, we’ve decided that instead of wallowing in rooms that echo with absence we’re going to take a small sabbatical. Because we can. Last night we packed our bags and I’ve written this post early so that we can head off for an adventure à deux.
As I’ve said, the last time we found ourselves at a point of change as big as this was when we had our babies and, knowing that our old way of life no longer fitted, we turned our lives upside down. The way we’re feeling at the moment is so similar that we’ve decided to take another audit of our lives and we feel we’ll have better perspective if we view it from a distance. It isn’t a good time of year for us to do this because it’s when work really starts to pick up so we’re taking that with us. I’ll still be blogging too because I have posts that have been promised, I just won’t be doing it from here. It might feel a bit odd because I won’t be talking about what we’re doing, instead I’ll be thinking about Autumn in England but from somewhere else. The next post will be on Friday 1st October, I will be popping up on Instagram though so if you want to stay in touch and see what we’re up to you can find me @midlifechic.
As the boys head into their own lives it’s time for us to step back and be proud of the men they’ve become. I know that wherever they are, they carry us with them in their hearts just as we do with them. There are lots of versions of the saying when one door closes… but my favourite is Alexander Graham Bell’s:
When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.
The one thing I know is that this isn’t the time to sit back in our empty nest and let the days drift by. At midlife we’re finally reaching our prime and we need to grab hold of life and squeeze it to the pips. Mr MC and I may return feeling that we don’t need to change a thing, that we’re happy just as we are… but if we do, at least we’ll know we made an active decision to keep the status quo rather than falling into a life of habit. So as we leave this evening, we’ll take one last wistful look at the closed bedroom doors that the boys have left behind and then we’ll open our front door to the world that lies ahead.
Boys, if you read this, know that however much your dad grumbles we’ve both treasured every moment of our 25 year journey with you. Never mind to the moon and back, you know we love you to infinity and beyond
Wherever we are and whatever we’re doing, you three come before anything else. Always.
Go into your lives knowing how proud we are of each one of you. You are forever in our heads and our hearts but:
“selfhood begins with a walking away,
And love is proved in the letting go.”
Disclosure: ‘The empty nest – how we’re coping with the end of days’ is not a sponsored post
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