Lucy Hone: Empty nest countdown

Research academic Lucy Hone is starting a column in Sunday magazine.
Alden Williams/Fairfax NZ

Research academic Lucy Hone is starting a column in Sunday magazine.

Tomorrow is the first day of the last year of family life as we know it. As our second son walks through the school gates to embark upon his last year of high school, it's time to face reality.

The countdown to empty nesting has begun.

Yes, I realise family life will continue after he leaves school. And I'm heartened by older friends' reassurance that they do come back in time, "often for much longer than you ever anticipated... or want".

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But while my rational mind knows these things, Paddy leaving school marks a line in the sand for Trevor and I. Nineteen years have swept by in a whirlwind of family routine: coaxing reluctant sleepy heads from the warmth of their beds, refereeing accusations over burned toast and spilled milk, gentle then impatient chivvying through the mind-numbing morning tasks – get dressed, clean your teeth, find your shoes, pack your lunch and quickly, quickly we're late again, bustling them out the door. Dull and repetitive it seemed at the time.

Only hindsight reveals the preciousness of those days. Only living with older teenage children – sleeping through breakfast or shielded behind their phones – makes us hanker after the cacophony we once loathed. Who knew we'd one day look back upon those sloppy kisses, snotty noses and fierce hugs at the gate as the halcyon days of our youth?

The irony of missing my children's omnipresence isn't lost on me. I can still recall another mum's shock on our eldest children's first day at school, when her observation that the preschool years had flown by, prompted my response of, "No, those were the longest five years of my life".

I struggled to cope with the baby years, taking ages to grow accustomed to having three dependent appendages constantly in my space. But while slow to start, the progression of those family-oriented years gained pace around the transition to high school and after two decades, catering to the daily needs of others became second nature. My sudden obsolescence is hard to adjust to.

And this is how it's supposed to be. Children come into the world helpless. We do our best to provide for them, nurturing the secure attachment that underpins all positive human functioning, and then stand back and let them go. That is our job.

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Children are hard-wired to fly the nest. But for those of us left behind, relinquishing bonds that we laboured so hard to create can be tough.

We have doubts about our future. What will it be like living as a couple (or, for single parents, on their own) again? With no sports practices and matches to attend, how will we fill our time? After years of so little peace, emptiness and ageing gapes before us.

Losing our 12-year-old daughter Abi two years ago has resulted in us facing this situation sooner than we anticipated. But the sense of an empty nest is far from unique to our situation, it's universal.

In the year after Abi died I read up on Buddhism, looking for philosophies and answers to combat the pain, to fill the void. Two of Buddha's principles helped me greatly – understanding that all lives contain suffering and that nothing lasts forever made me feel less singled out, calming something of my inner-rage. I drew the line, however, at accepting Buddha's teaching that we are better off without attachment.

According to Buddha, attachment is the root of all suffering. I get that. But to avoid attachment – in order to avoid suffering from loss – makes no sense to me. Pondering Paddy's leaving, and the quietness ahead, has made me reflect upon generativity – the natural and optimistic process of guiding the next generation toward adulthood.

As parents, we work hard to provide a secure, safe place; a sense of belonging for our children so that, from that base, they can move confidently into the adult world. Much later, their turn to care for their young will come.

Viewed in this way – looking at the long game of familial attachment as it passes baton-like from one generation to another – helps put my empty nesting blues into perspective. All those years of providing for my family are a gift I'm passing on, a treasured gift I was fortunate enough to be given by my own parents.

Standing back, uncomplaining, and not getting in my sons' way as they embark on adulthood is just another part of that same process.

 - Sunday Magazine

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