It's half term this week, but not if you've got an empty nest. For those of us whose kids have left home half term, like Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night, is yet another poignant reminder of the way life used to be, and of all those precious bucket-and-spade moments which were fun because they were shared.
Going on holiday without children came up on the Robert Elms Show on BBC Radio London at the weekend. He was just back from his first holiday without his three and he'd found it a bit weird - a strange mix of liberation and sadness. Talking to him about it on the show - which also featured Cambridge psychologist Terri Apter - made me remember how much I used to hate the idea of holidays without the kids. I'll never forget the empty nest couple we met on our last family holiday, and how superior I felt to have my family with me - I looked at them with a mixture of pity and dread. I couldn't see that in fact they were having a whale of a time (although it was pretty obvious that they were - getting up late and wandering off through the pine forest hand in hand). But then I had a bad case of tunnel vision. It was the summer just before my eldest went to uni, and I was missing him already. I couldn't begin to imagine how you could enjoy a holiday - or indeed life - without your kids.
I can now! Eight years on I almost wonder why I enjoyed family holidays so much - all that worrying and taking five hours to get out of the door. So what's changed? It's partly just getting used to the way things are now, and enjoying the new focus on just us - being carefree and selfish, basically, getting up when we want to and doing exactly what we please. Of course, if we'd done what all the experts advise, and gone on holiday without the kids in the years before they left home, those first child-free holidays might have seemed less daunting. But we never did. It was partly fear of teenage carnage if we weren't around to stop it, partly that there was no one willing to take our three on for a week. But it was much more that we just didn't want to leave them. We wanted to go on holiday with our children. So it was bound to be sad when that era came to an end.
Looking back I can see that booking that first holiday for just the two of you requires a big leap of faith. Before you go it may be hard to imagine what you'll find to do or say without the kids to shape the days or badger you into a decision. It's not until you have a real chance to unwind and spend time with each other that you see how a holiday can bring you closer and help recall what got you together in the first place.
So here are a few tips:
* Choose your destination and timing carefully. Out of school holidays may be cheaper, but you could find yourself surrounded by other middle-aged empty nesters!
* Don't go back to places where you had lovely family holidays.
* Make the most of freedom: go for destinations and activities the kids would have hated.
* Don't always go with friends; it's a bit of a cop out. This is your time.
* Give yourself permission to please yourself - it can be a surprisingly difficult habit to get into after years of pleasing everyone else!