What you need to know:
- We always think of parents as ‘providers’ - but rarely stop to consider what children offer parents, especially psychologically and emotionally.
- Their transition has been a fine balance between staying present in their children’s lives and gradually letting go by trying to redefine themselves outside of their roles as mothers.
It’s the back-to-school season, and some parents will see their children out of the home for the first time, while some will bid them goodbye for good, as they move out of the nest. Rachel Wambui spoke to women on how they coped with an empty nest.
“My son wanted to go to Canada for his university. I discouraged him and told him it’s too expensive. But the truth is that I feel Canada is too far.”
“Far from what?” I ask her. “Far from here,” she responds. "But everywhere is far from somewhere else…” I challenge.
“Yeah, but at least I can get to the UK in one flight….” she reasons. “Canada is also very immigrant friendly…” I tell her.
“Yeah….but it is too cold…and too far!” she insists.
This conversation happened five seconds before 46-year-old Lillian Musyoka sighed and admitted she is not ready to let go of her 18-year-old twins.
The two are expected to leave for a university in the UK later in the year. This is however not Lillian’s first experience sending a child off the nest.
Three years ago, her first-born daughter, now 21, left for university in the UK. “That was hard,” Lillian says. “But I feel as if this will be harder because now my nest will be completely empty.”
Lillian didn’t want her daughter to go abroad. “I was afraid of what might happen to her, so young and alone in a strange country,” she explains.
It wasn’t until the university application went through that Lillian began to consider the possibility of her daughter’s departure.
It took her daughter’s adamance for Lillian to buckle, but not before she accompanied her daughter to her host country and hovered around campus for three weeks!
“I wasn’t going to leave until I was sure everything was in order!” Lillian laughs. “When I came back home, I went to her room and sat there for hours. I felt sad. And then, it suddenly occurred to me that in the process of visa applications and travelling, I had forgotten about the twins!”
I’ve heard it said that successful parenting is not about raising children UP, but about raising them AWAY.
A friend quips that his grandfather used to call children who don’t move out of home by age of 18 as ‘a failure to launch’.
With this in mind, I ask Lillian whether sitting in her daughter’s newly-vacant room, a part of her felt a sense of accomplishment in having raised a child courageous enough to face the world by herself.
“No,” comes a quick reply. “I only felt accomplished when she passed her exams. I didn’t want her to go abroad! It took me a lot of time to get used to her being gone.”
Things were not much different when Edith Tendwa’s first-born daughter and grandson moved out three years ago.
Asking her how it felt when they left, the 56-year-old mother of three, chokes up, reaches across the table, grabs a paper towel, dabs her eyes, and says, “Sorry…”.
A little composed, she continues, “When I came back home and she wasn’t there, I cried. The absence was more acute because of my grandson — children bring such a vibrant energy in the house — now it felt empty and quiet.”
Edith’s son moved out shortly after. “This time I think I was more prepared,” Edith says.
“But when I took him to his apartment, I still felt sad and cried a bit. I mean, you are happy because you have raised them to start their own lives, but then again you are sad they are leaving you.
In fact, I think my first act of instilling a sense of independence was allowing them to go out when they were young, as long as they stayed in touch and were home in the agreed hour. But moving out of home is a completely different ball game. When they go out or to go to school, you know they’ll be back.”
NEED FOR PROXIMITY
Edith’s children are now 33, 29 and 24. Her youngest daughter has already declared that she will be moving out as soon as she gets a job.
“I think I am ready,” Edith says. “I have known for a long time that it is coming.”
We always think of parents as ‘providers’ - but rarely stop to consider what children offer parents, especially psychologically and emotionally.
“Yes, there’s comfort in having them at home and feeling like you can protect them better if need be,” says Edith.
“But on the other hand, I like having them there, even just for company. That need for proximity never really goes away, even when they become adults. I think it’s good as long as I don’t impose myself on their lives.”
As this interview happens over the December holidays, I tell her that many adult children are feeling obligated to spend Christmas day with their parents, even when they would rather do other things.
