Letting go: Empty nest syndrome

Posted on: 09 March 2010 by Mark O'haire

Actress and bestselling author Kate Thompson talks about the anguish many women feel when a child leaves the nest for the first time.

empty nestFrom the moment she was held aloft in the delivery room we knew that our daughter Clara meant business, for at 4.20am on the 3rd January 1987, she surveyed her brave new world with an expression of cool detachment as if to say: ‘Ok. Now I’ve finally arrived after those nine endless months, I’m gonna make the most of it. I’m gonna kick some ass.’

My husband Malcolm and I were utterly clueless as parents. We had never held a newborn infant before, let alone bathed one, changed a nappy or tried to ease tiny limbs into the straitjacket confines of a baby-gro.

The screeds of conflicting advice made me weep - literally. Feed on demand. Don’t feed on demand. Let her sleep in your bed. Don’t let her sleep in your bed. Put her lying on her back. No, no - put her lying on her front. In the end, we decided that we’d muddle through somehow, and simply try to rear a happy human being, and a friend for life.

Clara was intrepid. She swam before she crawled; her crawling was more of a prance than a shuffle; and when she finally found her feet, the expression on her face was that of an explorer who’d just discovered a vastly exciting new territory.

As she grew, she terrified me with her audacity. The first time she saw a fire lit in a grate, she greeted it with an intrigued ‘Hello!’ before tottering towards it with her arms outstretched in welcome. On her first excursion to a playground she gave me a disdainful look when I set her on a baby slide, and promptly crossed the tarmac and climbed the steps to the highest one of all.

In supermarkets she turned into a miniature commando, deploying evasive action and scooting off any time my back was turned. I would cast around wildly, bowling along the aisles between toiletries and household goods like Jack Nicholson negotiating the maze in ‘The Shining’, until I found her. Invariably she’d be sitting on the floor, delving into a box of éclairs, chocolate all over her mouth.

In an attempt at foiling her, I invested in a pair of ‘childproof’ reins, but when I strapped them on, she doffed them with the chutzpah of a Houdini.

One evening in despair, I picked up the phone to my own mother. ‘Tell me - when do you stop worrying about them?’ I asked her.

‘Never,’ she said. ‘You never stop worrying about them.’

The more Clara’s independent streak burgeoned, the more Malcolm and I realised it would be wrong not to encourage it. It was time for us to start letting go.

When she was 12 we suggested that she do a course in Scuba, so that she could come diving with us on holiday. The first time I sank beneath the murky surface of the Irish Sea with my daughter, I spent the duration of the dive trying vainly to shepherd her – an impossible task. Underwater, Clara was as elusive as Tinkerbell: she sent my heart tattooing at such a rate that I vowed I would never dive with her again.

At the age of 14, she made the decision to leave Dublin and become a boarder in Kylemore Abbey, that fabulous Gothic edifice that makes everyone who lays eyes on it think of Hogwarts. There she roamed freely through the wild West of Ireland, climbing mountains, exploring forests, swimming in lakes and giving tourists extremely precise directions as to where to go to find leprechauns.

At 18 she headed off with the British Schools Expeditionary Society to spend two months in Kwa Zulu Natal, in South Africa. There she slept under skies ablaze with shooting stars, listening to the sound of lions on the prowl through the bush, and the coughing of cheetahs.

She tracked zebra and acquired all the skills of the game ranger, she climbed high into the Drakkensburg mountains and white-water rafted, she nipped adroitly out of the way of charging hippos and hurled abuse at marauding monkeys. 

During those two months - because the only means of communication with the expedition was via satellite phone - we heard nothing from her, apart from a couple of emails sent from hill stations. We were learning to let go a little more. 

The toughest call came when Clara set off inter-railing through Eastern Europe with three girlfriends and somehow ended up in Thailand. She took her mobile phone with her on this trip: but every mother knows the terror generated by the phone that’s out of range, or the dread induced by those automated tones that deliver you straight to voice mail.

Most mothers I know have learned to resist the temptation of trying to make contact with their daughters by mobile because if no answer is forthcoming, worst-case scenario inevitably sets in and one’s imagination spirals into orbit.

Twilight is said to be ‘the hour between dog and wolf’, but for me it’s four o’clock in the morning when your daughter’s out clubbing and there’s no text message in your inbox. That’s when the instinct to make that phone call is at its most dangerously insistent – and that is the phone call you know you really must not make.

