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Staying in touch after the nest is empty

Janet EllisWhen a friend’s mobile rang the other day, she blushed as she looked at the incoming number and muttered "I’ll ring them back later". Who was the mystery caller: lover? Bank manager? Bowel specialist? No, the person trying to ring was her 20 year old daughter, in her second year at university.

Why the embarrassment? Because I’d been with this friend the day before and her daughter had rung then, too. They’d chatted – about not very much, updating each other on their days and plans – and now, she confessed, she’d worried that I might think they were in touch too much, that the apron strings went uncut and neither had managed to "let go". It’s fine, I told her…and here’s why:

When my youngest left for university two years ago, the first of my three to do so, I read up a little on "empty nest syndrome". Let them go, was the broad counsel. Don’t inundate them with calls, let them make the approach. Don’t bombard them with questions or with what you’re up to. They’ve left home, things are different now, and if you want them to become Proper Adults, they’ve got to do it alone...or at least in the company of their peers. You may feel "a little sad" as your role is "redefined". Join a choir! Book a holiday! Revel in spontaneity!

Of course, there’s a grain of truth in all that. No young person, trying to find their way round both a campus and a new set of friends, wants to take calls from a weeping woman with a slew of queries. And there is a new delight in discovering yourself as a newly sort-of-single person. As I know with my eldest, now a mother herself, your relationships with your children change and deepen as they grow older. But I was totally unprepared for the avalanche of something very like grief that hit me when my youngest daughter left. While I understood logically that the whole of raising children is, in fact, something of an exercise in sending them away from you, and that keeping all your children at home into adulthood would feel fifty kinds of weird, I was mired in sadness. What helped in the end was keeping in touch. And it came from her.

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As a family, we speak and text all the time. Like a lot of parents, we do a lot of things with our grown-up children and that’s by mutual choice. There’s no three-line whip to attend events, no obligation to call, but we all share a sense of humour and an outlook on the world that is enhanced by communication . It would have felt odd to all of us for that to stop. Just like my friend’s offspring, my daughter rings or texts about her doings and asks after mine. Not all the time (I promise, I don’t worry if I don’t hear!) but it seems as natural to keep up with her as it does with her older brother and much older sister.

My kids aren’t my "best friends", it just turns out that we seem to have a relationship that extends beyond duty. And I seem, too, to have raised the kind of straight-talking people who would soon tell me if keeping in touch ever felt wrong!

Follow Janet on twitter: @missjanetellis