Sunday 18 March 2018

How to cope with an empty nest

As so many of the country's young emigrate, what next for their parents, asks Anita Guidera

Anita Guidera

When two of her three sons emigrated to Australia, Sally Mooney was stopped in her tracks by the tide of emotions that overwhelmed her in the weeks that followed.

Ben (24) and Barry (21), who featured in this newspaper last February, were among a group of six young men who left their hometown of Ramelton in Co Donegal, in search of work on the other side of the world.

"Of course, I was so excited for them. You rear your children to be as confident as possible, and so they can spread their wings and fly away. That is my job, and that is what they were doing so I find it hard to understand this loneliness and emptiness that I am feeling," said Sally, as she fought back the tears.

But Sally and husband Shaunie are not alone. Hundreds of thousands of parents whose grown-up children leave home for college, travel or work, experience the 'Empty Nest Syndrome', as they face an emptier, quieter home and an often overwhelming feeling of sadness and loss.

British journalist Celia Dodd was so taken aback when she was confronted with the same "bruised, hollow, empty" feeling when her youngest child left home to travel on a gap year, that she wrote The Empty Nest, a guide on 'How to survive and stay close to your adult child'.

"Until it happened to me, I thought it was a thing that only affected people like my mum, who was a very traditional housewife.

"This thing called Empty Nest Syndrome sounded a bit scary, but I was going through a big transition, a massive great change, a big emotional upheaval that every parent goes through and some find it easier than others," she told the Irish Independent.

As part of her research, she interviewed dozens of parents whose varied experiences of children leaving home sheds new light on the complexities of emotion felt in their wake.

"For a long time, people didn't talk about this thing much and felt that sadness was something they weren't supposed to feel. Some are more sad than others but it is important to know that it is okay to feel sad.

"You tend to think that we are not supposed to mind when they go, which seems really strange to me. I just hope the book helps people to acknowledge it and then move onto the next thing, and make the most of the rest of their lives," she said.

In the Mooney house on Ramelton's Castle Street, the predominant difference since the departure of the boys has been the silence.

With Sally and Shaunie's oldest son Lee (26) at college in the Dublin Institute of Technology, the normally bustling house suddenly became very quiet.

"The big thing for me has been the quietness. I am not shouting at them to please turn down the music, and each of the boys had an entourage of friends who were constantly calling around. That has all stopped now," said Sally.

The news from Australia is all good.

The brothers are working for a contractor and sponsorship is on the cards, safeguarding their stay for several years. Ben has bought a car and kayak. Football-mad Barry has joined a local team.

They are in constant contact with home through text and Skype, and are making plans to return for Christmas.

"I know they are having a fantastic experience in a different culture and I am so happy to see them planning and making good decisions as they are supposed to do as young adults. I know that it will get easier but the overriding feeling is one of sadness. I feel I don't have a role now.

"I'm already dreading saying goodbye again after Christmas but I know it will get easier," said Sally.

Another couple, Hazel and William Russell, whose three daughters are all in their twenties and making new lives for themselves in England, Australia and Belfast, reveal their sense of pride "in a job well done".

"They are lovely girls and they are a credit to us and we are proud in how they have turned out," said Hazel, in the family home near Rathmullan, Co Donegal.

After their departure, Hazel returned to college to do a Masters in Business Innovation and Leadership at the Letterkenny Institute of Technology, confessing she was trying to fill a void.

"It was something I never had a chance to do but there is a void because you spend 20 or 25-odd years of your life rearing children and focusing your life on them and everything is geared to them.

"Then they are gone and you and your partner have to get to know each other again. You are no longer cooking for a family of five and you are spending more time together and on your own," she said.

It's not all negative, as William pointed out.

"The phone bills and the lighting bills are smaller and I get peace to watch this," he laughed, pointing towards a football game on the wide screen television with its surround sound system, a Christmas gift from their eldest daughter, Alison.

Celia Dodd advises parents whose children are leaving home, to "take a long look at the future".

"You might feel terrible now when they first go but your relationship will probably get stronger and better even though you don't see them all the time.

"Also it takes a bit of time for you to get used to having freedom and more time to think about your self.

"You have got out of that habit, and it takes time to get back into it, but when you get back into it is really great.

"The other piece of advice that was given to me by a really wonderful counsellor I spoke to is to just remember that love is not about seeing someone all the time, it's about knowing you have a place in someone's heart and they have a place in yours. I have got that on my pinboard," she said.

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life