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30 September 2020

My empty nest didn’t stay empty for long – but it’s time to prepare for absence again

As my youngest leaves for university, I realise the effect Covid-19 has had on family life: both separation and togetherness have become difficult. 

By Tracey Thorn

This time last year I wrote a column about our youngest leaving home for university, and it was all tinged with sadness and longing. I was anticipating the empty nest, and looking ahead at the months, which would turn into years, of the house being quiet and childless, Ben and I rattling around the extra space, not knowing what to do with ourselves.

Well, we know how that turned out. By March of this year, barely six months after leaving, the youngest was back. At first we thought it might just be for an extended Easter, then it became clear that his first year was over, and that he was home for the foreseeable future. Within days he was joined by both his sisters, and for a while it was the five of us again, then four, then three, as the sisters moved back to their own flats. But he has been with us for the full six months.

We have spent the summer getting used to each other again, and putting up with each other’s noise, and mess, and food requirements. His social life, of course, was entirely curtailed at first, so there were long days spent in his room, followed by long solitary walks on the heath, and then long evenings in his room. Songs were written, guitars and records and online games were played, often at full volume, and I resisted as many urges as possible to ask him to turn things down. Whatever helped get him through the loneliness and claustrophobia seemed forgivable.

This is the effect of coronavirus on family life – both separation and togetherness have become difficult. We are unable to be with some of the people we love as regularly and as easily as we’d like, while being forced into close confinement with the ones we live with. It’s a real test of this phase of the parent-child relationship, which is so tricky anyway, often seeming like a formal dance of backing away and moving towards each other; allowing space, not crowding or treading on each other’s toes. As parents you’re supposed to be there straight away to offer whatever is needed in the  way of practical help, advice, solace, comfort, or cash – and then vanish.

But having begun to conduct this dance at long distance, we’ve had to spend months performing it at close quarters instead. By mid-summer, when some socialising was allowed, things got even more awkward. Ben and I were trying to shield, and so we had to adopt our own patterns of lockdown within the house – often keeping a distance from whichever of the kids was around, and wearing face coverings in the kitchen. A sign on the stairs read HANDS MASK to remind us all as we came down that we were now entering a shared space. I got used to the sound of the youngest thundering down the stairs, only to stop abruptly and turn back each time he saw the reminder. And it made me smile every time.

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He has made me smile, too. Good humoured and equable, he has been patient to a fault throughout it all, and we haven’t just put up with each other; his company has made lockdown easier, and more fun. Now, as he finally returns to university, it goes back to being only me and Ben in the house.

After dinner one evening, we start to have a conversation about how we’re going to fill the winter nights. I google “hobbies”, and make Ben laugh by reading out the suggestions. “Embroidery?” I say. “Weaving? Knitting? Tai chi? Snooker? Oh wait, hang on, here’s a section on artistic pastimes. It says this one can be very therapeutic: songwriting.” We look at each other and roll our eyes.

On the day the youngest leaves, I go and stand in his room, but I think: “No, I’m not going to do this again. I’m not going to look around at the emptiness and find it symbolic and heart-rending.” Instead, what I notice is the mess he has left behind – the unmade bed, the piles of paper on the windowsill, the dots of Blu Tack on the wall where he has removed posters, three empty beer bottles, last night’s dinner plate and two coffee cups.

As I stand there, feeling happily neutral this time about his absence, my phone rings. He’s forgotten to take a jacket and is on his way back. 

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This article appears in the 30 Sep 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the Union