Friday, 23 October 2015

What can you do when you're feeling blue?

There are bound to be bad days  -  days when you miss your child desperately and mourn the end of family life.   Nothing can distract you, and the idea of having more time to yourself is no compensation at all.
Facing that stark emptiness is hard. Here's how I coped: simple steps, but they got me through:


  • Think of a simple activity you can rely on to make you feel better,  and make time for it every day. If nothing springs to mind, it's worth reflecting on  - look back to what you enjoyed as a child for clues.  
  • Get a pile of DVDs you really want to watch (no duffers) and get stuck in.
  • Make playlists of tunes that make you sad and tunes that make you happy. Alternate between the two. 
  • Do something you can do on auto-pilot that's creative: for me that's knitting, baking a cake and rag-rugging. Or maybe one of those adult colouring books and Magic/Classic FM?   
  • Listen to Radio 4 dramas
  • Write your diary. 
  • Swim
  • Compile a book of inspiring quotes.  My favourite is from Nile Rodgers of disco legends Chic.    When asked how he coped with cancer Rodgers quoted Finding Nemo.  'When life gets you down you know what you've got to do: Just keep swimming, swimming, swimming….Just keep swimming….'

Monday, 28 September 2015

Do students need workshops on sexual consent?

Oxford and Cambridge introduced compulsory workshops for new students last year, and other universities are following suit.  I've just joined a discussion on BBC Radio Sheffield, which heard some alarming experiences from students who'd been groped, even raped.

Their stories are backed up by a series of studies by the National Union of Students which found that one in four students suffer unwelcome sexual advances. Meanwhile a report published in 2013 by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the ONS said that female students are at higher risk of sexual violence than the general population.

A new worry for parents

It's worrying for parents left behind at home, coping with the uncomfortable notion that our job's done and from now on we have to let our kids make their own mistakes - a scary prospect.   It's hard not to think about all the conversations you should have had about sex, all those missed opportunities.

I suspect I'm not the only parent who has never had a conversation about sexual consent with any of my kids - my sons or daughter.  For us Brits it's difficult to talk about sex, but in this context it feels like a poor excuse.
Because  Freshers' Week seems a bit late for this discussion: surely consent should be part of sex education - at school and with parents - when kids are still at home.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Things getting tense in your nearly-empty nest? Here's how to cope

A friend once said her son had to 'trash the nest'  before he could leave it - and her.   For months before he left home he was bolshy and rude  - a far cry from the adoring toddler who sobbed his heart out whenever she left him.

So when her son finally got his own place she was glad to see the back of him.  At the same time she felt guilty and sad that they'd parted on such bad terms.

She's not alone.  Tension is par for the course in the final weeks before kids leave home.  Yet it's easy to feel you're the only one,  that other families are happily bonding over shopping trips for mugs and duvets. By contrast you're snappy, sulky and eating meals in silence.  And always there's the horrible feeling that time is running out - it seems such a waste of precious last days together.

It helps to take a long-term view.    You're almost certain to find you get on a lot better when you don't have to do their laundry and remind them to do their homework/wear a bike helmet.  University is great at making kids appreciate home - and their parents.   It won't be too long before it's a relationship  between two adults.

My friend's son who trashed the nest now gets on like a house on fire with his mum.  She looks back on the trauma of him leaving home as what it was - a blip in their relationship. Temporary, although at the time she thought it would never end.

And remember, you're not the only one feeling anxious and unsure about the future. Behind that cool facade your son or daughter is probably just as nervous as you.

 You're both stepping out of your comfort zone, but you, at least, are staying on familiar territory.


  • Don't be offended if your son or daughter is never at home. They've got a lot of goodbyes to say to friends/girlfriends/boyfriends. 
  • Arrange a farewell dinner - somewhere they want to go.  Agree on a time that suits everyone
  • If they're anxious or unconfident stress the positives about uni without piling on the pressure. 
  • Acknowledge their achievement in getting a place (just not in front of mates or sibs, obvs)
  • Don't just focus on their needs. Make plans for your own future: indulgent treats and nights out to cheer you up when you miss them, weekends away, evening classes.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Starting School: 5 Mistakes Parents Make

I vividly remember my son's first days in Reception - not a happy time.  He cried every day for weeks, and so did I!  Much later we realised he was short-sighted and needed specs, which must have added to his sense of bewilderment. That was just one of my mistakes - here are a few more And how to avoid them!

*Don't expect your little one to tell you all about their day

Of course you're dying to hear!  But don't feel hurt if they don't answer your questions. Be patient: your child will be tired - and the information will trickle out in the end! 
But it's worth bearing in mind that this is a tough adjustment for any parent:  accepting that your child now has his own separate world.  
You could try this:  
Get involved by helping in the classroom or with school outings. It's a great way to get to know the other kids - and the teachers. 
But ultimately you have to accept your child's growing independence - it's a cause for celebration, after all!

* Don't beat yourself up

If you don't achieve huge amounts while they're at school.  At first the hours between dropping up and picking up feel like an eternity, but before you know it your child will be home for tea.

