How to beat empty nest syndrome after your children go to university: Newly unshackled MARIANNE JONES reveals how she overcame her melancholy

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  • Marianne said goodbye to her eldest son at London Euston as he left for a job
  • READ MORE: Can YOUR marriage survive empty nest syndrome?

Up and down the country, parents have begun the painful process of packing their children off to university for the first time. 

No amount of psychological prep steels you for the silence that descends on a house when your offspring have left. 

I say this because last November we suddenly became empty nesters when both sons left home within five weeks of each other.

The teen uni lad’s movements were expected. But the farewell of our eldest came out of the blue, after a job offer that involved relocating to the Midlands. 

This double whammy meant that after 22 years of dirt, smells and chaos, an overnight crater appeared in our lives.

Marianne and her eldest son at London Euston as he leaves for a new life further north

Marianne and her eldest son at London Euston as he leaves for a new life further north

After dropping the teenager off at his hall of residence with a single duvet and six-pack of lager, we quietly sobbed all the way back from Warwick. Not a backwards glance from him, I hasten to add. 

The tissues reappeared the following month when his elder brother, who had barely spent a night away from us, packed his wheelie case too. 

After waving him off at London Euston with fixed smiles that masked our heartbreak, we returned to the same house but a different home; one that felt like the wrong fit, cloaked in a silence so overpowering that I wrapped my arms around the cockapoo and sobbed.

My husband was worse, turning watery-eyed at old footballs in the garden and wistfully commenting: ‘It feels like yesterday’ whenever he caught sight of their toddler pictures or drove past their primary school.

I confess to indulging my melancholy by lying on their beds to comfort-sniff the fading odours of armpit, Pot Noodle and Lynx.

This was it. We’d crash-landed without a helmet into our empty nest, that bed of sorrow every parent dreads from the moment we set eyes on our newborn (let’s skip the teen years). 

There are websites dedicated to it, self-help books with dramatic titles like Healing the Empty Nester’s Grieving Heart, psychologists explaining how to navigate everything from feelings of loss to lack of purpose. 

Earlier this year, Gwyneth Paltrow told James Corden on The Late Late Show that the mere notion of her semi-adult children leaving home was making her feel ‘not very well… I wish I could freeze time’.

My thoughts too. Yet surprisingly, a couple of weeks after the double departure, with underpants washed, wet towels rescued from random floors and single socks reunited with missing halves, our mourning period ended with almost indecent haste.

The realisation that more fun was still to be had dawned one dark November Tuesday. My husband mentioned that the Bill Nighy film I wanted to see was on at the cinema. 

So we headed to our local Thai restaurant for dinner, then watched the movie (aptly called Living), plastic glass of wine in hand. Hardly wild stuff, but it was spontaneous, joyful and liberating. 

Giddy on gavi, I exclaimed that we could do this every night if we wanted, before my fun-sponge other half totted up the bill.

It didn’t matter, as small things started to feel good. The washing basket ceased to overflow with jeans. I stopped tripping over giant trainers. There was milk in the fridge.

Mealtimes no longer resembled a meeting of the UN, with compromises on curry and deals brokered over broccoli. 

Leaving home, 60s style: Actor Terence Stamp with his mother Ethel. She is helping him pack for Spain

Leaving home, 60s style: Actor Terence Stamp with his mother Ethel. She is helping him pack for Spain

Last week I made a spicy rice dish with mackerel we knew the boys would hate, so we took a picture of it and posted it on the family WhatsApp group. Seconds later one sent a vomit emoji, the other responded with the word ‘Grim’, and we all laughed.

Unlike the empty nesters of yesteryear – my poor mum waved me off to Spain on a bus in the 80s, not knowing when she’d next hear from me – we are in touch with the boys semi-permanently. 

When Leeds United play, there will be a rambling WhatsApp discussion that I’ll ignore. We still ‘virtually’ watched The Apprentice together, laughing at the corporate daftness of the contestants.

I regularly ask the youngest when he last washed his duvet, as he lolls on his student bed during our FaceTime chats.

Life as a free bird – a term I’ve adopted as a cheerier alternative to empty nester – is pretty good. It’s also dependent on one significant thing. If you’re suddenly alone with a partner, it helps if you like them. 

It’s no surprise that divorce is significantly higher among empty nesters, the so-called silver splitters. With average life expectancy now in the 80s, that’s a lot of time spent staring at someone over a pint with not much to say.


But if you still laugh with and at each other on a regular basis, then this newfound independence is liberating.

There are the small wins: the decluttering of video games and schoolbooks. Ditto taking back control of the telly, reclaiming wardrobe space and finding the lager you bought still in the fridge. 

And there are the big ones: the fortune saved on heating bills and not having to micromanage every minute to fit around term times.

The past 18 months have been tough enough for me, without adding empty nester to the list. I’ve overcome illness, left a job I loved and witnessed my beautiful mum suffer dementia that has left her unable to walk or talk. 

Last winter, the reality of having three of the people I love most in the world suddenly there but not there was heartbreaking.

But with the boys, at least, our new family life stage has been unexpectedly rewarding. Both return home regularly. When they came back last Christmas it was a cause for excitement and celebration rather than stress and petty arguments. 

The house was a riot of noise and mickey-taking again as my 6ft pups rolled around in the comfort of their familiar world, and we basked in their newfound independence and semi-maturity. 

They held their beloved nanna’s hand while visiting the nursing home we’ve recently and reluctantly placed my mum in, and her smile on seeing them was pure gold.

When they left, our melancholy didn’t return. Instead, we got busy planning our first out-of-season holiday in decades.

A cheap and cheerful dose of winter sun that involved two people, one room and no term times. All paid for with the money we’d saved by not having to feed two giant appetites.

It’s our 25th wedding anniversary this year and we’re contemplating a return to Tuscany and Rome, where we spent our honeymoon. 

When we mentioned this to the lads, they began to express a worrying interest in tagging along. 

So we’ve learnt one of the universal lessons of being an empty nester – your big chicks will always return, as long as you’re paying…

  • Marianne Jones is the co-host of Been There Done That Got the Podcast

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