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'Help! I've got premature empty nest syndrome'

When I arranged a French exchange for my daughter, Aimee, I was thinking of opportunities -- how great it would be for her, not just to learn French, but to experience another culture and become more independent. I didn't realise how much I'd miss her.

I am not, normally, a misser. When away from those I love, I don't fret. I know we'll be together soon. I make the most of wherever I am and whatever I'm doing.

Then Aimee went on an exchange.

Aimee, almost 16, went to stay with two families, one in Paris, one just outside. Though I'd never met either family, I knew I could absolutely trust the mutual friend who set up the exchanges. Aimee had been to Irish college before for the same amount of time (three weeks). She had travelled with friends to France to stay with one friend's family. She is an independent, capable person. I have total confidence her.

At the airport, we had to check in the old-fashioned way to submit a form giving permission for a minor to travel alone. The queue was long. We chatted, joked, and admired cute babies. Our only worry, as the queue took an hour to snake forward, was that Aimee might miss the flight.

Finally, she did check in. Then everything changed. We both went quiet as it hit us. She really was going off to a foreign country on her own. To people she'd never met before. We'd watched Taken with Liam Neeson together. What had I been thinking?



nervous

We made our way, in silence, towards security. It was like the air had changed. Like it was vibrating in a new and nervous way. I couldn't say goodbye. I knew she didn't want me to. So I queued with her until I no longer had a choice. We hugged. Clung, actually. I was aware of two men behind us. All I could think was, they know she's alone. I reminded myself how capable she is and how much security there is in airports.

I, let, her, go.

I forced myself back to the car park, in shock. Paying for parking was like taking another step away from her. I got to the car. Then I remembered modern technology. I sent her a text. Two minutes later, she texted back. She was fine. She was through security and going straight to the gate. Being able to stay in contact was such a relief. Driving off, though, I was still in shock.

That evening Aimee called. It was so great to hear her voice, and to hear that she was happy, and the family was lovely. The missing, though, had already started. Over the next few days, it strengthened into premature empty nest syndrome. Despite texts, phone calls, Facebook, I completely missed Aimee's company. I missed her at dinner. I even missed the mess in her room -- because it meant she wasn't there. I'd never felt anything like it. I was stunned by how much I was missing her.

Ever since she was small, Aimee has always been a bit of a trailblazer. Like the Starship Enterprise, she boldly goes. As soon as she can, she will move out of home. I have always known this. And I thought it was great. I still do. I want her to have all the adventures she's always wanted. Only now, I know just how much I'll miss her.



holidays

She has spoken of travelling to California and New Zealand. I have spoken of visiting for long holidays. I now know those long holidays will not be enough.

That I am thinking like this is a shock given that it feels like yesterday when she put on a school uniform for the first time and with the same sense of adventure she will have when leaving home.

And yet, she is still my baby, the person I used to chat to before she was even born, the little girl who had imaginary friends and talked to spaghetti. There is no one better to have girlie time with than Aimee.

She will go, though. She will build her own life. Like she's supposed to.

Aimee came back from France with a striking new confidence and independence. It hit me how fast she is growing up. In just two years, she will be out of school. I have to start letting her go. Of course, I've already started, slowly, incrementally, unnoticeably.

I'm not ready to think ahead to a time when Aimee's room will become The Spare Room. Or how much personality will leave that little room with her. All her gadgets, doodles, stickers, photos, her beloved bear Gregory with his little confused face. The air in the house will vibrate less. There will be no singing at nine on a Sunday morning. No mammoth showers that take all the hot water. It will break my heart.

Aimee is my only daughter, the person who makes Christmas boxes for the homeless, the person in the house who is always so Zen, who reminds me to have fun and not work so hard.

She spoke early, walked early, asked the best questions about the world -- as if she was already planning to get out there and check it out. Already I'm so proud. I know I'm her mum and, therefore, biased. I still believe she will change the world.

We don't spend enough time together. There's school and homework and hockey and friends. But maybe that's part of us both getting ready for her eventual move away from me. It is natural and right. It's still going to kill me.

Denise Deegan's new book And Actually -- part of her contemporary teenage series The Butterfly Novels -- is published by Hachette Ireland, priced €8.99


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