Many years ago, an elderly woman collared me in the street and ‘coochie-cooed’ my toddler son and baby boy. ‘Enjoy them while you can, dear,’ she said. ‘They’re all grown up before you know it.’
If I’d had a decent brain cell left that wasn’t sleep deprived I would have responded with a tart, ‘Can’t come around too soon for me, lady”. Leaky breasts and children who squealed like whistling kettles in the night did not gel with my experience of other people’s well-fed, smiling children.
By the time I was knee-deep in nappies and anklebiters, it was clear to me that motherhood was like belonging to the mafia. You can never leave it. It may leave you – in fact it usually does after a couple of decades – but you can never ditch the job description. Children give you sleepless nights, the terrible twos, and the importuning thirty-twos…when they give you more sleepless nights, heartburn and a chance to give up your Saturday nights all over again.
American psychologist Marie Hartwell-Walker says that leaving home isn’t an event, but rather a process of them growing up and us letting go. She doesn’t know the half of it. What about us growing up when they let go? We’ve done our duty. We’ve loved our children unconditionally, protected them in their innocence and taught them our values by example. If we’ve done a good job we’ve produced a marked improvement on the earlier model; we’ve prepared them for life after us. But where do we go next?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I see that now. That woman was right. Before you can say Empty Nest Syndrome (ENS), you have a spare room or two to fill.
I had this fantasy in those long-ago days crouched on the toilet seat, with a copy of Cleo and a pair of earmuffs to block out the entreaties from the other side of the door. Like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, all I wanted was ‘a room somewhere’. I wanted a child-free den of my own, a rocking chair and an antique writing desk. I wanted a room lined with books where I could sit, read and eat chocolates all day long. The thing about fantasies is that once you can have them they lose their potency.
My whole house was a den. What I wanted post-ENS was a life of my own. But ENS found me unprepared. I’d been given the glad hand and a box of chocolates for work well done. I was free as a bird with nothing to do with my time. Free as a bird in its empty nest. We just love to borrow avian analogies, but no self-respecting bird lets its children hang around for decades the way that we dumb humans do. The chicks get tossed out at what mum perceives to be the most appropriate moment and then she gets on with life.
Go forth old woman and start afresh. That was my idea. Do some brain-cell aerobics and take on a writing course. It was great. I enjoyed the stimulation of learning something that wasn’t child related and even contributed opinions to class discussions that didn’t begin with, ‘You’ll never guess what the children did yesterday’. I only wish I’d done it earlier.
Childbirth was a lark – a breeze compared to emerging from the child-rearing decades rusting away in suburbia. I was a mature age student. My classmates had the confidence, I had the wrinkles. I had the advantage of life experience, they had the benefit of time. Sounds equitable, but they could always get the life experience whereas time was running out for me.
If I’d had to do it again, I’d have prepared for the ENS two minutes after saying ‘I do’.
Feminist Gloria Steinem said, ‘There is no such thing as integrating women equally into the economy as it exists…Not until the men are as equal inside the house as women are outside it.’ With those words ringing in their ears, women have trained their sons so that women can reap the benefits. So take advantage. There are a growing number of fathers who are brilliant at parenting. You see them everywhere on the weekends, confidently feeding their toddlers babycinos, riding their helmeted brood through sub urban streets and guiding their children’s reading material at the local library.
TAFE courses are still affordable. Some tertiary institutions have child care centres tailored to cater to the mature-aged student so you and your children can simultaneously encounter social and educational experiences. Do a university subject to see how you like it. You’ve got a couple of decades to play with. By the time you’re free you will have several degrees under your belt and a new career.
Take up bungee jumping, learn conversational French or the gentle art of flower arranging. Be a good role model for your children. They will thank you for it someday. Whatever you want to be when your children grow up, do whatever it takes to prepare for it so that middle age doesn’t find you wandering the streets with nothing better to do than to accost parents strolling innocently along with their children.