The kids have left home – what now? How to thrive in an empty nest

Anna Tyzack
Will you be free as a bird? - Alex Tait

So the children have all grown up and moved out … what now? We talked to empty-nesters making the most of their newfound freedom

Of all a child’s rites of passage, by far the most uncomfortable for parents is the day they leave home. It is an inevitability, of course, yet somehow, even after nearly two decades of school runs, homework and the general drudgery of parenting, it can come as a nasty shock. “You suddenly feel desperate to hang on to them; to feel you have a purpose,” says Ros Carman, a psychotherapist based in south-west London.

Yet life moves on. Rather than getting caught up in the gloom of empty nest syndrome once your children have started university, it’s far better to have a plan, says Harry Benson, founder of Marriage Foundation. “It’s a time of great opportunity – see yourself as a free bird,” he says. With the youngest of his seven children now 15, his wife, Kate, is reinventing herself as a potter. “We realised that we needed to think further ahead, so she did a foundation course,” he says. “She may go on and do a degree and ­afterwards she’ll have a new role.”

What if you don’t have any pent-up skills or passions to exploit? Learn something new, insists Carman, who was a housewife for many years before retraining as a psychotherapist when her daughter was in her teens. Studying, in her experience, can open up a whole new outlook. “You don’t have to do secretarial work down the road,” she says. “It’s your time – get the most out of your life.”

Contrary to what one might expect, parenthood won’t have addled your brain completely. Many mothers, the designer Susi Bellamy included, find that the years of negotiating with teenagers have developed their people skills and thickened their skin. Indeed, neurological research shows that the brain in midlife is more elastic than we give it credit for. “Short-term memory may decline, but we make better connections between what we retain,” explains the writer Annie Karpf, in her book How to Age, before reminding us that history is full of late developers. Winston Churchill became prime minister at 66 and Frank Lloyd Wright completed the design for the Guggenheim in New York when he was 80. 

Plus, you are no longer a lone ranger; your children will be pulling for you, if it gets you off their backs. They can provide invaluable assistance when it comes to IT and social media, boost your ego when you’re dithering, and spread the word among their friends.

A new purpose does not have to be a high-powered career. It could be a new interest or qualification. Rebecca Hoddinott, a housewife-turned-pilates teacher, finds her midlife job much more rewarding than her previous career in marketing. “I’m doing something that inspires me and I can be flexible with my time,” she says. 

Flexibility can be a good thing, given that your children will probably still need you more than you think. Don’t structure your life around their phone calls and visits, though, as this is your time, says Caroline Clitherow, a mother-of-three who has set up a floristry business. “Remember: life doesn’t end when your children leave home – it begins.”

At least, that is, until the grand­children arrive.

Caroline Clitherow, 56, florist

When Caroline and Bruce Clitherow’s eldest daughter left for university they decided to leave home, too. Their lives had been based around schools and jobs and yet these things were soon to be a thing of the past. “When your parents have died and you’re both approaching retirement age, life gets a bit daunting,” Caroline says. “We needed a new project.”

They sold the family home in Hampshire, where Caroline had moved when their eldest child was one, and found something smaller near Lymington, with land for chickens and horses.

The move enabled them to clear their mortgage and put money aside to support their children, Charlotte, now 27, Emma, 25, and Henry, 22 during university and into their careers. “It’s a mistake to think your children won’t still rely on you financially once they’ve left home,” Caroline explains.

Catherine Clitherow has embraced a new career Credit: Jeff Gilbert

In Lymington, they were introduced into a new social scene separate from the one they’d been thrown into through their children’s schools. “The move gave us a new outlook; something to talk about other than the kids,” she says. “Bruce started to cook, which is something he enjoys, and I got a job helping out in a local florist.”  

At the shop, she met Katie, a professional florist, and after working together for a few months they decided to set up a floristry business together, run from an old stable at Caroline’s home. “I lacked confidence initially but Katie taught me the techniques I needed,” she says.

Within six months of launching No. 17 Flowers, Caroline and Katie had made back their initial investment and were paying themselves a salary. “There are no overheads and there are always weddings, funerals and people wanting to go to floristry workshops.”

