Empty nests, new beginnings - tis the season of new starts but change is difficult
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (September 10th 2023)
And like the beginning of autumn comes with loss
The pic shows the silver birch tree under which I sat and contemplated this morning. It is 31 degrees in my bit of North London but it’s also weirdly autumnal. Tiny yellow leaves floated down in the breeze above me, dancing in the dappled sunlight like phosphorescence in the sea at night. Some of the grasses are turning gold and in my street there is a carpet of brown leaves from the blighted chestnut trees which shed before everything else. This seasonal mash-up is a bit disconcerting; the hottest day of the year coupled with a Fall feel. The summer having the last laugh just as the kids are back at school and my inbox is full of back-to-work woolly fashion. A cashmere gilet? A pair of tweed office trousers? I can’t think of anything I need or want less!
It’s all out of whack.
But maybe that’s how all transitions make us feel. Discombobulated. A bit sad. Stuck with one foot in the past and one in the future simultaneously.
Or maybe that’s just how I feel this week. My baby is off to uni on Thursday. I spent yesterday spring cleaning her bedroom, combing with her through the accumulated stuff of her 18 years. Her precious marble collection; the forest of furry animals who still live in her bed and an alcove. Bundles and bundles of super-neat school work; commendations from her teachers, boxes of revision cards, rainbow-colour coded. So much time, so much hard work. All paying off now as we drive her to Manchester to take up her student room so she can start her course. There is some family hilarity that her dreams of freshers week clubbing have been dashed by a compulsory three day Geography field trip to the Lake district – requiring a calculator, a clipboard and water-proof trousers. She is adamant in refusing the latter, not good for her street cred apparently. I say when the rain is lashing her freezing legs next week and it’s a ten mile trudge back to her hostel she’ll wish she had them. But that battle is lost. I won’t be there to insist. It’s her life now, she will make her own decisions; it doesn’t matter what me and her dad think.
Last week involved a – scorching – trip to Ikea where along with all the other parents and uni-fledglings we bought sauce-pans and bedding, towels and a mighty bank of plugs (so she can charge her speaker, phone, air-pods, laptop and vape simultaneously). I veer between feeling inordinately proud that she has made it to her Uni of choice, with her Hive of mates, who have pretty well lived in our house for the last two years and feeling entirely bereft. Welling up when I think of her room empty, the house devoid of teens. It’s going to be awfully quiet around here.
And there is something bigger too. The end of a massive phase of our lives. We became parents nearly 21 years ago. Practically every day since then we have been tending to kids’ needs; making food, running baths, picking up towels, getting them out of bed, chivvying about homework, hanging out watching TV, going for walks. Being present, keeping them alive. And now the every-day-ness of that is over. In its way that is as humongous a shift as becoming a parent in the first place.
Last weekend I went to a women’s festival. It wasn’t like the usual festivals I go to, there was NO booze, hardly any music. It was a series of workshops, deep dives into the sisterhood, into the programming that makes us who we are. As Simone De Beauvoir said: We are not born women, we become them. Into the trauma that so many women have faced.
On Sunday afternoon I attended a Grief workshop run by a dear friend whose own mother died when she was very young and who has devoted much of her time since then to what she calls Grief Tending, holding circles for the bereaved to share their pain. Now I hold quite a few circles myself for Noon – but not like this. I don’t know whether the festival had particularly opened people up, so by Sunday they were just letting it all hang out, but in a sweltering tent of about 30 people I heard tale after tale of losses so intense and searing I wasn’t sure how these women were still standing up, let alone talking about it to strangers.
There was the loss of parents, partners, children, friends – here, writ large, was the truth that grief is the price we pay for love. But there was also a much more nebulous and tragic kind of loss; loss of the lives the women had expected they might have. Particularly some of the women who had not had, or could not have children. Or one stunningly lovely woman who had suffered familial abuse and could not find a life-partner who saw beyond her looks to her true nature, who feared she would never find the love and intimacy that she so craved. Another talked of growing up behind the iron curtain, with a mother who insisted she did all the house-work for her four brothers (she was the only girl). She cried for the care-free girlhood she had never had, for those years of play and freedom she could never get back and for the way that loss permeated her relationship with her own daughter; how she resented the life she had given her daughter. The toys, the park, the fun that her daughter has and that she craved and never received. The bittersweetness of providing for her daughter things she had never had herself. How that hurt. Another talked of her dreams and ambitions being ended by ill-health; the frustration of all she had wanted now being out of her reach. They wept for all that now could not be.
I had attended to support my friend and when my turn came to share I felt that my own – real to me – grief of my last daughter leaving home was trivial in comparison. I know how lucky I am to have two amazing daughters. I am so proud of them both. I know that in some ways I am fortunate that they are going away; my friend who has a profoundly differently abled child said one of her own massive griefs is that her daughter will never leave home, never be able to live independently. I know that my girls need to spread their wings, that it is a sign that our job has been well done that they are flying off into their own futures. I’ve always loved the Kalil Gibran poem about that, I’ve been reading it today – for fortitude.
“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s
longing for itself
they come through you but not from you,
and though they are with you yet they belong
Not to you
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your
You may strive to be like them
But seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward, nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite
And He bends you with his might
That his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies
So he loves also the bow that is stable.
So that’s the task then. To be the ‘stable bow’ – to swallow down the agony of the departure and the empty nest, to stand strong so that they can venture forth unencumbered. It is not about us and how we feel, it is about them and their journey into their hard-worked-for future. I know this and I know that in comparison to the losses that I sat and witnessed last Sunday my loss is as nothing. But that doesn’t stop it hurting any less.
So I send this out to all of you who are feeling the pangs of the empty nest this week or in the weeks coming. I talked to a friend yesterday who said that whenever she thinks of her youngest son leaving (soon) she wells up and has to keep popping upstairs to dab her eyes. If that’s you, then I send you much love and sympathy; and for you child-free Queenagers, maybe give a friend with an emptying nest a big hug.
The truth is change, or whatever kind, is difficult.
And September is the month of transition; it marks the shift from summer to autumn, the beginning of new projects and the end of others. All endings involve loss and grief. But we have to remind ourselves that in the space that a death leaves there is a space for new things to grow. If we have the courage to see that and to let it.
So whatever your grief today – be kind to yourself. Remember this too will pass and something new will come into your life in its place.
And if you’d like a space to think about transitions, to be in your change and give it some space to process, then we’ve still got a few more places left at our One Day Noon Retreat at Wasing on October 1st.Come and swim in the lake, make some new friends, welcome a new phase with some fellow Queenager travellers and join the Noon Circle. There’s also some gentle yoga to get us in the relaxation mood. If you’d love to come but haven’t got the funds, or know someone who could really do with coming and can’t afford it, then email me and I’ll see what we can do. Eleanor@inherspace.co.uk
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By Eleanor Mills