Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Bank of Mum and Dad

A new study into student finances from Experian shows that the vast majority of parents - 79% - have to support their children financially while they're at uni, with some families contributing over  £5,000.  More than two-thirds of us have bailed our children out with cash in an emergency.

Empty nest freedom? 

That's hardly surprising, given the recent hike in fees and the rise in accommodation and other living costs. But what's worrying for  parents is that it's hard to put a finger on how much it's all going to cost.  Many parents seriously underestimate how much they'll have to cough up over the next three or four years.   Just as we were hoping to have a bit of spare cash to make the most of this new stage of our lives, we still have to tighten our belts.

Student independence

For students the university years are a stepping stone to full independence, and learning to live within a budget is part of that.   For parents it's a sometimes nerve-racking phase where they have to let their children make their own mistakes, but  always be ready to pick up the pieces if things go pear-shaped.  The dilemma for parents is knowing when to help and when to let your child get on with it.  If a child runs up huge debts, or a vast phone bill,  should we pay off their overdraft?  

Before your child goes to uni it's a good idea to sit down and discuss how much you can afford to help if they can't make ends meet. If they've already gone, find a quiet time when they next come home.   They need to know that while you're willing to help as much as you can, the bank of mum and dad is not a bottomless pit.  They could get a job to supplement their income - ideally in the holidays, not in term time.  

 How you can help your student manage their cash

  •  There's no harm in asking how your child's bank balance is going. Just don't go on about it!
  •  Make it clear that they can come to you for help without losing face. And that it's best to talk to you before things get out of hand - and they get desperate. 
  •  If you do have to bail them out, and it's a situation that could have been avoided,  sit down together and work out  how to prevent it happening again.
  •  Go through the budget together, looking at where they could make savings.
  •  Make sure they know which big bills they need to keep money back for. The electricity bill can be a nasty surprise if you've never had to pay one before. 
  • Think twice about paying for their phone - tempting though it is. Students need to learn how much of their budget a phone -and all the other necessities of life -  take up.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Marriage and the empty nest

The biggest worry for couples whose kids are leaving home is whether their relationship will survive.
It's understandable: for years the children have been the glue that binds, as well as a good excuse to deny any problems between you.

When you're bringing up kids you just blast on, day after day.  There are few opportunities to stand back and think about your relationship, and before you know it small problems have become the elephant in the room, too big to talk about.  Parents need to be able to take something for granted, and it's usually our partner.

Marriage crisis? 

Then suddenly the kids have gone and one of you  - perhaps both of you - thinks,  Is that all there is?
It's a crisis for many couples.
But a crisis can be hugely positive, an opportunity for growth, a chance to talk properly, perhaps for the first time in years.  And without the kids the romance between you can blossom once again - although the chances are that after all this time it will need a bit of nurturing! There was a feature in The Independent this week about the romance of later-life weddings - in which I talked about my experience of marrying my partner after  37 years together (well, we wanted to be sure …!)
And here are a few tips I've picked up along the way:

How to rekindle the Spark

  • Go on holiday. Just the two of you, no friends, no kids. 
  • Don't give up on sex.  If you need a bit of a reminder Sex expert Suzi Godson's site is packed with good advice.  So is relationship expert  Andrew Marshall's.  He's written a great book on keeping sex alive in long-term relationships, Make Love Like a Prairie Vole (prairie voles mate for life!).
  • Do something new and challenging together. A bike ride? Ice skating? Tango lessons? 
  • Root out the old tunes and dance round the kitchen together.
  • Suggest outings that are romantic to you - a walk in the moonlight,  a concert, a boat on the river.
  • Don't just flop in front of the telly every night.  Have a game of poker, do the crossword, go to the pub.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Good reads for empty nesters

I don't only read novels about the empty nest!   But it's a thrill when you find the subject touched on with great sensitivity and insight, as in these two novels.

Insights and echoes for empty nesters

The first is Olive Kitteridge by the Pullitzer prize-winning writer Elizabeth Strout.  In one of the stories that make up this wonderful novel, it's the father, not the mother, who suffers most from his sons leaving. It precipitates a crisis which threatens to shatter his marriage. Here's a taste:

'He had thought Bonnie might have a bad empty-nest time of it, that he’d have to watch out for her. He knew, everyone knew, of at least one family these days where the kids grew up and the wife just took off,  lickety-split. But Bonnie seemed calmer, full of a new energy...

Something else happened the year Derrick went off to college. While their bedroom life had slowed considerably, Harmon had accepted this, had sensed for some time that Bonnie was “accommodating” him. But one night he turned to her in bed, and she pulled away. After a long moment she said quietly, “Harmon, I think I’m just done with that stuff.”'

'Brooklyn' - a story of Emigration

It's hard for any parent when a child moves an ocean away - as I discovered recently when talking to parents at the American School in London. But in the fifties, when Brooklyn is set,  a time when there was no Skype, and phoning home cost an arm and a leg, it was much, much harder for parents. And it was hard for kids too - it still is. 

The second novel, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin,  is at times an unbearably sad story about emigrating,  written from the adult child's point of view (surprisingly not often heard in empty nest discussions).   

