Mother's Day for empty-nesters

ALL FLOWN NOW: An empty nest means no more demands.
ALL FLOWN NOW: An empty nest means no more demands.

The title of "mother" is assumed for life. The role of "mothering" leads to inevitable redundancy.

It's just over a year now since my last child left school. In the beginning nothing seemed different as the holidays arrived and he stayed around to help out over summer. It was only with the arrival of the new school year I noticed the change. At the local bookstore, feeling slightly haunted, I watched mothers with children ticking off school stationery lists. Close to tears, it was enough to force me out of the shop.

How could this be? So much was good. No early morning deadlines or demands. I'd traded tomato sauce for quality toilet paper. Removed the instant coffee and peanut butter from the cupboard. We now ate salmon, laksa and noodles instead of potatoes and peas.

The marriage again became the focus, and teetering on the edge of something new, we welcomed the weirdness of space and lack of child focus. Alone together we shared this new passage with the odd admission of "I miss him too".

I missed those nights of being "forced" to watch crass late night comedies though his own renditions and take-offs were far funnier than what was on the screen. There was no-one else in cooee who matched my humour. It is one of the things I miss most.

The Oxford Thesaurus offers few options for missing: long for and need, pine for, want, wish, yearn. Too emotionally loaded, I have to settle for just plain old miss.

I miss those moments of him reflecting myself back to me. A wise word or thought far beyond his years. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't heaven. The incisive sarcasm was often accurate and cruel but it forced me to greater self-reflection. It's just a pity it never worked in reverse.

I miss his thoughtfulness. All those nights of lavender water sprayed on my pillow. The little owl tucking me in. The final family holiday, arriving back to the car from the cafe brunch to find the paella pan I'd admired there on the seat. I miss being able to call on him in moments of panic. Like the night I found a screaming hedgehog stuck in a gate. Unable to free it without damaging it he made for the shed and returned with the bolt cutters. Moments later, its whimpering little body was free. Side by side we stood in the dusky summer stillness. My thoughts turned to kindness, how this tiny creature's distress had unquestionably drawn him in.

Now he is gone. I look back. I must. It gives me such pleasure and I know my access to the child-him must now cease. Deep within I hold on to our best and worst moments together. The one accolade I can offer myself is that from the beginning I sensed his adulthood would take form in an unexpectedly creative shape.

If I have one regret (and there are many) it is the dilemma I faced forging a career while juggling family. Too much time focused on assignments and deadlines. Too much time spent absent from home. I longed, and long, to be one of those stay-at-home earth mothers growing rows of spinach for spanikopita, chickens in the hot-water cupboard and a kitchen bench piled high with homely clutter. Embedded now within me is Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project mantra: "The days are long but the years are short."

Only now can I embrace my own mother's story, how she sobbed for hours when I finally left home. I know it's just another stage in my life. A natural progression. What we hope and aim for as parents is to have our children develop into responsible adults. This is a necessary loss. It's a loss nonetheless.

I admired his father's fortitude in ringing him, only to be told he was far too attached. Perhaps a text would have been safer. If only he could. I questioned if we'd erred too far on independence. It would be nice if he kept more in touch. Apart from GST, tax and business consultations it really did appear we had passed our use-by date.

He now offers himself to another city. I hope his room is tidier, the bench cleaner, that he has lightened up on the tomato sauce. I hope he is kinder to his flatmates than he sometimes was to me. I don't ever worry about what he's up to but, like every parent, I absolutely long for him to be safe.

As I write my old sympathetic nervous system amps up the loss. Holding back the tears I know it's useless indulgence. It's what a parent must do. Let go. But for all the trials and tribulations I'd have it back. For a day, a week, perhaps? The longing to feel and gather up those tiny, soft limbs. That ever-smiling face. The fights and fears. The food and chauffeuring. My sense of purpose. Tenderness. Love.

When I open his bedroom door there is the redolent linger of him mixed with Lynx. Apart from a fresh duvet the room remains untouched. The faded, tattered, snowboarding pictures blue-tacked over my designer wallpaper still wipe out my taste for his own. Sometimes I stand and gaze up for a moment, at those tiny, fluorescent ceiling stars he so carefully placed.

It is unbearably tidy and quiet. The sun streams in.

Sunday Star Times