Mother woman baby daughter

Photo: Nilsson, Huett, Ulf

Social drinking eventually turned lethal for my mother. And while I understood alcoholism as a disease, I remember wondering what had made her turn from a loving mother who enjoyed a glass or two of wine over dinner to an angry stranger incapable of stopping at just one or two. Within a short time the disease took hold and ultimately stole her from us. After her death, as is common when you lose someone you love, I questioned whether I could have saved her.

While I was growing up my parents were social creatures. They would regularly entertain dinner guests or visit friends for a lazy weekend barbecue. Our house was regularly abuzz with conversation and laughter. I loved listening to my parents entertain. I would curl up on the upstairs landing and try to make sense of the muffled conversation. What I didn't realise until much later was just how important it was to my mother.

When I finished university I chose to live interstate and despite my parents' initial reservations, they were supportive. Around the same time my sister finished high school and moved to another city to continue her studies. At the time we were so focused on the next chapter in our lives we gave little thought to the impact these changes would have on mum. Many of our friends were moving, working interstate, or travelling overseas. While mum and her friends would joke about wanting to keep their children home forever, we all knew and accepted that these changes were necessary and positive.

After I left I phoned home regularly and while there wasn't an immediate change in mum I could sense a growing sadness. My dad worked long hours and our once loud and commonly crowded house was suddenly empty. Mum had spoken often of her desire to stay home and raise us and while she didn't express it directly, I could tell she had lost her sense of purpose. My sister and I encouraged her to look for a part-time job or get a hobby and we assumed that would be enough, that her depression would lift, but it didn't. While I understand her subsequent illness and death wasn't our fault I was recently reminded of the impact our departure had.

This week my daughter enjoyed her first morning of prep. She is still at kinder and this is the transition stage where she experiments with her soon-to-be new routine. She was so excited and as we walked to school with her older brother, it occurred to me I will soon have two school-aged children and as of next year, during school hours at least, I'll be home alone. While my children will obviously still live with us for many years and my days will continue to be full of drop-offs, pick-ups and after-school activities, it did give me a new insight into what mum may have been feeling those first months and years after we left home.

Empty nest syndrome commonly refers to feelings of depression, sadness, and/or grief experienced by parents and caregivers after children come of age and leave their childhood homes. The experience of letting go can be painful, despite us encouraging our children to become independent as they grow.

As I left the school that morning after taking my daughter to prep, I experienced feelings I had not anticipated. I have enjoyed the time I've spent at home with my children before they started school and as they grow older I am looking forward to further pursuing career and personal aspirations. But as I walked into my house I felt an immediate sense of loss. While it took me by surprise, the feeling quickly passed and I made a coffee and went about my day.

That evening as I tucked my children into bed I thought about mum. So much of who she was revolved around raising me and my sister. School committees, fund-raising, social events; she was always on the go doing something related to being an active and engaged parent. But according to Dr Carin Rubenstein, author of Beyond the Mommy Years, “Mothers must prepare themselves for growing beyond the mommy years by finding a fulfilling and engaging life before their children leave home—one that goes beyond the needs and desires and interests of the kids.”

While during the '70s and '80s relationship experts characterised the notion of “empty nest syndrome” as a time of depression and loss of purpose, particularly among mothers, more recently it is being seen as a time for greater freedom and relaxed responsibility. Research published in 2010 in the Journal of Psychological Science shows that marital satisfaction actually improves when the children finally take their exits.

It seems parents are busier than ever before and mixing career and family is the norm. Raising children can be all-consuming. We are so focused on the practical details of parenting that it can be difficult to find time for life's other pleasures. Then our children grow up and that transition from chaos to quiet can be confronting.

I will never know whether staying longer in my childhood home could have made a difference to my mum. And while, over the years, I have grappled with feelings of guilt, ultimately it doesn't matter. I left for the right reasons, to build a life for myself, and I have. The thing I realise now is that the need to define myself as something other than a mother is vital. I love my children and the pleasure I gain from raising them is boundless, but just as important is embracing and forging my own identity.