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 families are different.  Some parents expect to be in touch with their kids every day.  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 social media. 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.

What your student REALLY needs is....

You can't move at this time of year without offers for student starter packs and comprehensive checklists (thanks for this one,  John Lewis).

It all feels quite comforting.  It makes you feel like you're in control when inside you're seriously panicking about what the future holds. It's a way of fending off the terrifying notion that you've done your job: from now on you'll have to let your child make his or her own mistakes.

Of course, it goes without saying that students don't need all this stuff.  (I'm not proud to admit that I packed my eldest off without a duvet, so he froze through the Newcastle nights with the cheapest 4.5 tog he could afford.)

This is what they really need to get a head start:

  •   a couple of recipes for quick  healthy microwave meals
  •   something comforting from home.   A recent survey found that nearly a third of students take their old teddy. 
  •  a note or card from you - saying the stuff you'll forget to say when you wave goodbye

And OK, this is cheesy,  but what they really need is to know that you'll always be there when they do make their own mistakes.

Nest just emptied? This might help

Everyone reacts differently when their kids first leave home.  Some parents take it all in their stride - they just get on with the next thing.  But most of us go through a confusing mix of emotions -  sadness, grief, pride, relief ….

When each of my children first left I felt weirdly disconnected - not just from them, but from my whole life.  It seemed so strange that the person who started life inside me - protected by my body and in those first 18 years by my love  -  was now out in the wide world, beyond my care.  Even though I loved my work my kids were the beating heart of my life.

For me the first couple of weeks were a matter of simply getting through - I cried a lot, felt a bit pointless and got seriously addicted to Deal or No Deal.  It filled that hole in the afternoon when I used to hear my daughter's key in the door.

Sorry,  Noel, but there are better ways to cope - as I've discovered from talking to other empty nest parents:

How to cope

  • People tell you to keep busy. It's true, it helps.  But it's also important to allow yourself time and space to acknowledge what you're feeling about what's going on in your life.
  • Have a good cry and then phone a friend or go shopping.
  • Think about the simple things that make you happy, and make sure you do at least one of them every day. For me that's knitting and reading a really good book.  
  • This one's tough: Try not to think too much about your son or daughter and when you're next going to see them. 
  • Instead, shift the focus on to you, and what you really enjoy doing. 
  • Make a list of stuff to do before the Christmas holidays. 
  • Find something new to nurture: grow veg,  take in a student lodger. But don't get a dog  - bad for spontaneity.
  • Get in touch with old friends you've been meaning to ring….
  • Talk to a good mate - not someone who'll say 'Cheer up, he'll be back soon...'
  • Grab a box of tissues and watch Mamma Mia - the ultimate empty nesters' movie
  • Don't beat yourself up about making the most of your free time.  This is one of the biggest  adjustments parents have to go through,  and it takes time.  
  • Give yourself a massive pat on the back: launching your child into the world is a huge achievement - one that is not acknowledged enough.  We should celebrate it more.  

Monday, 19 September 2016

Being sad isn't all bad

I've just read an extract from Dr Tim Lomas' latest book,  The Positive Power of Negative Emotions  (Piatkus). In it he talks about the good side of our most 'negative' emotions - boredom, guilt, anxiety.   He says the loneliness of the empty nest should be viewed as a highly productive 'oasis of calm',  with potential for real independence.

He writes,  'If you're an empty nester you may find you've forgotten what your own voice sounds like after being drowned out for so long. Slowly you'll reassert your independence, remember the dreams you once had and the places you longed to visit - this can emerge not in the midst of a hectic life, but as a result of peaceful solitude. '

So take heart if your child has just left. It may take a while to find a new direction - but it really is the unexpected silver lining.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

New direction Step 1: Change the house

The transformation begins: the night before the wall came down
My husband loved this wall.  It separated the playroom from the telly room and gave him a private space to practise the piano.  In fact he loved the wall so much that for 29 years he refused, point blank,  to knock it down.

Finally I persuaded him.  The wall's gone.

It used to feel so sad, the prospect of staying in the house where the kids grew up, with just the two of us instead of five.  The place was full of memories - good and bad.  You could feel the kids' absence in every room.

And when they first left I didn't feel like redecorating.  The dust needed to settle.   Anyway what was the point?  We might move,  downsize, like so many empty nest couples.

Moving is a much clearer statement that you're moving on yourself.   I don't rule it out.   But for the time being a revamp feels just as good as a move. The memories are still in the ether, but they've been scattered to make way for new ones, a different energy.  The blood's still on the walls, but it's been covered with a fresh coat of paint. This feels like a brand new start for a totally new kind of life.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Counting down to your Empty Nest? How to prepare

                                             print by Carol Wilhide

It's hard to know how best to prepare for the empty nest because you really have no idea how it's going to hit you.  You might end up driving back down the motorway with tears streaming down your face,  or you might just feel it's all...well... OK.

But you can start preparing now by thinking creatively about what your new life will be like and the different ways you might adjust to a new routine. You can prepare your child too. They'll be much happier if they know the basics of looking after themselves.

 However, the main thing now is to shift your focus away from your child and back on to you. To explore what you really like doing, and discover what truly fulfils you.
  • Think about the times you're likely to miss your child the most, and make a plan to fill the gap: listen to a podcast, phone a friend,  meet someone. 
  • Make a list of stuff you know will cheer you up when you're down
  • Plan treats for the week after they've left - the more self-indulgent the better
  • Look into courses that interest you.
  • Sit down with your partner and make a list of stuff you'd like to do together over the next year.  Don't think 'He/she wouldn't like line dancing/birdwatching/ going to the footie. You might be surprised. 
  • Book a fabulous holiday and weekends away

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Nostalgic for your children's childhoods? Talk to a new mum

If the smell of banana sandwiches makes you come over all dewy-eyed about your children's childhoods,  try talking to a new mum. It's a great reality check.

I met one the other day.  OK, her baby looked adorable, and I envy her in so many ways: that mad besotted love, the burst of creativity, the way life's possibilities stretch ahead limitlessly.

But in so many other ways I really don't envy her: working on deadlines into the wee small hours, snatching a few hours' sleep before the 5 am feed,  boxing and coxing with your partner instead of being romantic,  searching for good childcare.  Never mind the heart-wrenching anxiety when your child gets ill.

Having babies and small children was the best time of my life - no question.  It made me what I am,  it informs everything I do and think.  I know how lucky I am to have had that time.

When my children first left I felt hopelessly nostalgic for their toddlerhood,  full of regret for all the things I did and didn't do.  I still do, a bit.  But I really really wouldn't want to go back there.