Virginia Ironside's Dilemmas: Coping with an empty nest

A child leaving home can be like the death of a friend and being made redundant all at the same time. Virginia advises a mother on how to cope

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The Independent Online

Dear Virginia,

My son, who is 24, has recently got married. He’s been living at home on and off ever since he was born, and this is the first time, apart from when he’s had the odd job abroad, that he’s really left home. My husband says that it’s great for our son, and now is the time we can do things “just for us”, but I feel so depressed I can hardly be bothered to get up in the mornings. I know I should be happy and I am in a way, but I just feel my life is over. What can I do?


Yours sincerely,


Virginia says...

The pain that can be caused by a child leaving home for good can’t be over-estimated. Obviously a lot depends on what kind of mother you are. If you’ve been a working mum and the child’s been independent for some time, it’s not so agonising. But if the entire focus of your life has been your children, and you’ve sacrificed other occupations to devote yourself to motherhood, it can be an agonising wrench.

Because it’s not just the child you miss. (Though that’s bad enough, because you’re losing, presumably, an incredibly close friend as well as a son.) But it’s also your role as a mother – bringing up a child is what you do. So a child leaving home can be like the death of a friend and being made redundant all at the same time. Indeed, it’s worse than being made redundant at work, because you’re faced with the absence of the child not just nine to five, but 24 hours a day. There’s no more hearing him creeping up the stairs late at night, no more taking him the occasional cup of tea in bed or giving him rushed lifts when he’s overslept for work.

I’m exaggerating when I say it’s like a friend dying, of course. You’ll still see your son now and again of course, but it won’t be the same. But the redundant analogy is true – and as with a job, it’s just a matter of finding another one. You’re full of the longing to look after and nurture something and it can be almost physically painful to have all that love and care boiling up inside you with nowhere to discharge it. I often think that one of the reasons so many old people take up gardening is because they can put their nurturing feelings into their plants.

And though your husband says you can use the spare time for “us”, it’s not that easy to shift your attention to “us” from “him”.

Unless you’re fairly sure that grandchildren are imminent, I’d try to combine your husband’s longing for “us” time with your own need to nurture. Couldn’t you both go off on an oldie volunteering holiday? They do exist. Your husband could feel all explorer-like, while you could be teaching children to read and write.

Or tell him to go off to do his own thing while you become a classroom assistant.  But whatever you do, don’t let your nurturing instincts go unchannelled. “Now is the time to nurture yourself,” they say, glibly. But my experience is that it is difficult for the spirit of altruism – and nurturing – to exist except in a state, to some extent, of self-denial.

Readers say...

Consider fostering

You now have a void in your life to fill and a spare bedroom. Why not share this with someone in desperate need? Contact your local Social Services Department about becoming a foster carer. This is not as onerous as you may think because you do not need to be a 24/7 carer – there are many opportunities from respite carers, e.g. one afternoon a fortnight, to long-term carers.

Fostering is extremely rewarding. We started 11 years ago, when my wife retired from teaching (she is 72 now). I am a building engineer and deliberately retired early to focus on fostering. Fifty or so children later we have had very few bad experiences but dozens of great ones. This will give you the motivation to get up in the morning and to try things that you never thought you would experience later in life.

Alex Doig, by email

Let him go

This puts me in mind of the old Loudon Wainwright song..“Be careful there’s a baby in the house/And a baby will play for real/If your ‘I love you’ is an IOU/ Don’t expect to get a good deal.” Let him go. You’ve done a very good job.

Sparrow Harrison, by email

Next week’s  dilemma

Dear Virginia,

This may be outside your usual range of problems, but I’d like some help. I’ve never really felt “grown-up”. My friends seem to think I’m grown-up, and I’ve held down a good job for years, and am about to be a father, but I feel all the time that I’m pretending to be adult. I know other people say the same, but they always laugh when they say it, and I can’t believe they feel like I do. I always feel I’m going to be found out. Is this as normal as my friends say it is? It worries me more than I like to admit.

Yours sincerely,


What would you advise David to do?

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