You could try this: 
Allow yourself a period of adjustment, to take stock of what you want to achieve. Make a realistic list of a things you'd like to do by the end of term. 

* Don't regret what you haven’t done

Many parents in my book felt they hadn’t spent enough time playing with their children - they'd been too busy to simply enjoy them.  This was just as common among full-time mums as working mothers.

You could try this:
Dig out old photos, which will remind you how much fun you had - as well as peeling potatoes and sorting socks.
And talk to your partner and friends about their memories.
Remember, you'll still have plenty of time together in the evenings and at weekends.

* Don't assume your partner isn't feeling sad too 

Even if his or her daily routine isn't affected as much as yours. 
You could try this: 
Talk to each other about how you feel about this big transition, which is likely to be a mix of pride, anxiety, hope  - as well as sadness - and don't assume he or she will dismiss your feelings as silly.  

Don't ignore your other children's feelings

A younger child will probably miss their sibling too, especially in the first few weeks. 
They may also be a bit  jealous of their sibling’s exciting new life at school - even the uniform! 

You could try this:
Make sure they have some new kit of their own: a special pencil case, a drawing book. You could choose it together. 
Emphasise the positives: having more time on your own together.
Plan some outings.  They'll  love having more of your attention!

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

'US' - the perfect read for Empty Nesters

'Last summer, a short time before my son was due to leave home for college, my wife woke me in the middle of the night…
"I think our marriage has run its course. I think I want to leave you."'

Empty nest crisis

This is the cracking start of David Nicholls' follow-up to One Day.  Us is a painfully familiar portrait of a family on the brink of a massive empty nest crisis and a father on the verge of breaking down.  That sounds deadly serious, but it's funny too, and that's probably why it hits home so hard.

Fathers and sons

What I loved most is the honest portrayal of the agonising relationship between father and son.  And the acknowledgement that it's not just mothers who feel the impact of the empty nest.  This dad is totally thrown by it.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Should I throw my kids' stuff out?

Empty nest decluttering

I've just been on BBC Radio Sheffield's breakfast show to talk about a new survey. Huge numbers of  empty nest parents get rid of their children's stuff as soon as they leave home, apparently.

My gut reaction is No! Please don't do it!  Adult children need their own nest to come back to when life gets tough.  Their old stuff is a kind of dependable comfort blanket.   I'll never give away my son's old Tintins - much as I'd like the shelf space -  because he always heads straight for them when he comes home.  And I confess I've even got a battery-operated toy poodle from my own childhood.

The liberation of the empty nest

It took me a couple of years to clear out my kids' rooms.  It didn't help that they weren't keen on the idea,  and it felt wrong to chuck out stuff without them.  In fact it became such a touchy subject that  I used to spring it on them in a kind of 'While you're here would you mind  …?' kind of way.  That was a big mistake - I now know that I should have given them warning. The way I did it everyone just got tetchy.

But it still felt good.  The time was right:  I'd got through the initial sadness and nostalgia and was ready for the next stage.  Now I love having my own workroom, with my own books on the shelves and  no Bob Dylan posters on the walls.  I love having a proper guest room where friends can be comfortable.

Straight down to Farrow & Ball

Parents I interviewed for my book felt the same. One mother was itching to decorate her sitting room and buy a new sofa, but felt there was no point until her messy boomerang boys finally left.  Her sense of frustration was palpable.  As soon as they'd gone it was straight down to Farrow & Ball.

The important thing is that kids - however old they are, and even when they've got families of their own -  feel there'll always be an emotional place for them at home.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Madonna's empty nest blues

It's so great that Madonna has spoken out about her deep sadness when Lourdes left home for uni. 
She said it  was like 'the first heartbreak of my life…..I would go in her bedroom and lie on her bed and cry.  
'I was a mess. It was really hard letting her go. I've come to terms with it but yes, I miss her and she's a part of me. It was like losing my arm.' 

The empty nest affects us all

Madonna must be one of the busiest women on the planet.  And she's probably the last person you'd expect to admit to being so upset.  But just like the rest of us she couldn't stop worrying about whether Lourdes was eating enough and getting enough sleep - and whether her daughter had enough towels and Q Tips!

It's proof - not that we needed it! -  that it's not just stay-at-home mums who are affected when their kids leave.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Great Sex for Empty Nest Couples

No sex to great sex

It's the empty nesters' most common complaint: things have gone a bit quiet - totally silent, even! - in the bedroom.

The years of raising teenagers inevitably take their toll.  It's said that parents put their own lives on hold when their kids are adolescent and exploring their emerging sexuality.

You'd think that once the kids move out it would be easy to get back to the way you were ….But that's not the case. Once you get out of the habit of regular sex it's difficult to get back into it.
For most couples it takes time, effort and sensitivity.

Sex matters

But it's worth giving it your best shot.  There are two obvious reasons:

  1.  When sex is good it's life-enhancing, confidence-boosting, a great form of communication.
  2.  If you and your partner aren't having much sex, the chances are that one of you will have an affair. 

