The painters are swarming round our house, getting it ready to sell. We are leaving the family home, spending our days sorting through the detritus of a life well-lived, a life that saw all of our six children coming home for the pandemic, eight of us sitting down at the battered old kitchen table for dinner every night, everyone fighting for space as we cooked our way through the isolation.
Now that family life is over, I know I have to define myself all over again.
It was a lovely reminder of what family life used to be like, when the children were small, and did what they were told, and the only one cooking (and cleaning up afterwards), was me. Which was quite unlike having four huge hairy boys underfoot, sprinkling flour over every surface as they baked sourdough bread, with the girls doing constant workouts, loud music emanating from their bedrooms as the floors thumped above my head.
A house with no family to fill it
The pandemic ticked along, and gradually the children started to leave. One to look for a job in the city, two back to University, two doing remote schooling while juggling jobs in ski resorts. And now my youngest will be gone soon as well, starting University in September, in England, the place I’d left over 20 years ago for my new life here on the East Coast.
So here we are, sitting in our family home, but soon with no family to fill it, I am simultaneously counting down the minutes, and dreading it. I like looking after people, and I love when the house is busy. When piles of teenagers and young adults are sitting around the kitchen counter, when there is laughter, and teasing, and conversations about philosophy that go completely over my head.
I have done far too good a job in raising children who are self-sufficient
Despite the number of adult children who choose to return home in these unstable times, I’m pretty sure that my children are far too independent to come home for any longer than a few days at Christmas. Unfortunately, I realise somewhat too late, I have done far too good a job in raising children who are self-sufficient. They can each cook, and have been doing their own laundry since they were tiny. They have all had jobs – waitressing/bartending/restaurant work – nothing teaches humility like working in the service industry.
Can children be too independent?
I wish I had pushed them towards independence a little less. I wish they needed me a little more. I will always be their mum, but my mothering days are over, and dealing with an empty house is the least of my worries. I have found myself, these past few weeks, re-evaluating everything in my life, aware that I am now about to step into the second act, and it is likely to be entirely different from the first. Now that family life is over, I know I have to define myself all over again.
The perfect family house
Our house, Creaky Cottage, is the first casualty of this change. What wonderful memories it holds, the happiest house we have ever lived in. Its white clapboard structure perches on a tidal creek in Connecticut. Hours have been spent watching the birds, boating from our dock, drinking cocktails with friends on the porch. Thousands of family dinners have been served at the old, bashed-up kitchen table, and Christmas is spent gathered around the fireplace in the living room.
I hoped, we would stay here forever, but this is a family home, that needs a family.
But the children don’t need our beloved house in the way they once did. I thought, I hoped, we would stay here forever, but this is a family home, that needs a family. With five bedrooms, this is a house that comes alive with children, with feet running through, with noise and laughter.
Leaving the family home — the realisation
I have been feeling so lost, so unsure about what the future holds, I have spent much of the past few months in bed, hoping that someone else would tell me how it will unfold. Two weeks ago, I pulled myself together. Life isn’t going to continue the way it has been, and maybe that’s a very good thing. After all, publishing is rather more unpredictable than it has ever been. The good news is, my husband and I really like each other, so the prospect of being alone together without any distractions is unlikely to send us heading to the divorce court. I’m really looking forward to us being able to give each other undivided attention.
And we don’t need all that space. Post-Covid, the property market is stronger than ever before, with houses in my coastal town going for record prices now that everyone is trying to escape the city for more space. It was almost as if hanging on to our house was hanging on to a life that isn’t ours anymore. The children are not coming back. Those bedrooms will continue to be both immaculate, and empty.
What comes next after leaving the family home
So it finally occurred to us that we could do something completely different with our lives. Friends of ours have rented their house and gone off on a boat for a year, sailing round the Caribbean and the Bahamas – Americans think of the Caribbean as their backyard so it’s not as grand as it sounds. My husband has tried to convince me that this is what we should be doing, but I am not so sure. I think I am finally ready to embrace change. Real change. Not just swapping one house for another.
The world is our oyster. I didn’t think I was ready for it.
We started to talk about what we might do, where we might go; what the second half of our lives might look like. Perhaps we will go to live in India for a while, in order for me to research a new book set in Rishikesh in the 1960’s. Perhaps we will fulfil a lifelong dream to own a small farm, to homestead, to raise chickens and goats, to throw pop-up suppers and set up a weekly farmer’s market, to sell our own goat cheese and eggs, candles scented with herbs from the farm.
As a novelist, I can work from anywhere. My husband, who once worked in investment, is now a therapist. Covid means that he can work from anywhere too, Zoom having changed all of our lives forever.
Beginning our next chapter
The world is our oyster. I didn’t think I was ready for it. I’m still not sure, but there’s no changing it. Sometimes I wake up at three in the morning, terrified. Are we doing the right thing, selling a home we love as much as this? Where will we end up? Are we completely out of our minds? Other nights I wake up at three in the morning, filled with excitement and possibility.
I have learned that there is nothing harder than living in discomfort, living with the unknown, but sometimes great change comes when you are able to do it, to stop for a while and let life unfold in the way it is supposed to.
And so, I don’t know what the second act holds exactly, but I do know that life is where you look, that if I am willing to embrace change, to let life unfold as it is supposed to, to embrace it all as part of the journey, it will be fine, and I will end up exactly where I am supposed to be.
I don’t know whether that is as a novelist, a writer, a candle-maker, an artist, or a farmer. But I do know that finally, finally, I’m ready to be something other than a mother who is counting the minutes until her children return. Finally, I’m ready to close the door on the family home.
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