The business has helped her embrace a new phase in her life. “I always liked flowers at school but I’d never have thought to do this; I would have been too frightened,” she says.

The children are her biggest supporters, setting her up on social media and spreading the word among friends. “The first five weddings we did were friends.”  

The business suits her relationship with Bruce, too. They’d always been independent and had their own hobbies. “He’s pleased that I’ve found something I love and is so helpful,” she says. After years of being bound to the house, she now travels wherever her jobs take her. “I’d go anywhere; Scotland, overseas,” she says. “It’s my time, I feel I can put me first.” 

Tanya Ames, 49, founder of Squeeze Kitchen

It was always Tanya Ames’s plan to have started a business by the time her eldest child left home. She worked as a cook and fundraiser in Africa before she married, and became a housewife in Devon for 15 years, bringing up her four children, Ben, now 20, Barney, now 18, Boris, now 15 and Flossy, 12. “I wanted to put money in for school fees and to have independence, but I also wanted to be at home,” she says. “It was hard to think of something to do.”

She completed a nutritional therapy course in Bristol but it was only when she went to New York with friends the following year that she found a use for it. “I discovered juice bars and started feeling fantastic,” she says. “When I got back I bought a juicer and started handing out vegetable juices at the school gates. Demand grew until I decided to turn it into a business.”

Tanya Ames has set up a business Credit:  JAY WILLIAMS

When Ben began university in 2016, Ames launched Squeeze Kitchen, offering weekly juice detoxes in Devon. “I was getting up at 4am to start juicing and wondering how I had so much energy. I realised then that there is something so exhausting about waking up and doing the same thing every day,” she says. She has since expanded her range to include a detox juice programme – “perfect for when you’ve eaten or drunk too much – and organic 5:2 diet menu boxes. It’s important to keep your business evolving,” she explains. “If you’re not living your idea yourself, you’ll never sell it to anyone else.”

The business has helped pay the bills, and given her a new wave of confidence. “Suddenly I was using my nutritional therapy and my cooking and feeling so much happier,” she says. “Each year I have the confidence to try something new and the older I get the less I worry about criticism.”

Boris and Flossy are still at school but she knows that when they leave she has something to keep her occupied. “It is such a devastating prospect – I couldn’t imagine not having a job,” she says.

She is certain, however, that she would never have had the nerve to have set up her own business before she became a mum. “I’m so much less scared these days; I know what people want and I don’t get offended easily.”

The children are fully supportive of the business, helping in the kitchen when she has a big order. “It’s good for them to see me happy and working,” she says. “And I feel more motivated at nearly 50 than I ever have before.” 

squeezekitchen.co

Rebecca Hoddinott, 60, pilates and movement teacher

When Rebecca Hoddinott’s eldest child left school in 2008, it dawned on her that she hadn’t given any thought to her future. She’d devoted the past nine years to bringing up her three children – Stuart, now 28, Helen, 26, and Marcus, 22 – and now, on the eve of her 50th birthday, her former career in marketing belonged to another life.

“I wouldn’t have missed being with the children for anything, but when the reality hit me that they were going to leave, it came as a bit of a shock,” she says. “Family life had been my main focus, and soon I was going to have to find a new role.”

There was no question, however, that she’d go and work for somebody else. “I wanted to be in control of my time; to be able to take a month off in the summer if I felt like it.”

Hoddinot says the empty nest can be an invigorating place Credit: JAY WILLIAMS

It was her pilates teacher who suggested she should qualify as an instructor. She’d been practising for nine years and had never considered taking it further, yet it suddenly made sense. Over the next 12 months, she completed the Body Control Pilates qualification (bodycontrolpilates.com) and by the time the second of her three children left home in 2010 she had built up a teaching practice. 

Now, she has also trained as a somatics coach.

“It’s been a fascinating journey,” she says. “At first I was extremely daunted by the teaching side. I thought I was an awful teacher, so I stuck by the rule book and was very prescriptive. Gradually, though, I developed my own interests and style and now I don’t think twice about it.” Even with pilates teaching taking up four days of her week, adjusting to the empty nest took time. Particularly as her marriage broke down once the children had left. “I’m not going to say I didn’t miss having them at home, but at least I had structure to my week, which made it easier to cope with” she says.