The good news is that empty nest couples have many advantages which mean that sex can be better than it's ever been - even better than when they first got together:

  •  They've got more time, and they're less exhausted by the demands of young children.
  •  At this age many women  experience the fabulous surge of energy and increased libido known as Post Menopausal Zest (PMZ - it's all down to levels of testosterone).
  • Mature sex with a partner you've loved for years can reach dizzy new heights. 
  • No need for contraception is more liberating than you might think.

So here are a few tips:

How to get your sex life back

  • Ask yourself whether you miss sex, and answer honestly! Think back to how you felt about life generally when your sex life was good.

  • Take no notice of what anyone else says about sex not being important at this age, whether it's a friend or a magazine article.  If it matters to you, it matters.

  • Be patient:  a woman's body may take time to remember how good sex can feel.

  • Stop seeing yourself as 'just' a mum.  Treat yourself to new clothes and silk underwear - La Perla (in your dreams) or Rosie at M & S (more realistic but still romantic).

  • Imagine your partner has just told you they've had an affair. How would you feel? It's often annoyingly true that if someone else fancies your spouse it's a terrible turn on (and just think:  imagining how it might feel is so much better than facing the reality).

  • But there's nothing like being direct: take a deep breath, a swig of wine and take the plunge: Just say how great your sex life used to be and you miss it and you'd like to talk about ways of getting it back.

  • Buy a sex book and look at it on your own  - and then together. If you're one of the original Joy of Sex generation, fish out your old copy, or buy Susan Quilliam's updated version. It could be a lighthearted way to kickstart a conversation about the way things used to be, and what you'd like to get back. Betty Herbert's 52 Seductions is good too.

  • Watch a sexy film - either on your own or together. It doesn't have to be full-frontal.  Choose a movie you like, not something that's billed as 'sexy'. (For me that's Silver Linings Playbook rather than 50 Shades).

  • Might be worth trying a supplement like Libido Support from the Natural Health Practice endorsed by the women's health expert Dr Marilyn Glenville.

  • Sex therapists are there to help.  If your partner is reluctant, go by yourself - they'll soon get curious.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Will the worrying ever stop?

Anxiety and the empty nest

One unexpected advantage of the empty nest is that you worry less about your children.  At least I do, most of the time. And that's been a huge relief, because when they were growing up my imagination ran riot with images of muggings and life-threatening illness and fatal car crashes. These days I relish not waiting for their key to turn in the lock; I like not having their lifestyle in my face.

Of course all those nightmarish possibilities haven't gone away. And there are new worries. Will they ever find a job they love? And every parents' eternal anxiety: are they happy?

But two things have changed:
(1)  I've learned that my children can cope without me, even in the most difficult situations.  Indeed they  cope just as well -  if not better - than I would.

(2)  These days I don't usually hear about the bad stuff until it's too late to do anything.  It's still horrible to be shown selfies of my son's gory eye injury, but much easier to deal with now that it's healed up.  I would much rather hear about scrapes and scares after the event - although I admit they come back to haunt me if I let them.  I do my best not to.

Parenting panic 

It's almost as if I've got out of the habit of worrying.  And that can make panic moments harder to deal with.  Because crises invariably happen when you least expect them.

Just as you're learning to believe that no news really does mean good news, and you're starting to enjoy having more time and energy for yourself,  the  phone rings.  There you are, updating your website/ sitting on a Greek beach/having lunch with a friend and it's Alice in a panic from Cambodia. She's lost everything: passport, money, phone…..The line goes dead and there's no way of contacting her,  no way of knowing how it happened: was she attacked? Is she hurt? The next 24 hours are a  nightmare.

In these circs you have no alternative but to drop everything.  Even if there's not much you can do practically, it's pretty impossible to concentrate on anything until you know they're safe.
But there are plenty of less serious situations where it's a much tougher call to know what to do: Drop everything to help? Let them sort things out themselves?

Parents: be selfish!

And sometimes the best thing is to be selfish - to put your own needs, and (just as important) your partner's needs, first.  That's hard to believe (it's hard for me even to write!) because being selfish and being a parent just don't go together.  But parents are allowed to be selfish once the kids have left. It's our time.

Empty nesters' new juggling act

But this new juggling act is perhaps the most difficult one yet: how to forge our own new direction, and learn to live without our children, while still being there for them when they need us.

It took me a long time to get the hang of this. At first I lived my life like a swimming pool lifeguard, lurking around at home just in case I was needed.  My own life was on hold, and that was frustrating.

Then I remembered something one of the wise mums in my book said:  'I know my children are going to get into scrapes.  But I also think they've got the emotional toolbox to cope.'
 And I realised it was time to put myself and my husband's needs at the top of the list.

Tips: How to stop worrying

Drop everything when they're in trouble, of course. But don't change course for minor stuff.  Children learn and grow from making mistakes - our job now they've flown the nest is to let them.

Think hard about your partner's needs, and talk to each other about this new phase of your relationship.

Trust your child and the way you've brought them up.

Try and see them as an outsider would: as an independent, capable adult.

Don't put off booking holidays or weekends away just in case a child might need you.

It's far better to cancel or postpone once in a while than it is not to do stuff at all.

Be spontaneous.

 If you find yourself making excuses not to do something you'd enjoy, question them. Ask yourself why not?