“I would not guilt-trip my children for wanting to be somewhere else,” Edith insists.
“The concern that parents feel in such a case is, 'why doesn't this person want to spend time with me?' But I know a time will come when I have to say, okay, I understand you have another life now, and I need to accept that. It’s time for me to see what I can do for myself.”
Speaking about redefining family dynamics, on her part, Lillian admits that her life has been defined by her role as a mother; her life organised around the school calendar.
“I have never been without them,” she sighs. “The only time was when they would go on long class trips and I would get the opportunity to think, haiya, what happens when they are not at home?! My biggest concern right now is that the twins will be going to different universities.
When they are together, if I call one of them and miss them, I can call the other one and ask them where the other is. Now I will be worrying about three children in separate locations!”
“I think my folks dealt with my moving out by throwing a party and turning my room into a study!” says the friend whose grandfather is mentioned above.
But neither Lillian nor Edith express such enthusiasm. Yes, both have transformed their children’s rooms into a guest room and an office, respectively.
But their transition has been a fine balance between staying present in their children’s lives and gradually letting go by trying to redefine themselves outside of their roles as mothers.
Edith takes care of herself by choosing to work even after retirement and making a conscious effort to hang out with her friends.
But make no mistake, she does touch base with her children on a regular basis, if not daily. “Constant communication has helped in dealing with the transition,” she says.
“I think the kids love, and need to, stay in touch as well. I also ensure we have regular family get-togethers. Scheduling individual meet-ups is also important as they are all different. This way we can share intimately on how each is doing.”
“It must be nice!” I say to Lillian, “to be only 46 and have sent your kids away to college!”
“You think so?!” “Yes! You have a full life ahead of you!” “I suppose so…” she says.
And then, as if affirming her position, she continues: “I can now focus on business and work. I can even go back to school. I can hang out with other women. I have played my part. Though, I might never completely let go of them….”
Just then, her phone rings, she glances at it and then she says to me (and this is true; I swear!)… “Excuse me, she tells me, sorry, let me just tell my mum I’ll call her back... (talks on the phone)….mum, I’ll call you back, okay? (back to me)….but the thing that has really helped me cope with my daughter’s absence is that she communicates.
I was told that once the kids leave they never pick up or return calls. In fact, someone dared me to call her and see if she would pick. I called and she picked. So I realised how they behave after they leave the nest depends on how you have raised them.”
CULTIVATE SEPARATE LIFE
Lillian derives a lot of comfort in the fact that her daughter loves to visit every year.
“She was so eager to leave that a part of me thought she was wanted out badly. But now when she insists on coming home, I’m comforted knowing that I created a home they want to come back to.”
But because mothers will always be mothers, Lillian has found a way to keep tabs on her daughter, specifically by forging a relationship with her dorm-house caretaker.
“He texts me when he hasn’t seen her in a while. Then I text her and ask ‘how come Frank has not seen you in a while, kwani you are not staying in your house?!’ And she says, ‘mum, I’ve been busy, but okay, let me go see him so he can see me.’ She gets annoyed sometimes but I am her mother…” Lillian shrugs and sips her tea.
Beyond parenting. Back to self.
Opinion has it that the best way to cope is to ensure you cultivate a separate life early on.
“You know, I saw that in my sister….her kids grew up and went away and she had an identity crisis that only ended when she got grandchildren,” says a spiritual adviser I consulted.
He however reckons his sister’s crisis wasn’t so much resolved as it was enabled.
“Now she has become a grandmother,” the 60-year-old opines. “Now she has another identity. This takes away the opportunity of looking inside and finding out who she really is.
This should be the perfect opportunity for parents to rediscover their own individuality. It is the death of one self and birth of another. But I do understand that death is scary.”
At the end of our conversation, it occurs to me that transitioning through the stages of life may, to some, feel a lot like the stages of grief - first denial, then anger, bargaining, depression…and finally, acceptance.