Recently, I have been surprised by the feelings I experienced on graduating my first child from our little homeschool this summer. On the day of Thomas’ last exam, I placed five books on the Empty Nest Syndrome in my Amazon basket. This was quite the over-reaction given my son wasn’t actually leaving home. In fact, Thomas would just be travelling the thirty minutes to college each day. And, he would be back for dinner each evening, as well as sleeping in his bed each night. Oh, and I would have four other children remaining to teach and spend each day with. Not really an empty nest by any stretch of the imagination!
Yet, the feelings I was experiencing were very real and very raw. There was a literal ache in my heart as I thought about the past 16 years. Yes, there had been struggles, but they really had been few and far between. Most days had been magical.
Thomas had been adored from the moment he was conceived. It was whilst pregnant with him that I first discovered homeschooling. Falling pregnant with twins when he was just a few weeks old meant the next nine months were spent snuggled up to this incredible tiny human being, plotting the adventure we would have in our homeschool.
I loved every inch of his gorgeous chubby body, even more so when the twins arrived. I had been on full alert for any feelings of jealousy towards his sisters, but none came. All he wanted to do was to help mummy in any way he could. He couldn’t talk yet at nine months but he could walk, and helped by fetching nappies, and cuddling one twin whilst I was attending to another. I had three babies, but never felt alone. Thomas and I were partners, as we both worked together whilst Daddy was greenkeeping.
I still have memories of sitting crossed legs feeding both twins at the same time, each cradled by the crook of my legs, with Thomas, just nine months old, feeding himself with a bottle, snuggled up to my side. I remember Thomas and I playing quietly in mine and Gary’s room, whilst the twins slept in their cradles. And, I remember just how exhausting parenting three babies was, and how much easier Thomas made it simply by being him.
When they were three, we moved to Northern Ireland. Gary was unable to move out for another three months. I was alone in a country where I had no close friends or my own family living nearby, with three three-year-olds. I missed Gary like I would miss an arm if an arm had been cut off my body. But Thomas. He has always been much older than his years, and he has always been fiercely protective of his sisters and taken his job as big brother and mummy’s helper very seriously.
Moving to Northern Ireland was probably the making of me. Being forced to stand on my own two feet was cathartic and confidence building. The next four years passed is a happy haze. Goodness did I enjoy being a mum! I remember being told by a wonderful man that I should hold each day close to my heart – that these were the days of my life. He was a veteran parent of two young adults and he knew what he was talking about. This man understood that these innocent, carefree days would come to an abrupt end once the teenage years arrived. I am so grateful to him for sharing this with me. Happily, I can look back and know that I made the most of every single day with my young brood. I have very few regrets about their childhood.
Times A Changing
Sometime around eleven things changed. Thomas hit puberty running, and changed from an easy-going delight to a rather changeable tornado. He had hormonal surges, which we quickly linked to acne and voice changes. Aggression and irritation hit him like a train wreck. Thomas had always been incredibly easy going, and neither he or his (hapless) parents knew how to handle these new feelings.
So we talked, and we talked. Gary arranged for Thomas to start fencing, and encouraged him to go cycling or to run off his aggression. And we talked some more. And we NEVER allowed mindless bickering. At around thirteen, the Thomas we all knew and loved returned. Except that he was now a man. He towered above his friends, his voice much lower, his outlook more mature. Yes, going through puberty early had been hard on all of us, especially him, but we were astonished at the growth we saw in those two short years.
A Peak at Empty Nest Syndrome
At a very mature and confident thirteen, Thomas was ready to live his own life, and over the next few years Gary and I watched as he reclaimed the self control needed for adulthood. He was gentle but firm when he felt we were overstepping, and we, likewise, were firm but gentle when we felt he had overstepped. There was a great deal of respect between ourselves and our son, and we knew that this was a taste of what parenting adults would be like.
My parenting philosophy had always been to give the children as much freedom as they could handle responsibly. This meant we were very strict and protective when the children were younger, but much less so as they got older. From the age of fourteen Thomas had a Saturday job. From then on he took responsibility for every expense in his life bar food. He bought and paid for his own mobile phone, he pays for all his clothes, hobbies and social needs. And he saves for months to pay for his holidays and youth camps, and since the very beginning has always put 40% of all he has earnt into savings for his future. He has voluntarily taken charge of his life.
We are blessed because he still asks our advice, although he doesn’t always take it. He still phones on his way home each night…just for a chat with his ol’ mum. And, he hugs his sisters and is as fiercely protective of them as he always has been. We talk about everything. Nothing is off limits. Nothing is judged. It seems to be a very healthy way to have a relationship. We talk as adults. We may not agree with one another, but we are always respectful of each other.
The Very Real Empty Nest Syndrome
At last, after much cogitation and remembrance, I come to the point of this post. The day of Thomas’ last exam will ever be imprinted on my brain. I literally felt an agonising loss, with a sort of depression falling around me. In the morning I was fine, and by the afternoon I felt rotten. It was like a wrecking ball had come out of no-where and knocked me over…..and I couldn’t get up again, no matter how hard I tried. I went home that day and placed empty nest books into my Amazon basket and bought them.
I tried to talk to my mum, to Gary and to friends. But, whilst they were all sympathetic, I knew they didn’t really understand. How could they? I didn’t even understand! Their most frequent statement was, ‘He’ll be fine. He’s a responsible, sensible man,’ I felt like screaming at them that it wasn’t him I was worried about! Of course he’d be fine! He’s been a child going on an adult for donkey’s years, and far more mature than I could ever hope to be! It was ME I was worried about! Didn’t anyone understand?!
So Many Tears
Clearly, I am not very brave. And I am an open book. When I am happy, I laugh. When I am sad, I cry. So I cried. And I cried. And I cried some more. Mostly on my own in my bedroom. But, one Sunday, as I was preparing dinner and adding salt the unconventional way (through my tears), Thomas happened to come into the kitchen. He engulfed me in a huge hug, as I sobbed over how much I missed him. He held me tight.
I could feel him smile against my head, “But I haven’t gone anywhere! And I’m not going anywhere for at least another few years.” He told me he loved me and that everything was going to be alright. Somehow, in that moment I knew it would be. We had spent the last sixteen years together, and had the type of relationship I could only have dreamt of all those years ago when I was pregnant with him. All would be well.
And Those Books?
Ahem. Yes. Well….. turns out I never really needed those books at all. Our relationship made it alright. As it has done so often in the past when Thomas had been struggling, and I had been the one hugging him and telling him I loved him and that everything would be alright… y’see, love wins out. Yes, one day he will leave. One day there will be a woman who will usurp me in his heart as the most important woman in his life. And I couldn’t be happier. It is as it always should have been. The time for investing so intensely in his life and heart was coming to an end, but our relationship would never come to an end. Yes, he would no longer be in our little homeschool, but he would always be in our family, in our lives and most importantly in our hearts.
All those years of pouring our hearts and soul into him had paid off. There were no regrets (apart from the mobile phone….I think that will always be a regret 😉 ) and no looking back wishing I could have been around more. We have put relationship first and foremost….always. Relationship with God; parental relationships; family relationships; sibling relationships. Yes, we educated and went on many, many learning adventures together, but at the end of the day our homeschool was and is more about the relationships. It is the one parental decision we made that I will never ever regret. Time is such a blessing and to spend it with those we love is an even bigger one.