Leaving home is a process. Sometimes we must rip off the band-aid fast and feel the sting; other times ease it off gently.
Number One son, Daniel had launched himself into adult life in spectacular style a few years before. He is now a successful entrepreneur and acclaimed public speaker. Eventually it was Justine’s turn.
The first time our beautiful daughter left home she was 17, straight out of high school as a dazzling, award-scooping High Achiever.
In a blaze of glory she moved to Brisbane city, an hour’s monotonous drive from our Sunshine Coast home. We helped her transport her stuff to the tiny flat with her gal pal and toasted her freedom with a cup of tea over bulging cardboard boxes.
I wandered around our empty house howling, bereft. My grief was premature however. She missed her friends and drove that tedious stretch home every weekend. We relished the whirlwind of her arrival and were dizzily swept up in her hectic social life.
The next year she moved back into her old room to go to college. In Australia we call this moving out and moving back home syndrome a case of Boomerang Kids. How long does a kid act like a boomerang? For some families it lasts throughout their twenties as depicted in the amusing Aussie TV show Packed To The Rafters. But not for us.
Like a magnet, Justine attracted a glittering array of exuberant teenagers. Every night giggling, glamorous, leggy girls would file through our corridor as my husband Andrew and I sat in our PJs watching episodes of Cold Feet, waving and smiling feebly at the youthful parade, feeling frumpy, self-conscious and obsolete.
Our Super Girl landed a plum job in a flash and hoards of the young and beautiful took over the house when, in a neat Baby Boomer twist, we the parents, took off to live for a few months in London and travel the States.
While we gallivanted, Justine and four girlfriends experienced sorority life in the House of Babes; her obligatory taste of communal living with all its delights and challenges!
When we returned from our globe trotting, our baby girl, at the tender age of 20, was ready to leave home for good. The pretty bird had found her wings and was poised to fly the nest, to pursue a career as a film actor.
When we waved her onto that plane, faces streaked with tears, this time we really did confront the bleak silence of the Empty Nest Syndrome.
But leaving home properly is an essential rite of passage en route to adulthood. It is a sad irony that parents, especially mums, if we do our job right and raise strong, capable, independent adults, are destined to be abandoned; at least in that initial wrench.
In Changes That Heal, psychologist Dr Henry Cloud outlines the stages of human development. First, children bond with their mothers, then they must separate from them in order to ‘individuate’; in order to break free from enmeshment and become independent, mature individuals.
As mums, we must encourage our adult kids to leave us. Cheer them on. Take the lead. Be gung-ho. It is the toughest, most brutal call to cut the umbilical cord once and for all. But cut we must.
Some mothers refuse to let their kids grow up. They don’t understand that standing up for themselves in their late teens and early twenties is just another stage of growth. Young adults are hard-wired to leave home as surely as babies must crawl and cruise and walk.
Some mothers cling to the cosy dependency of infancy. They want the bliss of bonding forever. But that kind of smothering only breeds resentment and inhibits maturity. If grown-up kids fail to individuate and master every aspect of adult life, they can form unhealthy co-dependencies in marriage.
If parents are courageous and wise enough to encourage them to leave without guilt or fear, we will be blessed with a new kind of mature relationship when our children blossom into assertive adults; an equal relationship, full of mutual respect and honesty.
In an exhilarating surprise, Empty Nesters discover that we are simultaneously faced with the opportunity to have another shot at becoming strong, independent individuals ourselves in what author Gail Sheehy, in New Passages, calls our ‘Second Adulthood’. I wholeheartedly suggest parents seize their second chance with both hands.
So months after Justine had flown off and made her own nest in Shepherd’s Bush, we knew the ‘leaving home’ ritual was complete and it was safe to take off ourselves. So we landed, dazed and jetlagged, on her doorstep but the very next day started house hunting and instantly found ourselves new digs in West London.
Our little girl officially reached adulthood and returned to Australia to a 21st birthday surprise party thrown by her flamboyant boyfriend, Andy. He gave beautiful Venetian masks to all the young guests dressed in stunning evening wear before limousines gracefully transported them to a charming restaurant in the lush hinterland. Justine celebrated her milestone in grand style. Once again we cried with overwhelming pride.