Leona O'Neill: Empty nest syndrome sucks but kids always need mum for something

Empty nest syndrome is something parents experience when their children leave home and it can be a painful experience. But you have to trust that they will always need you for something, writes Leona O'Neill, even if it's just recipe advice

It's just not the same not having to wash mucky sports gear any more

A FEW weeks ago I met a friend of mine in town with her son. He’s leaving for university tomorrow she said with a forced, almost maniacal smile as he stood there beside her, proud as punch. We’re just buying a few last bits and pieces before he goes, she continued, her voice shaking.

I wished the young man, about to embark on a great learning, growing (and partying) adventure, the very best of luck and told his mother, who at this stage had a vice-like grasp of her son’s arm, to be sure to meet me for a coffee when she returns from dropping him off in England.

We did meet and she sat there, her eyes puffy from crying, telling me that her heart sinks every time she walks by his empty but not quite empty room. She said she cries at work, she cries when her phone doesn’t ring to pick him up from a friend’s house, she cries in the supermarket when she doesn’t have to buy food for two anymore, and she cries when she notices her washbasket is not brimming with dirty football socks and hoodies – and she cries at the sight of his football boots sitting alone and unused at the back door.

She said she cries at night at home on her own and she doesn’t hear a key in the door, or have anyone to make a cup of tea for. She said the silence in the house, which was once filled with music, chattering on phone, thundering up and down the stairs and clattering in the kitchen, is killing her.

My friend is experiencing empty nest syndrome. Her emotions come from the pain of adjustments, a shift in circumstances. Her son is embarking on a new chapter of his life, away from her reach. He is at the end of the phone, but she doesn’t want to ring him and let him know she is upset. She wants him to enjoy his new beginnings without guilt. She has begun the long, painful letting go.

I dread the day my oldest boy heads off to university. I know that day is coming down the line and I imagine I will struggle as much as my friend. I know I will find it hard to cope with not being part of the day-to-day life of my child. I will struggle with going from knowing what he had for dinner to not knowing if he ate at all, from knowing his friends to not knowing who he associating with.

I’ll find it hard not being able to give him a random hug when passing in the house, saying goodnight before going to sleep or hearing his laugh echoing through the house.

Thankfully I’ve a few years left of all this before I have to face my boy heading off to make his own life. Then I’ll have to face it three more times again after when my younger kids head off to start their own journey of life. But I know I will always be a part of my kids' lives, no matter where in this world they go. And they know I will always be there for advice and guidance, emotional and financial assistance and a big hug when it is needed.

My friend felt her job was done when her son went off to university. She felt she was no longer needed. I told her that at 42 years old I still depend on my mum, need her guidance and support more than ever and that her boy will always need her.

He won't, she said.

Then her phone rang. Her boy was asking advice on cooking raw chicken. He wanted to make a roast chicken dinner on a Tuesday, one like her Sunday dinners. He missed her. I left her to it, as she told him you can’t cook chicken in a toaster, it has to be an oven.

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