The strange manifestations of empty nest syndrome

When children leave for university, the dynamics of a family change forever, says Anne McHardy

The bag of chilli powder that burst in the post and puffed up into my 19-year-old son's eyes when he opened the envelope in his hall of residence at Sussex University was probably the lowest point in my daftness as a parent of undergraduates. A sure sign of the lunacy that takes over when empty nest syndrome strikes.

The bag of chilli powder that burst in the post and puffed up into my 19-year-old son's eyes when he opened the envelope in his hall of residence at Sussex University was probably the lowest point in my daftness as a parent of undergraduates. A sure sign of the lunacy that takes over when empty nest syndrome strikes.

Because I survived leaving my parent's home on the Welsh border when I was 18 to go to university in London when it was normal that the packed trunk was loaded onto a British Rail van to follow the train bearing the new student, I thought I understood this rite of passage.

Five years from when I dropped our eldest at Manchester University one rainy Sunday night, I still think that it is the best way to leave home. But, with one graduate son, two undergraduate sons and a daughter aiming to go to university next year, I am a touch less sanguine about how easy it is from both sides.

I thought that the best way to handle the launch of my first to undergraduate status was the ultimate cool. I caught the train to London. My husband similarly was packed onto a train. We declared therefore that Son One ought to catch the train to Manchester. Even though he had spent a year travelling, he wanted a lift. "Just indulge me this once," he said. So, shame faced, we did. I drove him up the rain sodden motorway. He was as nervous as a kitten on the way. But when we arrived, he gave barely a backward glance at the slightly tear-stained creature he left standing by the family car.

Fortunately I had my third son with me for company and we stopped for fish and chips to sustain ourselves for the journey. The fact that we picked up a bizarre pair of ageing hitch hikers helped ease my disconcerting desire to weep.

Since then I have packed off my other sons. Son Two left first to retake A-levels at a London FE college and now he is doing Fine Arts at London Metropolitan University. He is only a London borough away but he has as definitely left home as if he were in Timbuktu. He delights in telling me how easy it is to use a washing machine without the watchful tongue of mother saying shirts and socks don't mix.

When Son Three left last September, I thought I knew my function better than I did four years previously. I knew I was there to make sure he had pasta and pesto, a pan to cook them in and a bottle of wine to share with new flat mates on night one. And to make sure that he had enough dry groceries for 10 weeks.

I knew he would get homesick. Most people do. But I wasn't braced for his particular manifestation. Having been happily able to cook for years, he suddenly couldn't boil water. He phoned repeatedly for simple instructions. Feeling I could hack this, I typed out a series of family staple recipes, packed up appropriate herbs and spices, so the envelopes smelt of dinner, and posted them every couple of days. The third one contained the chilli. He phoned in pain and outrage. "Stop fussing," he said. "Before you blind me."

We do the sensible things as each child leaves. We book theatre tickets. We organise visits from friends who loathe children. We stock up with DVDs that the kids would hate. We look forward to reorganising the living space. (Remembering, of course, that holidays bring them back expecting to find their space untouched.) But nothing stops the occasional moments listening to empty echoes.

When my third son left, my daughter was almost as weepy as her father and I were. When she goes, I predict we will resort to the photo albums and handkerchiefs.

Except that, as our eldest reaches his mid-twenties, his visits are increasingly fun. The chances of him returning full-time are - we all hope - remote. But the friendly adult visits we enjoy now sustain me in the moments when I stare into empty bedrooms.

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