When my only child was 14, he announced that he wanted to live with his father, step-mother and their young children because it was “more fun”.
You won’t be surprised to hear that I suffered all the difficult empty nest feelings that might have happened had he left home at the “normal” time – grief for the loss of our familiar day-to-day relationship; confusion about my sense of self and purpose now that the person I’d shaped my life around for so long was no longer there; the simple, awful pain of missing my boy.
As if that wasn’t enough…
If he’d left home at the normal time, he would have been independent of the day-to-day parental care that I’d been used to providing. But he was still getting that care: he’d just chosen someone other than his mother to deliver it, and that felt like a massive indictment of my parenting. Not only was I trying to get to grips with what it meant to be a mother in this new context, but I was also questioning what I’d got so badly wrong in the old context.
As if that wasn’t enough…
Our society’s expectation is that children will live with their mother, isn’t it? So I felt ashamed to tell people that my child lives with his father. Every time I got to know a new person, or even in casual conversation with strangers, there was the risk of a question that meant I had to “confess” – and while they (I imagined) were judging me as a shit mother, I judged and shamed myself all over again. And again and again…
And as if that wasn’t enough…
The relationship between my son and me deteriorated to the point of being almost non-existent. I didn’t know how to stop my pain poisoning our time together and our communication - I switched between hurt, angry, needy and distant with a speed that left me reeling, let alone him. With hindsight, I can see that it must have been hard for him to reconcile his decision and my pain: he had to dismiss my feelings as invalid in order to validate his behaviour. Back then, I frequently wondered whether cutting him off completely would be less painful.
There was gift for me In all of this. Sounds crazy, huh? But it’s true.
I eventually realised that I couldn’t carry on as I was. The traditional approach of attempting to drown my sorrows served only to demonstrate that the buggers could swim (I should’ve listened to Frida), so something else was needed. I found myself dipping a toe into Buddhist thought, meditation, mindfulness, self-help books (especially those with fuck in the title), NLP and coaching.
Slowly, my way of handling thoughts and emotions, and of engaging with the world started to shift. The hurt didn’t disappear, but I became more resourceful and resilient about managing it. I didn’t suddenly have a way of resolving past issues and grievances, or, indeed, of dealing with worries about the future, but I became better at living in the moment rather than focusing on that. I learned to cultivate an acceptance of the reality I had to deal with, instead of agonising pointlessly over “what if…” and “if only…”.
I started to rediscover who I was under the layers that motherhood, divorce, work and life in general had built up, and to understand what really mattered to me.
And it wasn’t just hippy-dippy stuff, either. I left a job that was making me miserable, trained to be a coach, set up my own little business – even started writing a blog, which feels like I’m finally taking a small step towards my childhood dream of writing!
Most importantly, my relationship with my son has improved enormously. The other day he phoned because he was having a bad day and he said that talking to me calms him down. To have reached that point when, a couple of years ago, we barely spoke or saw each other, feels huge and wonderful. And it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t worked on myself.
Given how many parents are not together, and how difficult the teenage years can be, there are probably lots of mothers whose teenagers have gone to live with their fathers.
My fear is that many premature empty nesters are struggling in silence, because it feels shaming to talk openly about their children choosing not to live with them. My hope in writing this is that it gives someone a sense of connection and reassurance.