Right up until the day her son left home, 57-year-old Soweto community worker Sibongile Mkhwanazi prayed that he would change his mind. She was afraid that he would not cope on his own, especially as he had a medical condition that she had dutifully managed for years.
“I cooked him a meal that day and bought him groceries. It was a way of settling my mind, knowing that he would at least eat for a few days,” she recalls.
To her relief, her son coped remarkably well, and indeed it was Sibongile who battled with the void he’d left in her life. “In that first lonely month, it felt like I’d lost my son to the outside world forever,” she says.
Countless parents will relate to Sibongile’s tale. She was experiencing the empty nest syndrome, and only with time found a way to reclaim a semblance of life as it was before children.
“I learned to let go, and be proud of my son’s independence. I also met and fell in love again, as my first husband died years before,” she says.
The acuteness of this phase of life varies greatly, of course. Some women – like the one who confessed on the Oprah Winfrey Show that she regularly curled herself up under the duvet on her daughter’s bed – slide into a depression. Others experience the emptiness for a short while, then feel liberated.
While acknowledging the blow of not having the kids around, Helen Ueckermann admits: “I was counting the last few years before my kids left. It all just became a bit much for me, especially the finances of three university students looking to us for all their needs. I still wonder how we did it sometimes.”
Molly*, whose son went to Australia for his matric year, confesses she “missed him like hell” for the first three months, but after a while relished the freedom and, not least, the savings – “90 percent on groceries, 70 percent on petrol and 99 percent on chocolate!”.
Feeling lonely and desultory in those first few months is natural, because it’s the end of an era, says psychologist and chief executive of the Bella Vida Group, Ilze van der Merwe-Alberts. “Most mothers battle with the transition, swinging between feelings of relief and freedom to sadness and a sense of loss,” she says.
How devoted you were in the role of mother is an important determinant in how painful or long the empty nest phase is, it seems.
Gillian Dobson found her children leaving very difficult to adjust to, as she’d been a stay-at-home mom for the greater part of their growing-up years.
“I only began working again when the kids were in high school and even then spent a huge amount of time involved in their lives,” she says. “I found all sorts of insecurities cropping up around the issue of raising them. Did I do a good enough job in equipping them for life? I guess it boils down to feeling that you have less and less control over their lives and situations. You feel you can’t give advice and you’re too far away to do anything if things go wrong.”
Lindiwe Mampane relates: “I was an overprotective mother. My daughter was also a stay-at-home girl and my best friend. When she left home, I would sometimes wake up during the night, sobbing and feeling very empty.
“At weekends, I would hide myself in the house, drowning myself in cleaning and cooking,” she recalls.
Psychologists stress that while it’s natural to consider your children your “life’s work”, it’s also important to find time for your own pursuits and interests during the mothering years, investments that will make the empty nest easier to bear.
“The women who struggle the most are those who defined themselves as mothers more than being a person who is a mother,” says Van der Merwe-Alberts.
“Most children stay at home for 18 years and it is wise for a woman to keep her identity and see herself as more than just being a mom to kids in that time. It’s not long… actually, it’s over in a blink of an eye. Women should keep in mind that childhood is just a phase and it passes.”
Independent career women like Allison Macdonald, a mother of two boys, embrace this truth.
“I have been gently nudging my children out into the world since they hit their teens. I sent both of them off as weekly boarders to a school close by, which I believe instilled in them the virtues of independent living from a relatively tender age, and gives us all quality family time and co-habitation over weekends and holidays. The oldest is now a student in Grahamstown, and his brother is still at boarding school,” she says.
Although she does “miss them terribly when they are not home”, Allison says she has learnt to enjoy the peace, solitude and tranquillity. “An empty nest means no more heavy metal, no more damp, musty towels dropped on the bedroom and bathroom floors, no more empty cartons of milk in the fridge, no more fetid rugby boots in the hallway, and no more dirty dishes piling up in the kitchen sink,” she quips.
“Most important of all, it means blissful evenings of National Geographic and BBC Entertainment instead of Arsenal versus Chelsea blaring out from the TV with all the requisite empty crisp packets, biltong crumbs and squashed soda cans.”
That said, Allison is fortunate in having her boys come home regularly. For parents whose children have flown the coop to settle in another country, the empty nest couldn’t be more depressing.
Cape Town photographer Rodger Shagam says he badly misses his sons, who he was very close to, and who both live in Australia now.
“The eldest left home when he was 19 and lived in London for 14 years. That wasn’t so bad, because his brother was still at home. But when he left too, I felt a huge void. We used to hang out together, listening to music, reading and going fishing at weekends. Now, if I’m lucky, I see them once a year. My wife also feels the divide very acutely, and can’t accept it if they don’t Skype every week,” he says.
Van der Merwe-Alberts says it’s typical to swing between feelings of relief and freedom to sadness and a sense of loss. Getting through this phase of life is about making a conscious choice to move on.
In Gillian’s case, she threw herself into her job. “I started studying again, and made time to read, play the piano and paint. I was fortunate to have a number of friends going through the same thing and we supported each other, prayed together, laughed together and cried together.
“I’m now at the stage when I have taken over the kids’ rooms for my own purposes, chucked out their junk and redecorated. So I guess I’m over it,” she says.
Allison says she “visits, gardens, reads, writes, entertains, works and sleeps”.
“I soak in bubble baths. I go to the movies, the theatre, museums and concerts. I eat in restaurants when I want to. It beats checking the homework, cooking mince, doing the laundry, playing taxi, covering the schoolbooks and sewing Harry Potter robes for the school play.”
Which is exactly what Van der Merwe-Alberts recommends. “Get new interests in life and do what you always wished you could do, but didn’t have the time to do. Rekindle friendships, learn something new, rediscover your husband if you are married, and discover the world that passed you by during parenting.
“Get to know yourself again and give yourself permission to live the life of a fulfilled mother who did the best job she could with what she had,” she says.
Sibongile heartily agrees. “We need to look at our children moving out as our own success. Raising a son or daughter who is brave enough to leave and build a nest of their own is a plus for any parent. Learn to let go and be proud of the end result.”
* Name changed. - The Star