Monday, 20 February 2017

Music sharpens the brain (mine anyway!)

Research just published by Dr Dawn Rose at Herts University points to new ways that learning an instrument benefits children: it improves their 'fluid intelligence' and emotional wellbeing - and much more.

But it's not just kids who benefit.  Last September I picked up my flute for the first time in 30 years (I dropped it because I didn't have time to practice with three kids)  and joined a class playing traditional folk tunes.

We're encouraged to play by ear, which is a steep learning curve if you're used to relying on written music. But it's so worth it. When I've stopped banging my head against the wall in sheer frustration I can almost feel my brain synapses connecting - or whatever it is synapses do.

Afterwards my brain feels as if it's had a complete physical work out:  exhausted but flexing new muscles.  And it doesn't stop there.  Between classes I feel the benefits in so many other areas of my life: there's a new energy, a new clarity.   Beats Sudoku any day.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Cars for empty nesters

The empty nest has many silver linings: less laundry, no one to nag.....
But this one has taken a while to dawn on me. Our sensible grubby roomy hatchback is redundant.  The big boot is surplus to requirements.  Now I can drive the car I've always dreamed of.

It's a strange one for me, because I'm a rubbish driver. I have panic attacks just thinking about the M40.

But I had a Damascene moment when I climbed into my friend's sporty BMW last week.  Her only regular passengers since her kids left home are her two teeny terriers.

I know it sounds sad, but bowling down the country lanes went straight to my head.  It felt a bit Thelma and Louise, the sort of thing women with no responsibilities do.

Suddenly I thought, if I had a car like this....or the vintage Triumph Herald I dreamt of as a student... or any car I chose because I loved it, not because it was big enough and safe enough - maybe I could conquer my fears of the M40.  Because come to think of it,  it was driving with a baby in the car that gave me the panic attacks in the first place.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Dry January and the Empty Nest

I'm so addicted to alcohol that I used to give it up for Lent.    This year, partly because my daughter was doing dry January,  I decided to get the agony over with quickly.

I really hate not drinking, and I give up with gritted teeth (poor husband).  Every evening I distract myself with elderflower cordial,  peanuts, the Twin Peaks box set and a late-night cup of cacao.   There's no way I'm going out to dinner with no wine.

Eleven days in and I'm pulling it off -  just one lapse so far.   It was the day my daughter left home for good and I needed consolation.

So why give up something you love so much?  Simple: clarity and energy.  Drinking was taking up so much of my time and draining my energy.  Why squander the new levels of energy you get when your kids leave on a habit? This is something you only really recognise when you give up for a bit.

What's helped me a lot  is to stop feeling guilty about how much I drink  - thanks to the hypnotherapist Georgia Foster, who has written a great book on the subject.   She doesn't believe most people have to give up completely, and she doesn't make you feel guilty about drinking. She just offers manageable strategies to help you control your drinking, not the other way round.

Oh, and the other thing that's really helped are Wet Weekends!

Monday, 12 December 2016

Hurrah! Your student's home! How to avoid a row

You've been longing to have your son or daughter  home for months, but now they're finally back you might be feeling a bit...disappointed?  Sad that you don't feel as close as you used to be?
You're full of questions about their new friends and the course.  They just want to sleep and catch up with their old friends.
The chances are you've already had a row.
It's easy to see why things get tense at times.  They've changed - even after a term.  And so have you.  They've got used to coming and going as they please and making as much mess as they like.  At the same time you're just beginning to see the benefits of not doing so much washing and having a tidier house.
A wise student counsellor gives this advice:
'When kids go home in the holidays they're often treated as they were when they left, and  arguments about tidying their  room or coming back by midnight are back with a vengeance.
'In fact they've changed, they've grown up, and it's not the same: they're coming back partly as kids of the home and partly as visitors. To some extent parent and child have got to get to know each other again.' 
It's true that your relationship will never be the same again. But you will be just as close - perhaps even closer, as you get to know your child as an adult, and deal with each other on a more equal footing.  The university years can be a big challenge, but used wisely they're a great opportunity to lay the foundations for a lasting relationship.

How to avoid a row

  • Approach each homecoming with a fresh eye: accept they're changing, and that's good
  • Don't bombard them with questions - relax, give them time. It may take time to open up about their new lives.
  • See things from their point of view - and encourage them to see yours 
  • Discuss new ground rules
  • Choose your battles - try not to blow a gasket about trivial matters.
  • Don't expect to stick to rigid meal times.
  • Cook meals that are flexible -  slow stews that are easy to heat up, for example. And stock up on pasta sauces, salads and nutritious snacks they can grab out of  the fridge. 
  • Don't forget that younger siblings may feel discombobulated too.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Perfect Christmas presents for Empty Nesters

Empty nesters have spent years thinking about other people.  Now it's time to focus on themselves.   Look for something they'll really like,  not something for the kitchen or garden.  The more self-indulgent the better! 


  • Anything luxurious and totally indulgent is perfect - a big bunch of beautiful flowers,  a bottle of champagne.
  • Her favourite perfume.
  • A gift voucher for a massage or manicure. 
  •  Nail polish.
  •  Silk underwear. 
  •  Music to dance to
  •  A great empty nester novel like Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (also on DVDor Joanna Trollope's Second Honeymoon.


