posted on December 5th, 2019
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Empty Nest Syndrome – Ian Sansom


This month, Ian Sansom finds himself readjusting to life without his children at home. 

So, finally the moment has arrived, as we knew it would and as we know it must; the house is empty.

After twenty-three years of raising children, we’re alone together again, just as we were in the beginning.

‘You won’t know what hit you’, says a friend. We say we’ll be fine, thank you. No empty-nest syndrome for us! we are made of sterner stuff. We have rich, full and meaningful lives. We are mature, intelligent people with wide-ranging interests, full-time jobs, and plenty to keep us occupied.

But they’re absolutely right, of course. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. All of our usual routines and rhythms have been upset. It’s like we are living someone else’s life, and it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t quite fit. Nothing is the same. Everything has changed. September can come around but there are no school uniforms to buy, no last-minute trips to Eason’s, no arguments about skirt lengths and haircuts and suitable shoes. No need for packed lunches. No new exercise books to cover. No tears and no tantrums – and that’s just me. It’s the little things; after decades of setting out the breakfast stuff for the whole family, now it’s just the two of us, so really what’s the point of putting out the cereals and the peanut butter? You’ll grab something on the way to work and I’ll sit and eat last night’s leftovers: I made enough to feed everyone. Are you sure I can’t tempt you to some cold aubergine and feta bake?

We’re talking about taking up new hobbies and pastimes. Maybe it’s finally time for that Italian conversation class at the tech on a Tuesday night? What about getting back to swimming? Maybe now we’ll have time to clear out the shed and the attic? How about replanting that border in the garden? Fixing the gate? Getting fit? Going macrobiotic? But first, let’s plan our next big get-together. Christmas? Easter? Summer? We need to check on everyone’s availability – but no-one knows where they’ll be or what they’ll be doing.

Illustration by Jacky Sheridan 

There are no pick-ups or drop-offs, and no extra-curricular activities, so maybe we could meet after work one night and go out for dinner, or to the cinema? Maybe even both? We could call it a date night, like they do in America? What about a weekend away? We haven’t been on a weekend away without children for almost a quarter of a century. Whole empires have come and gone since: the last time we went on  a weekend away you had to ring to book your flight, and then a room, and then take a chance with local buses and restaurants; AirBnB hadn’t been invented; there was no Uber; no Tripadvisor; and there were no low-cost flights to cheap, possibly second-rank and ever-so-slightly obscure European cities.

Overnight, the house has grown too big. It seems suddenly haunted by memories and photographs, though looking at the photos I realise that we seemed to stop taking photos about ten years ago, the exact point at which we got mobile phones with cameras, because who prints and mounts the photos they take on their phone? So the children in the photos never seem to have reached adolescence: they remain forever children. I wish now I’d hung onto the camera.

I think I half-expected to emerge from the long experience of raising children with some kind of wisdom and insight but in all honestly, looking back, I seem to be about as ignorant now as the day our first child was born; I hadn’t a clue then, and I haven’t a notion now. We made it all up as we went along: everything was improvised.

“Overnight, the house has grown too big. It seems suddenly haunted by memories and photographs.”

I remember reading an interview in a magazine with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips – he is excellent, Adam Phillips – and the interviewer remarked that though he loved Phillips’ books he could never really remember anything about them. Phillips was delighted. ‘That’s the reading experience I’ve always loved. Certainly when people say to me, as they often have done, “I can’t remember anything afterward,” I think, Great, that’s the point! The work is not there to be repeated or identified with, but something works on you.’

I know something happened there, over all these years. I couldn’t tell you what it was. But I do know it was worth it.

Ian Sansom writes for The Guardian. He is the author of the County Guides and the Mobile Library series of novels. His most recent books are The Sussex Murder and September 1st, 1939 (both published by HarperCollins). 

This article appeared in our December 2019 issue.