How parents cope when the nest is empty

Faye with her son Zach and daughter Gabi, who died in March 2013
Faye with her son Zach and daughter Gabi, who died in March 2013

With a kiss on the cheek and a warm hug, Faye Smith joined legions of mums around the country this week as she became an ‘empty nester’.

Her 19-year-old son Zach left their Nether Edge home, bound for Oxford University, and Faye reveals the loss has left her reeling – as she always knew it would.

Karen with her son George who left home two years ago

Karen with her son George who left home two years ago

“It is hard for any parents, but especially us mums,” she said.

“We bear and birth our children, so those umbilical cords are pinging!”

Faye has spent the last few years preparing Zach for the big move into an independent life, teaching him to cook, iron, do laundry and manage his finances.

“There are a million things to do on the uni check-list, but for us parents, there is also the emotional preparation to consider,” she smiled.

Faye (second from left) out with the Walking Club

Faye (second from left) out with the Walking Club

“We’ve agreed one weekly call and one visit in his crucial first term.”

Someone who understands exactly what Faye is going through is fellow-city mum Karen Perkins.

Karen, of Ecclesall, waved her son off to university a couple of years ago and her daughter off this month, making her an empty nester too at 55.

Shes said: “Skype keeps me in touch with my kids. There’s a real mixture of sadness at the end of an era, along with a sense of trepidation as my kids go out into the world without me.”

Faye with her son Zach, who left this week for Oxford University

Faye with her son Zach, who left this week for Oxford University

Karen’s experience led her to launch Sheffield’s first and only Empty Nesters Club, to help offer support others going through the same difficult transition.

“Kids these days are closer to their parents and everyone seems to feel the wrench more,” she said.

“As parents we have to deal with our sadness at missing them and our guilt at feeling liberated. I have to admit I’m enjoying luxuriating in a tidy house, free to concentrate on growing my own business. It’s a new phase of life for everyone!

“Since launching the club I’ve met couples who fear being left alone to face reality, while others are planning exciting adventures together.”

For Faye, who runs her own marketing and consultancy firm, the hardest part comes from knowing that she shouldn’t belong in the Empty Nesters club just yet. A family tragedy finds her on the club’s doorstep heartbreakingly early.

“My daughter Gabi would have turned 15 last week and should just be starting her GCSE years,” she said.

“She died in March 2013 following a suspected seizure, so Zach’s departure brings on a whole host of emotions of separations, loss and another form of bereavement all over again.”

And Faye has made some fairly drastic decisions. First up, she sold the family home of 20 years and downsized to a cosy rental, explaining: “The thought of living alone in a place where once we were a family of four, was too much to bear.”

Faye’s former husband died four years ago and Faye has now been a sole parent for almost 14 years.

“Although I do appreciate this is the time some couples look at each other and realise the children may have been the glue holding their relationship together, that creates an opportunity to reform their relationship and the same is true for us sole parents with our friendships.”

And Faye is full of big plans for the year ahead, as her nest growing empty coincides with another big landmark in her life – her 50th birthday.

She said: “I’ve never travelled much beyond last-minute European deals, so in January I am heading off to Australia for two months, camping in remote eco resorts, driving abroad for the first time and taking an extended walking tour. It will be a time for taking stock, re-envisioning my life and a chance to grieve again for my daughter away from the usual cycles of work.

“Once back, I am going to work through a list of 50fun things I like to do, and make sure I tick them all off in my 50th year – walks, cinema trips to the Showroom, a nice chilled prosecco, simple pleasures.”

Business and life coach Karen agrees that planning for the future is an important part of combating empty nesters syndrome.

She said: “Of course you will feel the wrench of your children not needing you in the same way, but it’s also a time for you to give yourself a pat on the back for a job well done as you successfully launch your offspring out into the world.

“Take control of your life and plan things to do so as not to waste those fantastic years between the kids leaving home and retirement – that’s where the Empty Nesters Club aims to help.

“People come to share financial worries, relationship difficulties and job concerns. Our regular chats, walks and events help people to mingle, share business and life ideas and make the most of the opportunities being an empty nester can actually bring.”

It’s advice Faye has taken to heart.

She said: “I’m a member of a book club, a walking club and am planning to take up pilates. I’m investing time in thinking about how I would like the second half of my life to be.

“My advice to anyone facing the empty nest is to make a list of things you enjoy doing – especially those you haven’t had the time or energy to do before – and do them. And always focus on the positive.

“Our able-bodied children leaving home is a natural part of life and their independence is to be applauded and embraced. Weeping, laying guilt trips and in any way suggesting they are responsible for our happiness will not, in the end, help them. Or us.”

Find Emptynestersclub on Facebook for more details.