  • A gift voucher to try something new - a riding lesson?  a writing course?  Dancing lessons?  An activity to do together?    Empty nesters are keen to try new activities  - but they often  appreciate a nudge in the right direction. So a book or voucher are great ideas.  Organisations like Creative Breaks have Christmas vouchers for a variety of courses.
  •  An inspiring travel guide, like Lonely Planet's Ultimate Travelist  
  •  'Mamma Mia' on DVD - OK it's a cheesy old chestnut but it's very cathartic.  Grown men weep when Meryl sings 'Slipping through my fingers' to her departing daughter.  
  •  Two photograph albums - one for nostalgic family pics, the other for the adventures ahead.  Shepherds near Victoria station in London has many beautiful ones

  • DON'T BUY......

  •  Anything too worthy or too useful 
  •  Shapeless fleecy PJs or slippers shaped like bunnies. 
  •  Oven gloves.   A cookery book is acceptable - just about.  
  •  Socks,  soap or hand cream. Unless they are seriously posh.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Why doesn't my son or daughter ever ring?

In the first few weeks after my kids left home they rang all the time.  'Mum, how do you make fajitas?'  'Can you send my old history notes now?'   I admit it gave me a smug kind of glow  - See? you do need me after all.

But it didn't last.  After the first few weeks -  silence.   Because I didn't want to be an interfering mother,  I only rang if I got worried.  My husband would occasionally call them about booking QPR tickets.  Looking back that might have been a mistake: perhaps they thought we didn't care.

Should you speak every day? 

Of course all parents are different.  Increasingly parents expect to hear from their kids every day,  especially in the early weeks. One mum I spoke to got tearful and anxious if she didn't get her late-night text from her daughter to say she'd got home safely. 

That's one of the downsides of FaceTime/ WhatsApp/ Snapchat and the rest.  It's  so easy to communicate these days, so when you don't hear you imagine the worst.

The hardest thing for parents at this stage is letting our kids make their own mistakes.

The phone's no substitute for a hug

Anyway the phone's no substitute for a hug -  for just clapping your eyes on your precious  son or daughter and seeing how they really are.

Because it's hard to tell how they're doing from the phone. Kids tend to ring their parents when they're feeling blue.  One minute they're in floods of tears down the phone,  but within hours they're off with mates, feeling a lot better.  The trouble is,  you don't know that.

Be reassured by what students say 

 One of the students I interviewed for my book, Rebecca,  was very reassuring:
'Parents shouldn't take it personally when their kids don't call, because at university you're running around so much that you can only remember to do things which are right in from of your face.
Whenever my parents called me I would always feel really chuffed, partly because they didn't ring all the time, unlike some of my friends' parents who rang every single day and always knew what they were doing. When my parents called it meant a lot - just knowing they were thinking about me.'


  • Don't expect a call or text every day.  Letting go means you have to back off.  That can be hard at first - painfully hard, sometimes.
  •  It's hard at first, but have faith in your child and it will get easier.
  • If he/she never rings,  agree on a regular  time once or twice a week which suits you both. 
  • If you're worried by not hearing from them,  tell them how you feel.
  • Ask for the phone number of one of their close friends - but use only in emergencies!
  • Take the lead from your son or daughter. Some kids like a chat once a week, some ring every day.
  • Ignore other parents who go on about how their son/daughter rings all the time for long chats!
  • Don't forget that not ringing is probably a good sign: they're having a great time.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Dropping your student at uni: how to say goodbye

It's nearly here - the moment you've been dreading.  Soon you'll have to do one of the hardest things  any parent has to do: say goodbye to the child you've nurtured and protected since they were born.

I've always hated saying goodbye. And with my kids I've never got it quite right - even with years of practice. But I have picked up some helpful tips from other empty nest parents which should make things easier for you - and your child.

Before he/she leaves, write a note or a card which says the things you'll probably be too choked up to say when the dread moment arrives. Slip it into their bag to find when they're unpacking.

Play it by ear:  It's hard to predict whether your student will want you to leave immediately or hang around.  And even when you've got there it's often hard to tell from their body language what they want you to do.  I always felt I got it wrong: I should have stayed longer/I should have left earlier…..but the truth is, it's pretty impossible to get this right!

...for a night nearby. That way you'll be around if they want to go out to dinner. But make your own contingency plans for your evening too  - check out movies and concerts beforehand -  because with any luck you'll be spending the evening alone while they go out with new friends.
And the last thing you need is to be drowning your sorrows with only the mini bar for company.

This is their chance to make new friends.  So leave them to it.  Slip away to the shops/cinema/caff and text  later to see how they're getting on. 

Make an excuse to talk to your child alone.  Saying goodbye in front of a group of students makes everyone even more tense. And if you start sobbing, it could be embarrassing.

 Airport goodbyes have got to be the hardest, because they're super-charged with emotion. Suddenly your child is off through the security gates and you're not going to see them for a year.  Don't prolong the agony (as I always did - big mistake)  by lingering around for the final glimpse of that precious back. And if you need to have a quick sob in the loo before you embark on the journey home.

Remember it's hard for your child too, even if she/he doesn't let on how nervous he is.  They're the ones  making the big leap into the unknown (well to be fair, you are too…..) 

 DON'T get too hung up about NOT crying in front of your child.  On balance, it's probably best to fight back the tears and it's definitely a bad idea to have a total meltdown in front of them - save that for the journey home.  But experts like the wise psychotherapist Phillip Hodson says a few tears are fine; kids like to know they'll be missed.