Empty nest syndrome

20 September 2011, by Phillip Hodson
After decades of bringing them up, you can relax once they leave home. So, asks Phillip Hodson, why do you miss them SO much?

Flown the nest: but maybe not for long. Photo by Steve Jurvetson

For those of you still broken-hearted because your final adolescent has left home, let me offer some reassurance. As night follows day: they’ll be back.

Children used to cut their apron strings soon after A-levels. My own bid for personal freedom started even earlier. At 17, I flounced out of my Cheshire home with one rucksack, a leaky umbrella and an indeterminate plan to become a crofter in the Scottish Highlands.

I got as far as hitch-hiking to Carlisle before the rains pelted down and nobody would give me a lift. When I phoned home, my dad just said: “Where are you? I’ll be there”. I’m grateful to this day that he didn’t try to humiliate me. Next time, I crossed the border and stayed.

But it is very much harder for recent 20-somethings to break away. In our day, rent was lower and houses in general more affordable. Mortgages were difficult to obtain but more realistically priced. Above all, the job market was less vicious because graduates were highly prized.

Since then they’ve depreciated. The value of a degree in the earnings table is falling by one per cent a year. The entry labour market is especially tough. More than 20 per cent of new graduates remain either unwaged or unemployed. Many might have been wiser to skip university altogether.

The ups and downs of the job market did not prevent us from falling into one fatal trap. Most parents know it as ‘The myth of the wonderful time you will have when your last child leaves home’.

First, there was the genuine joy of anticipation. “When the youngest moves out,” we used to say, and I imply no disrespect to my beloved son, “we can stop slaving for the pennies and actually redecorate.”

“New carpets!” shouted my partner in ecstasy. It also crossed my mind that not listening to my son entertaining his girlfriend in the small hours with our satellite TV subscription, fried bacon and eggs and interior sprung mattresses would constitute a lifestyle plus.

So the day dawned. He was still only 18 but finally left to live with his girlfriend on his Post Office Savings Account. I was sad but not inconsolably grief-shattered. We spent happy months painting and decorating the entire place. The new carpets were a luxury cruise for the feet.

But at this point, a mere seven months after his exit, the youngest became financially shipwrecked, moved back into his old bedroom and while creating an art project, mainly in the bathroom, managed to leak magenta printing ink out of a plastic carrier bag into the very middle of the newly refurbished living room floor.

Well, they have to do something in a gap year… and not all of them blissfully vanish to India. Some of them also have second false starts. The youngest next went to a Famous Art School (which, by the way, knew nothing about teaching, art or being a school) before finally deciding that he’d rather read English at a proper university regardless of the impact on his financial backers.

Consequently the ‘peace dividend’ on having my children leave home several times over and enter the brave new world of employment remains small. We naturally started saving for THEIR deposits.

I think you should be aware that children do not leave home like an arrow but like a pricey boomerang. The first time they come back, you are very surprised. The second time, resigned. The third is just another family reunion.

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