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.

Sport
footballLIVE: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
News
newsNew images splice vintage WWII photos with modern-day setting
Arts and Entertainment
The star dances on a balcony in the video
music
News
Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen learns that Peeta is still alive in Mockingjay Part 1
peopleListen to the actress sing in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
music
News
Evidence collected by academics suggests that people find the right work-life balance at 58-years-old, towards the end of their working lives
news
News
i100
Voices
Ukip leader Nigel Farage arrives at the Rochester by-election count
voicesIs it any wonder that Thornberry, Miliband, and Cameron have no idea about ordinary everyday life?
Sport
sportComment: Win or lose Hamilton represents the best of Britain
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Commercial Property Surveyor

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading firms of Cha...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Central London, Bank

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A truly exciting opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Structural Engineer

£22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A keen Graduate Structural Engineer with...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Data & Delivery Guru

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate Data & Delivery Guru is required to...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

US immigration: President Obama ready to press ahead with long-promised plan to overhaul 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?

Immigration: Obama's final frontier

The President is ready to press ahead with the long-promised plan to overhaul America's 'broken system' - but will it get past a Republican-controlled Congress?
Bill Cosby rape allegations explained: Why are these allegations coming out now? Why didn’t these women come forward earlier? And why has nobody taken legal action?

Bill Cosby rape allegations explained

Why are these allegations coming out now? Why has nobody taken legal action? And what happens next for the man once thought of as 'America's Dad'
Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain

You know that headache you’ve got?

Four years of excruciating seizures caused by the 1cm tapeworm found burrowing through a man's brain
Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?

Scoot commute

Travelling to work by scooter is faster than walking and less sweaty than cycling, so why aren’t we all doing it?
Paul Robeson: The story of how an American icon was driven to death to be told in film

The Paul Robeson story

How an American icon was driven to death to be told in film
10 best satellite navigation systems

Never get lost again: 10 best satellite navigation systems

Keep your vehicle going in the right direction with a clever device
Paul Scholes column: England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil

Paul Scholes column

England must learn to keep possession and dictate games before they are exposed by the likes of Germany and Brazil
Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win says defender as he prepares to return with Hull

Michael Dawson: I’ll thank Spurs after we win

Hull defender faces his struggling former club on Sunday ready to show what they are missing. But he says he will always be grateful to Tottenham
Frank Warren column: Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game

Frank Warren column

Dr Wu has big plans for the professionals yet he should stick to the amateur game
Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

'How do you carry on? You have to...'

The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

Sir John Major hits out at theatres

Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

Kicking Barbie's butt

How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines