The Day My Daughter Left Home - Fear of An Empty Nest

Toby Hazlewood

Why I'm worried about her sister doing the same

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It was a sunny August afternoon in 2018 — I put on my sunglasses and began saying my last goodbye to my eldest daughter at the entrance to our apartment building. She was 18 years old and the following day would be heading off to university.

The sunglasses were part of my pathetic armoury, intended to preserve a little dignity in front of my daughter, her younger sister and her mother — my ex-wife.

As I hugged her tightly one last time, I broke.

I crumbled into poorly-restrained convulsions of tears, choking them back just enough that I might impart final words of support, encouragement and wisdom before waving her off.

There had been many private rehearsals of that moment in the days before. What might I say to mark the occasion, this being the end of an era and all? It felt like it needed something momentous, reassuring and reaffirming such was the gravity of the situation. I’d ended up in tears each time — at least on those occasions there were no witnesses.

Hopefully the words that I spluttered, coupled with my physical demeanour conveyed at least part of my intended message — that she was loved, that I’d miss her and that no matter where she was I would always be there for her when needed.

I can’t recall what I said, only how I said it.

The end of an era

I’ve been blessed to enjoy a close and loving relationship with my daughters since their birth. I was an active and hands-on dad when they were babies and relished the nighttime feeds and the endless treks around the neighbourhood, pushing them in the pram. As they grew, I grew with them.

Divorcing from their mother when they were wee just 6 and 3 might have threatened my bond with them. Instead, we resolved as parents that while our marriage was over, we each had a part to play in actively raising the kids we’d brought into the world together. We decided to co-parent them equally and for most of the 11 years following divorce to that point the girls had lived alternate weeks with their Mum and then with me, 50–50.

It hadn’t always been easy — there were just as many times of difficulty and discord as arise in any conventional family, but just as many good and happy times too. Raising my kids for half the time as a single dad strengthened the intrinsic bond between the three of us.

That August day felt like the end of an era. Seeing her off felt like as great a loss as I’ve ever faced.

It seems ridiculous looking back on it. I knew I’d see her frequently between semesters, in the summers and so-on. At the time though I couldn’t see beyond the pain of the moment — the loss of my little girl.

Memories of that day remain vivid.

A new normal

We’ve all settled into the norm — her living and studying away from home. Barely a day passes without us speaking but I still feel wistful for the past.

What troubles me right now is that my younger daughter is inside her last two years of education before she too departs for University. With the passing of that milestone I’m inside my last two years as a part-time single dad. Forever.

The emotional effects of her departure may ultimately be dulled to some extent, thanks to the way that second children follow in the slipstream of their older siblings. It won’t mean I care any less.

I’ll sell my apartment which had served as our base in the weeks they were with me. Gone with it will be the many years of happy memories of the three of us living there, and latterly just the two of us.

Five years ago I remarried and have another home with my wife and two younger step-kids an hour’s drive away. Our marriage was formed on the basis of me having the pre-existing commitment to raising my kids as I have. Living for alternate weeks with my daughters in a separate town has been an accepted feature of our marital life, a facet of our unconventional blended family.

I look forward to no longer having to live out of a suitcase, moving between homes weekly. I relish finally being able to live full-time with my wife.

On the other hand, I worry.

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Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Has our marriage been made strong through being apart for alternate weeks? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, doesn’t it? Will we feel crowded when we’re suddenly living together full-time?

How will my wife and step-kids cope with me being there permanently instead of for alternate weeks? I’m sure that just as my girls and I had our own routines and rituals and ways of living, so too do my wife and step-kids. Will we find a comfortable middle-ground?

How will it feel to no longer have regular time with my daughters? Will they be envious of me spending all my time with the rest of our blended family? Will I resent my step-kids for being around when I’ve lost quality time with my own kids?

Will it feel as though a part of me, the bit that fulfilled the role of part-time single father has died when my daughter moves on? I’m active in the lives of my step-kids too but that’s never been as involved or all-consuming as my role in my own kids’ lives has been. I’ve not sought to replace their own father who they love and see regularly.

I realise that my fears are typical of those faced by many parents dealing with a suddenly empty (or soon-to-be empty) nest. My role as a stay-at-home, work-at-home single father is a significant part of my own identity. The effects from losing this may be drastic if not well managed.

There are around 18 months left before she finishes school and prepares for university. Two years from now she’ll be embroiled in her first semester of study.

The danger of living on countdown

I have a grim sense of time ticking away, like I’m living on countdown. With each day that passes I reluctantly acknowledge one-less day of fulfilling a role that I’ve known for most of my adult life. Covid-19 robbed me of at least 12 weeks of living with my daughter — we’d decided she’d endure lockdown with her Mum rather than travelling back and forth between us. The days that remain are precious, part of a finite limited supply.

She’s a typical 17 year old girl — consistently intelligent, polite, conscientious and loving. She can also be belligerent, prickly and self-centred as teenagers are. For the most part we get along brilliantly and share laughs daily. Just occasionally, on days like today we argue and fall-out over a trivial difference of opinion. It usually takes a night’s sleep for the dust to settle and our relationship to return to normal once again.

Each day featuring discord and disagreement feels like a day wasted from the precious bank of days remaining before the nest is empty.

There is of course no option other than to accept things for what they are and to make the best of each and every moment.

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Living for now

I’m blessed that I’ve been actively involved in raising my girls as closely as I have — not in spite of, but enabled by my divorcing from their mother (and thanks to the cordial nature of that parting). The closeness of the parenting bond will evolve, just as it has with my eldest since she moved on.

There will always be a unique tie that exists between the three of us. We’re a team. A unit. A subset of our unusual family unit, sharing a relationship that can’t be imitated or replaced.

I know that as they move on in life, they’ll continue to make me as proud as any dad can be of his offspring. They’ll be there for me as I’m there for them, no matter where they are.

In the meantime I will make the most of the time I have with daughter number two, enjoying the good days and riding out the argumentative days before she moves on too.

In my pragmatic moments I remember that I’ll be fine too. I’ll evolve. I have the love and support of my wife and my family and the continued love of my daughters too.

And after all, parenting is a role for life — regardless of whether the kids live in the same place as their parents or not.

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