The nest is empty. The chicks have flown. Now they fluff their own plumage, feather their own nests and jump up early enough to catch their own worms.
We taught them all we knew and some things we didn’t know. And they taught us quite a bit in return. Like how being mum and dad is the very best thing in life. 24 years of parenting later we have a treasury of unrepeatable memories and three quite presentable and happy children.
Now we have a so-called empty nest. Now our lives are suddenly categorised by an absence of something.
Experts are divided as to whether the empty nest syndrome actually exists. Personally, I think there may be some truth in the rumour. We have rooms which look like they should contain a person, but are strangely static and empty of life. Should we close the doors – at the risk of deceiving ourselves that they are still in there? Or should we leave it open and stare at the evidence of their absence?
The evidence of one of the flown birds has been obliterated by a new guest room and a bigger study. A gymnasium and a library would take care of the other two. Or maybe a small solarium and a steam room?
But for now we are content to leave the house as it is. No 3 will be home for the university holidays for a few years yet and it would be churlish to ask him to camp in the outbuilding. And besides, we aren’t quite ready to “move on” that quickly. We want to keep up the illusion that this is a family home, not an old people’s home.
The last bird migrated to a small student room in the frozen north two months ago. We are, of course, delighted for him, as we are for the first two. They each give every indication of being independent, responsible, resourceful, content, healthy and socially well-adjusted. Who they learned these life skills from is uncertain. We learn as much from the blunders of our parents as from their successes. But our work here is done, one way or another.
Mistakes, we made a few, but then again, too many to mention. Parenting is an imprecise skill and – save for a few basic principles – something you largely make up as you go along. But if we achieve nothing else and leave no other legacy on this world, we will die happy that we somehow managed to launch three fine human beings who share some of our genes and hopefully the better parts of our character.
But yes, the nest does feel very empty. It echoes with the sound of silence. No music blasts through the corridors, but our own. No hum of the hairdryer. No footsteps along the landing at 3am. No shouts of derision at the campers on the PS3. There is no aroma of youth. The sweet smell of socks, deodorant, burning hair and 2am fry ups have transferred to more distant locations. Despite my best endeavours, our over-sized house is irritatingly clean, fresh and tidy.
A month ago we visited all three offspring in turn, on a grand tour of the north of England. And yes, we came home to a particularly empty house. I wanted the lights to be on in every room and the curtains still to be open. I wanted the smell of No 3’s cooking to be wafting through from the kitchen. Instead, the post was piled behind the door, the house was cold and in darkness and nothing had been disturbed. It all felt sadly symbolic.
It is hard to imagine how it was. Our memories are as elusive as ghosts and butterflies. When we moved into this house they were 12, 10 and 7. I can’t even picture it, never mind feel what was our daily experience. Children bring a house to life just by their energy and curiosity. When they were older it was the banter, the sarcasm and the repartee and the long debates about science, sport or politics.
Yes we have the photos, the videos and the diaries. But the sheer physicality of children – bathing them, picking them up, wrestling with them, hugging them, even changing their nappies – is irreplaceable.
But then we don’t live our lives to store up memories for future consumption, like some great supermarket shop to fill our freezer. We can only live our lives in the present. And that present – which is now in the past – was wonderful. And whilst one can be nostalgic for what we have lost, we are thrilled that we were ever blessed enough to be given it.
But hey, I speak as if we will never see them again. Only a fortnight ago we had a lovely weekend with No 1 and his girlfriend. He and I rewired the home network. It was just like old times. Today we are off to see No 2 and her boyfriend. And soon No 3 will be back for Christmas. Meanwhile, we stay in contact through through various electronic combinations of facebook, texts, skype and old-fashioned phonecalls.
Fortunately, the leaving and emptying is a gradual thing. Our children learn independence as soon as they can lift a spoon. They start to go out on their own at a very early stage, and leave us behind when they go to play group. There are the school trips and the sleepovers. And then we leave them – it is 4 years since we abandoned them all at home whilst we tripped to Toronto. Then one by one they have gone to university, with that strange pattern of being totally away nine times and totally at home in between.
The final leaving is the one that is the most difficult. But that was just the (almost) final step in a life-long process. When we drive someone we love to the airport, we rarely remember the journey, just the final departure. And it would be rather weird if we didn’t feel the separation. When it happens it is like being mugged and robbed.
Such is the pattern of life. Life would not be life without its coda. Every poem needs its line breaks and verses. If we had wanted to live our whole lives with children, we could have opened a nursery. No, the thrill and excitement is seeing them move on – the last nappy, the last car-seat, the last day at school. It would be bizarre in the extreme if they stayed the same or even went into reverse. That will be our prerogative when we are old and senile.
Empty nest? Not really. It is not empty because the two of us we still live here, thank you very much. Darby and Joan, Terry and June, Jack and Vera, Dave and Debbie. And it is no longer a nest. We have applied for a change of use. We want it to be reclassified as a hotel. Maybe one day we will down-size to a property which doesn’t echo and rattle so much. But for now, we enjoy the place largely unchanged, still full of pictures and the possessions of our children.
They may no longer live here most of the time. We may see less of them. And on that level we miss them as friends as much as children. Friends who keep us young and on our toes. But our indescribable, unconditional and immeasurable love for them is, and always has been, a force beyond our control. Our delight in them is undiluted. How can that ever be described as empty?
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