Their first destination is Koh Tao, down south. It’s a Lotus Land of an island that proves to have the allure of Bali Hi in the movie South Pacific, for just days after arriving there, Clara ends up watching from the beach as her girlfriends set sail back northward on the ferry. She has broken the first rule of the backpackers’ code: she has abandoned her travelling companions, seduced into staying on the island by her rediscovery of Scuba.

Dear God in heaven. My beautiful girl is living alone in a beach hut on an island in the Gulf of Thailand....

I get an email from her. It reads: ‘What kind of parents encourage a kid to do something as fascinatingly brill as this!!!!’ And I find myself wondering exactly what kind of parents actively encourage such free-spiritedness? Have we in fact been arrantly irresponsible? Have Malcolm and I put our only child in jeopardy by fostering a passion for what is effectively an extreme sport?

But more emails follow, breathlessly telling us that she has completed her advanced course, that she has done speciality courses in peak performance buoyancy, deep diving, night diving and underwater photography, and that she intends to return to Koh Tao next summer to undertake a Dive Master course.

Her final email was sent an hour before she was due to leave the island and rejoin her girlfriends in Bangkok:

‘Last night we went out on the boat with the sunset and came up under a canopy of stars. I saw a turtle!!! The one thing I hadn't yet seen! we were practically bursting with excitement as we followed it through the water... promise that u will come and visit me here next summer when I do my Dive Master course! Then I will be qualified to take you round a dive site. I want to thank u guys again for introducing me to this world which is so unbelievably perfectly me. I have never felt so at home somewhere away from home - diving. I really look forward to seeing u!! I have so many stories for u!!!  love love love. xxxxxxxxxxx Clara’

It was then we knew that we had done the right thing. We had muddled through two decades years of parenthood, and somehow managed to rear a happy human being, and a friend for life.

Clara completed her Dive Master course. She spent last year at Keio University in Tokyo. She’s got herself an Australian boyfriend, and new, ever more distant horizons are beckoning. Our nest is empty, and it’s tough: but maybe it’s time for us to move on, too.

During Clara’s last month at Kylemore when she was sitting exams, I would send her cards on a daily basis, with affirmations on the front. These affirmations took the form of quotes from illustrious personages - such as this from Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up. And - from T.S. Eliot - Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. And the following, courtesy of Eleanor Roosevelt: Do the thing you think you cannot do.

On the day of her final exam, I made Clara promise that she would not look at that day’s card until after she’d completed the paper. This is what she found when she opened the envelope:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.


Inside the card I had written: But always remember that the safe harbour is there for you any time you need it.

I’ve let her go. My daughter, my baby, my friend, my dive buddy (correction – my dive master!) may, as you read this, be perched on a mountain peak in the Himalayas; she may be floating over a coral reef in Egypt; she may be spinning through the air at the end of a bungee cord; she may be sharing a bowl of goat soup in a Jamaican shantytown; she may be huddled in a bivvy bag dreaming of the west of Ireland. But my lovely, liberated girl will live in the safe harbour of my heart forever.

About The Author

Kate Thompson is a professional actress and bestselling author whose latest book The Kinsella Sisters set on the west coast of Ireland follows the lives and loves of two very different sisters.

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Rio and Dervla Kinsella are inseparable as children. Growing up with their alcoholic father and their desperate mother, in the picture perfect seaside village of Lissamore, they’re each other’s best friend.

As adults they are complete strangers. Estate agent Dervla lives the highflying life of a successful business woman in her penthouse flat in Galway city; while bohemian Rio does odd jobs round the village of Lissamore in between swimming in the sea, gardening and bringing up her son Finn.

When Finn leaves home to qualify as a dive master how will Rio cope without her only son and best friend? And when the credit crunch hits the west of Ireland how will Dervla keep her property empire afloat without any buyers? What both sisters need is a man in their life – someone to lean on but where will they find their leading man?

Kate Thompson has been described as ‘Ireland’s Joanna Lumley’ and is the country’s most famous voice over artist. Kate has acted alongside the likes of Gabriel Byrne, Brendan Gleeson and Liam Neeson and spent nine years on the Irish Soap Glenroe before turning to writing.

Her first book It Means Mischief was a bestseller while The Blue Hour was shortlisted for the Parker Romantic Novel of the Year. The Kinsella Sisters is her 12th novel.

The Kinsella Sisters by Kate Lawson is out now.

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