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Kids Just Boomeranged back? Ten tips to cope

If your child has just graduated and moved back home, it's as challenging for them as it is for you.
But what no one tells you is that it can also be a wonderful opportunity to get to know each other - and appreciate each other - as adults.

Here are a few tips to keep life sweet (ish).
But first, some common mistakes parents make (I know, I know…..)


  • Don't do his washing!  Encourage your child to live as independently as possible
  • Don't take it to heart if they criticise you for not using organic polenta. Ask them to do a household shop with a budget to understand the choices you make about food.
  • Don't forget to discuss the new status quo with your partner. Mothers and fathers often have different views about money, independence -  and apron strings! -  so aim for a united compromise.
  • Don't expect to lay down the law.  From now on it's about respecting each other as adults.
  • No curfews. Again, this comes down to mutual consideration.


  • Come to an agreement about how long they're likely to stay.  Make it clear the date can be renegotiated when the time's up. Setting a time limit helps overcome the emotional uncertainty parents often find hard - because you don't know when you'll have to say goodbye again.
  • Renegotiate ground rules to pre-empt the most common sources of tension: noise and mess.
  • Allow each other privacy and space - it's even more important now than when they were teenagers.
  • Let each other know when you're going out for the evening or away for the weekend, and give as much warning as you can.
  • Work out what's a reasonable financial contribution for them to make.
More advice:
my article 'How to Live with your Boomerang students'  in  High50  Don't Bite Your Tongue by Ruth Nemzoff

Monday, 28 April 2014

Feeling sad about your empty nest? Make something

No skills required!

I recommend this to anyone who is feeling sad about their empty nest: make something. It could be a photo album or a collage of favourite family pics, a patchwork cushion or a rag rug.  You don't have to be good at sewing. The key is that you use clothes your kids once wore (I'm the kind of sad person who can't throw this stuff away, so I've got bagsful), or family photographs and mementoes.
The rag rug I'm  making with my husband - using fabric from the clothes our kids wore when they were younger

Leaving home tradition

It's not a new idea. Apparently it's a tradition in some cultures to give adult children a home-made quilt when they leave home or get married.  The friend who told me about this plans to hide secret messages in the bedcover she's making for her son. That way she can say all the soppy stuff she's too embarrassed to say to his face.  The day he flew off on his gap year she made a photo collage of her son's life, from pregnancy to picnics to teenage parties and hospital visits. She sobbed while she was doing it and felt a lot better afterwards.

Face your empty nest

It's a good way of acknowledging the past - and accepting that it is past  - while creating something for the future. But it's also painful!   Sorting through the toddlers' dresses and teenage T-shirts always makes me feel sad and nostalgic.  You can't help thinking, how did that happen? How did someone who is now  6'2" fit into those stripy leggings his grandma knitted? For me clothes, like scent, trigger memories like nothing else.

Face your new direction

But it's cathartic too - therapeutic, even.  The whole process of sorting and deciding which fabrics to put together is deeply satisfying; it feels like a very positive thing to do.

Create your own heirloom

There are times when it feels a bit self-indulgent.  But when you're facing the empty nest there are times  when you need to indulge your need for a good cry - it  really helps.   And it's not just about wallowing in the past: it's a very practical step forward. It's  a way of coming to terms with the passing of an era, and with your feelings about that, while creating something steeped in memories - an heirloom, even -  which celebrates your child's new direction as well as your own.

If you want to make a rag rug it's dead easy - and there are courses and books to show you how. 

More Rag Rugs by Jenni Stuart-Anderson - who also runs fantastic courses 

Making Rag Rugs by Clare Hubbard

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Which top ten life skills would you teach at GCSE?

This question was asked on BBC Radio Gloucestershire yesterday, in response to a report just out which recommends a new GCSE in life skills to prepare teenagers for the working world....and, well, for life.
I have my doubts about exams in perseverance, self control, the ability to bounce back from set backs - and all the other so called 'soft skills' the report talks about.  And I'm not sure these things are best learnt in after school clubs -  surely this is the stuff of life -  real, family life with all its ups and downs?

So I reckon it would be much better to teach practical skills - the kind of thing that makes teenagers genuinely self-sufficient, emotionally and otherwise.  OK, I know, why should already overburdened schools have to teach this stuff?  Of course they shouldn't have to. Us parents should be imparting it - just as my dad taught me to paint and decorate and my mum taught me to use a sewing machine. It was part of life.

Here are the top ten skills I wish I'd taught my kids (and failed miserably, mostly)

1.  How to change a plug/fuse and how not to electrocute yourself.

2.  How often to change  sheets and wash  towels.
(One friend of mine was horrified to discover that her daughter hadn't changed her sheets once in the whole of the first term at uni.)

3.   How to clean the bath, cooker etc and which products to use where.

4.  Food hygiene.  Why it's important to clean the chopping board after cutting up raw meat. How to defrost, why you can't refreeze etc. Sell-by dates and when to ignore them

5. How to drive. I'm a rubbish driver myself so I know how important this is.

6.  How to mend clothes

7.  How to feed yourself on £20 a week.

8.  How not to shrink the socks your mum knitted you (OK that was my fault).

9.  How to look after a plant.

10. And last but definitely not least: How to be kind and think of others, especially your mum.