Through pilates she encounters people of all ages sharing the same enthusiasm. “The people I teach age from 20 to 75,” she says. “And my former coach is still teaching aged 70, which inspires me to keep going.”

With a little planning, the empty nest can be an immensely invigorating place, she continues. “I feel very free,” she says. “You invest a huge amount of energy in bringing up children and when you step out the other side it can be very liberating.”

Ros Carman, psychotherapist

Ros Carman left a job in the City to have her daughter, Verity, and has spent the past 18 years as a housewife in Clapham, south-west London. A few years ago, however, determined to make something of her life once Verity had left home, she retrained as a counsellor at Roehampton University and then completed a postgraduate degree in psychotherapy. 

“I realised that you can’t spend your entire life going to coffee mornings and walking the dogs,” she says. “And I never wanted to be that person who gets a secretarial job down the road.”

This weekend she’s going with Verity to look at a number of universities, safe in the knowledge that she now has a thriving psychotherapy practice to keep her busy. “It ties in brilliantly with the fact that she isn’t going to be around anymore,” she says. “Thank goodness I’ve done this, otherwise I would be going back to a very empty house.” Returning to academia, with all its deadlines and exams, was not easy, she says, particularly given the emotional demands of counselling. “I had to fight all my demons in order to do it,” she says. “It was intense but it changed my life. I feel I now understand people on a different level.”

During her studies she made an entirely new, more diverse group of friends – unconnected to parenting, whom she is still close to now. “This is what happens when you take a leap of faith,” she says.

Being a mother and having had a previous career are the perfect credentials for her new venture, she continues. “If I’d done this in my 20s, I don’t think I’d have had any clients,” she says. “Life experience is key with what I do.”

Verity has supported her new career from the outset. She now works four days a week and has a busier social life than before. She admits, though, that she is still not wholly comfortable with the idea of her daughter leaving home. “I feel prepared, though – it won’t be a shock, she says. “There is benefit in thinking ahead. And I think it’s good to show your children you have a good work ethic. Life is about learning – you just have to keep going.”

Susi Bellamy, 54, artist and designer

Susi Bellamy was a fashion journalist living in Islington before she gave up her job to move to the US with her husband’s job. Their stint in Wilmington, Delaware, with their young son Jack, now 24, became the first of a number of moves, during which time Bellamy juggled motherhood – they had two more children, Charlotte, now 22, and Sophie, 19 – and painting. “It was a creative gap – I had to do something,” she says. In the early 2000s she had almost completed a part-time BA in fine art in Newcastle when they moved to Italy for six years before she’d finished – and then when they returned to Newcastle in 2010 she achieved an MA in fine art at Northumbria University and took a studio in town.

Susi Bellamy's cushions won an award at the Northern Design Awards

It was only when Jack started university in 2015, however, that she began to consider more carefully what she might do with her MA. “I looked at one of the small abstracts on a shelf in my studio and thought… that could be a cushion,” she says. By the following September, when Charlotte left for university and Sophie for boarding school, she was in the throes of a midlife renaissance. Her cushions won an award at the Northern Design Awards, and Liberty commissioned a collection. “In 2017, I launched wallpaper and fabric and became a brand,” she explains. 

Her work is now sold in Heals, independent shops here and abroad and on her own website.

What surprised her most about her second career, was that motherhood and all the years away from the office had changed her very little. “The new business was simply an evolution, a development that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had the children,” she says. “I’ve always loved creating patterns and doing shoots and I was back doing it again, with the same adrenalin, sleepless nights and self-doubt. And the thrill that comes when your work is featured.” 

This time, though, a couple of decades wiser, she feels more comfortable using her own intuition and less fearful of other people.

Her children are proud of her work and not in the slightest resentful that she is now so busy, although she wishes she could see more of them. “Family time has become very precious, which sometimes makes me sad,” she says.

She relies on her husband for business advice; the brand has, she says, changed their relationship for the better. “He jokingly threatens to invoice me because breakfast every morning is like a business meeting,” she says. “I feel bad that it’s all about my business now when he’s been the one working all these years, but I need to have someone to talk to.”

susi-bellamy.com

This article was first published in 2018.