Empty Nest Syndrome

The Daily Mail – September 30th 2004

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 with just the odd family
stopover in the university vacations. In the 1970s, most of us were off our parents’
hands by graduation.

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 the umbrella
duly failed. In the black Cumberland night nobody would give me a lift. When I
phoned home, my parents were simply wonderful. “Where are you?” asked my Dad.
“I’ll be there”. I’m grateful to this day that he didn’t humiliate me.

The second attempt meant spending half my Second Year at college trying to live
with a German girl in Dusseldorf (in those days the History Department at Oxford
University was more understanding). Then the cash ran out and I only had half a
salami to eat during the 48 hours trekking home.

The third attempt at 22 was a success. Sounding like something out of a novel by
Evelyn Waugh, I casually informed my parents that while sitting my final exams I had
incurred “one or two debts” at an expensive French restaurant. My father, a Shell oil
manager who had worked his way up from the shop floor, looked over his spectacles
and told me in a slow deliberate voice, which I can still hear, that the deficit would be
made good: “But it won’t be soon. And it won’t be again”.

Next day I started earning my living as a journalist and paying the rent and have
been doing so ever since.

But it is very much harder for recent 20-somethings to follow this example. In our
day, rentals were lower; houses in general more affordable. Mortgages were difficult
to obtain but far more realistically priced. When I bought my first property, I actually
covered the deposit on my Barclaycard. Try doing that now. 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
actually falling by one per cent per annum. The entry labour market is especially
tough. A third of last year’s graduates remain either unwaged or unemployed. Many
might have been wiser to skip university altogether. My own three sons (two of them
step) have yo-yoed to and from home in the 1990s largely for financial reasons and
at the fickle mercy of employers who could have taught Mr Gradgrind a thing or two
about starving the labouring poor.

Step-child number one had two traineeships, first with a publisher who has been
likened to Tony Soprano and whose forte was to fire staff seven days before they
became entitled to employment benefits. Said child bounces back to the family
bosom to lick his wounds. His second traineeship with a concert tycoon ended
equally abruptly when the magnate in question began to inhale his own enterprise
so that my poor boy was back with his dad before you could say Colombian White
Marching Powder.

Step-child number two decided that one first degree was insufficient so slogged
through three further years at a Scottish university reading psychology after three
initial years at an English reading biology. Net result was a mass of fine
qualifications, but a significant four-figure debt and an extended period of family
dependency on his natural father.

The ups and downs of the older boys did not prevent us from falling into one final
trap. Most parents know it as: “the myth of the wonderful time you will have when
your last child leaves home”.

The fact that both of us are therapists, and have spent many hours counselling other
families with 35-year-old hatchlings stuck in the nest was equally irrelevant.
First, there was the genuine joy of anticipation. “When Alex moves out”, we used to
say, and I imply no disrespect to my beloved son, “When Alex moves out we can
stop slaving for the pennies and actually redecorate”. “New carpets!” shouted my
partner, Anne, in ecstasy.

I was also looking forward to seeing my therapy clients without that slight anxiety that
an oversleeping, tousled-haired 18-year-old with a two-days growth of beard and
boxer shorts would wander into the consulting room under the impression breakfast
was served there.

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 personal lifestyle plus.

So the day dawned; he was still only 18 but finally left to live with his girlfriend on
Grandpa’s legacy. I was sad but not inconsolably grief-shattered. We spent happy
months painting and decorating the entire place.

Mind you, I did things properly – lovingly burning off 20 years of accumulated lead
gloss and sanding everything down to a fine professional finish. All it took to
complete the task was the very best woven Wilton that John Lewis could supply. The
new carpets were a luxury cruise for the feet.

Except that at this point the youngest a mere seven months after his exit got
shipwrecked by some financial crisis, 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. But not all of them blissfully vanish to
India. And some of them also have second false starts.

The youngest next went to 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. He holds a
degree from Sussex University but remains in a post-graduate phase of deciding
whether to be a journalist or James Joyce. Retirement? When’s that?

Before you ask, yes we ARE two proper grown up parents who know how to manage
offspring but it isn’t quite that simple when the maturing process in young people
currently takes up to ten years longer than you think it should. I tell my clients that
their children will almost certainly remain dependent on them up to the age of 25.

The most common thread is finance. With hindsight, it seems ridiculous to recall how
I used to count down the months until I had made the last payment of the youngest’s
allowance and I could cancel the standing order. I was living in la-la-land. There is
no way in the current job market with starting salaries around £9,000 a year that new
graduates in the South-East can eat and buy shelter. The choice is to get warm and
starve, or fat and hypothermic. Consequently the ‘peace dividend’ on having my
children leave home several times over and enter the brave new world of
employment remains small. We are naturally saving up 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.

Phillip Hodson is a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and
Psychotherapy www.bacp.co.uk

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