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9 September 2020

My mother is moving to Devon, and I am experiencing a kind of inverse empty-nest syndrome

Her house has long been my refuge from the biting demands of the adult world, it has given me the security on which confidence builds.     

By Pippa Bailey

A few weeks ago my fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard pondered how I, and others, manage house-hunting “without getting into a funk of panic and hopeless despair”. Well, Nicholas, it seems it’s genetic.

I spent the month of August staying in Northern Ireland with my boyfriend and his parents (a subject for a different column entirely). That month was all the time it took for my mother to sell our family home and buy a new house in Devon. Now, I return to a London that is barely and yet entirely changed.

I say “family home” not because she is leaving some ancestral manor (rather, a three-bed terrace that’s within hearing distance of a level crossing in London’s suburbs), but because I can’t accurately describe her house as my “childhood home”, which we left when I was 17. As I said goodbye to the house where I learned to talk and walk and love, each Blu Tack-marked wall and chipped door frame suddenly became the most precious thing in the world to me; every unremarkable minute I had spent there was upgraded to a memory of significance, heavy with sickly sentimentality. All of it was made bittersweet by the knowledge that we were leaving because my parents had divorced, that the final piece of our former family life now belonged to someone else.

This time will be different. I may have only lived in my mother’s last house for six years, three of which were mostly spent at university, but, still, there are memories, formative ones: parties and driving lessons and break-ups and exam results. Fights with my brother over who would take which rucksack to Reading festival. My mother hiding herself away in her bedroom while I covered her kitchen in the debris of cooking and hosted dinner parties. Coming home from my first office job and lying on my bed in despair that I would simply die of the boredom of it. My growth may have been less visible, but I changed just as much between 17 and 23 as I did between zero and 17. I became myself in that house.

Empty-nest syndrome is conventionally associated with middle age and grown-up children, and perhaps taking up gardening or a Wednesday afternoon art class. (And I have many of the same worries for my mother that I imagine a parent packing a child off to university would have: will she feel at home? Will she make good friends? Will she get unconscionably drunk during Freshers week?) But after 28 years of us living in the same city, my mother is leaving, and I am unmoored.

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Now, for the first time in my adult life, I will – sweet horror – have only one bedroom. Without the grounding of a parental home, where will home be? An as-yet-unknown house in Devon; or my father’s flat, in which I have never lived; or my rental flat, which is mine by contract, a year at a time, but will never really be mine. What will I mean when I say I am “home” for Christmas come December?

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My mother’s house has long been my refuge from the biting demands of the adult world: a place to fall back on, a plan B. It freed me to spend my life’s savings on a master’s degree without worrying about how I would make rent (though I did have to take the scenic route to Goldsmiths to avoid passing through Zone 1, as I couldn’t afford the required travel card). It allowed me to work for free in a capital city at the start of my career – a great privilege that excludes many from journalism and industries like it. When I was made redundant in 2018, I knew that I could move home if I had to, without leaving my friends, the streets I know, the city in which work was waiting to be found. It has given me security, on which confidence is built.

I recently, hypocritically, asked my boyfriend whether he regrets his decision to stay at home in Belfast for university – how safe, how timorous I considered it, while I and my wild spirit made the intrepid journey to Leeds. But, really, he is the bold one: he now lives in London, and the Irish Sea separates him from his parents. Except for those brief years at university, I have never lived more than 12 miles away from mine. My mother isn’t really leaving the nest; she is finally, gently pushing me from it.