In Summary
  • We always think of parents as ‘providers’ - but rarely stop to consider what children offer parents, especially psychologically and emotionally.
  • Their transition has been a fine balance between staying present in their children’s lives and gradually letting go by trying to redefine themselves outside of their roles as mothers.

It’s the back-to-school season, and some parents will see their children out of the home for the first time, while some will bid them goodbye for good, as they move out of the nest. Rachel Wambui spoke to women on how they coped with an empty nest.

“My son wanted to go to Canada for his university. I discouraged him and told him it’s too expensive. But the truth is that I feel Canada is too far.”

“Far from what?” I ask her. “Far from here,” she responds. "But everywhere is far from somewhere else…” I challenge.

“Yeah, but at least I can get to the UK in one flight….” she reasons. “Canada is also very immigrant friendly…” I tell her.

“Yeah….but it is too cold…and too far!” she insists.

This conversation happened five seconds before 46-year-old Lillian Musyoka sighed and admitted she is not ready to let go of her 18-year-old twins.

The two are expected to leave for a university in the UK later in the year. This is however not Lillian’s first experience sending a child off the nest.

Three years ago, her first-born daughter, now 21, left for university in the UK. “That was hard,” Lillian says. “But I feel as if this will be harder because now my nest will be completely empty.”

SUCCESSFUL PARENTING

Lillian didn’t want her daughter to go abroad. “I was afraid of what might happen to her, so young and alone in a strange country,” she explains.

It wasn’t until the university application went through that Lillian began to consider the possibility of her daughter’s departure.

It took her daughter’s adamance for Lillian to buckle, but not before she accompanied her daughter to her host country and hovered around campus for three weeks!

“I wasn’t going to leave until I was sure everything was in order!” Lillian laughs. “When I came back home, I went to her room and sat there for hours. I felt sad. And then, it suddenly occurred to me that in the process of visa applications and travelling, I had forgotten about the twins!”

I’ve heard it said that successful parenting is not about raising children UP, but about raising them AWAY.

A friend quips that his grandfather used to call children who don’t move out of home by age of 18 as ‘a failure to launch’.

PREPARE EARLY

With this in mind, I ask Lillian whether sitting in her daughter’s newly-vacant room, a part of her felt a sense of accomplishment in having raised a child courageous enough to face the world by herself.

“No,” comes a quick reply. “I only felt accomplished when she passed her exams. I didn’t want her to go abroad! It took me a lot of time to get used to her being gone.”

Things were not much different when Edith Tendwa’s first-born daughter and grandson moved out three years ago.

Asking her how it felt when they left, the 56-year-old mother of three, chokes up, reaches across the table, grabs a paper towel, dabs her eyes, and says, “Sorry…”.

A little composed, she continues, “When I came back home and she wasn’t there, I cried. The absence was more acute because of my grandson — children bring such a vibrant energy in the house — now it felt empty and quiet.”

Edith’s son moved out shortly after. “This time I think I was more prepared,” Edith says.

“But when I took him to his apartment, I still felt sad and cried a bit. I mean, you are happy because you have raised them to start their own lives, but then again you are sad they are leaving you.

In fact, I think my first act of instilling a sense of independence was allowing them to go out when they were young, as long as they stayed in touch and were home in the agreed hour. But moving out of home is a completely different ball game. When they go out or to go to school, you know they’ll be back.”

NEED FOR PROXIMITY

Edith’s children are now 33, 29 and 24. Her youngest daughter has already declared that she will be moving out as soon as she gets a job.

“I think I am ready,” Edith says. “I have known for a long time that it is coming.”

We always think of parents as ‘providers’ - but rarely stop to consider what children offer parents, especially psychologically and emotionally.

“Yes, there’s comfort in having them at home and feeling like you can protect them better if need be,” says Edith.

“But on the other hand, I like having them there, even just for company. That need for proximity never really goes away, even when they become adults. I think it’s good as long as I don’t impose myself on their lives.”

As this interview happens over the December holidays, I tell her that many adult children are feeling obligated to spend Christmas day with their parents, even when they would rather do other things.

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