The empty nest syndrome is mostly described as the feeling of emptiness that invades parents when their grown children leave home, to live by themselves or to marry or work abroad.
Having been a divorced mother for more than ten years, I remember having a similar feeling the first time they left to spend a whole weekend with their father after we separated. So far, I had only been apart from them during my business trips, and I have to confess it hurt. From the window I saw them get into the car and it was a strange feeling, but I knew this was something I would have to get used to. As we had both decided on a joint custody – something that proved to be the best solution for our children and, I believe, for us too – I soon grew accustomed to seeing the boys leave. It stopped hurting, most of all because I knew they were with their father whom they dearly loved, and they were happy. As for me, I began having some time for myself, which had been scarce so far, and I enjoyed it. Soon the feeling was gone.
They grew up and began going on holidays with their friends. First Afonso, and little Pedro still stayed at home, but soon my baby was not so little anymore, and he began leaving with his friends too. Then girlfriends made a show of appearance, and by mid-July the boys would disappear only to return by mid-August and join us at the beach apartment, mostly hungry, filling it with their boisterous laughs and their friends and their cries for food “Mom, is dinner ready? I’m starving”. We’d all sit down for dinner at a large table and it would be lovely to listen to them and their friends telling their adventures, were it travelling by train around Europe or during some quieter camping holidays on the Azores. Then they would go out at night and come back at dawn, and sleep until midafternoon. We’d leave tons of tuna or chicken sandwiches for them to take to the beach where they would show up around five, after having treated themselves to a nutritious very late breakfast of bacon and eggs and coke and everything you can imagine…it was crazy, yes, and sometimes tiring, as there would always be place – and food – for yet another visitor, but then it was a full house and I loved having them there with their friends whom I have known since they were children, going to school together.
A mother’s hug
I remember the day Afonso came back from his month of Interrail through Europe, that ended in Hvar, the Croatian island where all young people go to and that apparently has great beaches and a very animated nightlife. Afonso and two of his best friends who went with him apparently had such fun there that they forgot about the time…and suddenly their train ticket was only valid for three days, the exact time they needed to travel form Croatia to Portugal! So they traveled without stop, only changing trains, until the Portuguese- Spanish border, where Miguel, Afonso’s father, went to get them. I’m sure he must have felt slightly nauseated in his car, for when Afonso knocked at the door to say hello and I opened it, I was invaded by this unpleasant odour that came mostly from his feet, black with dirt in his Havaianas flip flops. He looked so thin – my poor boy who always has a ravenous appetite lived mostly on sandwiches so as not to spend too much money – and of course I hugged him, but he smelt so bad that I immediately sent him to the shower, clarifying that I had only managed that hug because I am his mother…otherwise I’m sure I would have kept my distance, such was the smell of that three-day trip without a shower!
There are so many memories of other summers, of other departures and other arrivals, and also of the happy moment when the “little birds” return to the nest and we confirm they are safe and sound; and during those first days it feels so good to feed them properly, to see them wearing clean clothes and sleeping soundly in their beds – in a word, it feels so good to have them back.
Today, after seeing my son Afonso and his girlfriend Sofia off at the airport, these memories come to my mind. They are going to Indonesia, Java and Bali, and I’m sure it will be like paradise, but it feels so far, on the other side of the world. I cannot help my eyes filling with tears as I hug them and wish them safe travels, and as Sofia’s mother and I see them walking away, so happy together, I feel as if I’m going to burst out crying. Fortunately, I don’t, and I feel silly and absurd, but then I’m a mother hen. I love to see my children grow up and fly, and I encourage them, but still I’m at my best when I have them around, safely sleeping in their beds across the corridor, no matter how grown up they are. Sofia’s mother and I sit down for a cup of coffee and I open my heart to her, and finally relax. I am so grateful for her support on that moment!
So here I am again feeling the empty nest syndrome. Only half of it, actually, as Pedro is still around; he will be leaving next Wednesday for his Interrail trip of more than a month that will take him to Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Krakow – a mandatory destination of all these youngsters is always Auschwitz – Budapest, and more that I don’t remember – only to end in the same place as his brother: the isle of Hvar, in Croatia.
This year, Nuno and I will have the house for ourselves. I will be quiet, maybe a bit too much. This year, reunion will only happen in the end of August, already back in the city. There will be no invasion of friends coming over to the beach apartment. They have all gone their separate ways, and for some reason are all coming back later. I will miss their voices, their music, their laughs, their jokes, even the messy rooms with clothes scattered all over the floor, socks that pop up like mushrooms and surfboards that leave a trail of sand; I will miss having to buy huge quantities of bacon at the supermarket and carrying several bags full of bread for the sandwiches; above all I will miss the amazing energy they bring into a house, the joy and the hope for the future in their bright eyes.
A mother’s heart
But then, I think, life changes and we have to adapt; it’s up to us to create new happy moments, new memories. I am happy that Afonso and his girlfriend – a darling girl that I love – have the opportunity to make this wonderful trip together. I am happy that Pedro is doing the Interrail with his friends, creating no doubt some unforgettable memories for life. As for me, I’ll enjoy the quietness while it lasts. In no time the summer will be over – doesn’t it always fly by too quickly? – and we’ll be back to routine and I’ll find myself complaining because they arrive for dinner around 11 pm after their rugby training…and so life goes on.
For the moment, they will still be coming back home, where they live. The empty nest syndrome will be gone by then. I know one day they will make their homes elsewhere, but then I’ll get used to it as well, and they will be coming back, and every time they do they will give me a bear hug and fill the house with their beloved voices, and leave things in disorder and I won’t mind because I will have my (big) babies home, even if only for a while.
And then when they leave, somehow, they will still be here – I can see them, feel them in every corner, every room, everywhere. Most of all, from the day I first knew they were growing inside me, there is a place they have never left, nor will they ever leave – and that is my heart. And they know it – no matter how far, be it in Indonesia or on a train across Europe, my boys will always be there, in every beating of their mother’s heart.