By Bunmi Sofola
Fathers are not meant to mourn the empty nest like mothers do. Recently, Joshua, who runs his advertising company had to see off the last of his three children to a university abroad. “My son, Dare recently left home to start a four-year course at the university thousands of miles away from home. I am unequivocally thrilled for him.
But not for myself. In fact, I’m scared! He had all the required vaccination in preparation for student life, but there, there’s no medication you can take to word off the so-called ‘empty-nest syndrome.’
“The narrow domestic conventions of the 50s and 60s, have changed, of course, to accommodate all sorts of family arrangements. As a child myself, I knew hardly any working mums, let alone stay-at-home dads. But even in this day and age, it is usually the mother who has nurtured the chicks, so she is the one expected to—and indeed—entitled to be left bereft when the fledglings are finally old enough to fly. And where does that leave us as fathers? As towers of strength and comfort, naturally. But what if we don’t feel very strong? What if it’s us who need comforting?
“Dare and I aren’t pals. We’re father and son, which is different. But we often play golf and tennis. We watch football and films together on the telly and he shows me funny You Tube clips that I would never have found on my own. We have lots of laughs. Partly because he’s the youngest of our three children and it wouldn’t seem right with the other two, and partly to indulge what’s left of the big kid in me, I still have occasional mock-fights with him.
‘I won’t have anyone to punch and wrestle when he’s gone,’ I lamented to Molade my wife. ‘Yes, but I don’t think Dare particularly likes that,’ she said. ‘He hasn’t liked it for about five years.’ My face fell. ‘But you can always go and visit him at university on your foreign business trips, if you want someone to wrestle with,’ she added hastily. Sympathetically, as if to a disappointed toddler, but it was too late.
“I was reminded of the time about ten years ago when she gently told me that it was no longer appropriate for me to walk into my adolescent daughter’s bedroom without knocking. Fatherhood is full of small moments like that, when you have to start doing things differently. But empty-nest syndrome is not about doing things differently.
It’s about not doing things any longer. Or at least, not until they come home on long vacations, but there’s no point pretending that life will ever be quite the same again. Plenty has been said and written about today’s ‘boomerang generation’—children who leave home but then come back for the free bed and board. But that’s largely a metropolitan phenomenon. We live in the outskirt of the city—no youngster with any sense of ambition boomerangs back here!
“Vaguely, I remembered a line from a philosopher that has stuck in my head for decades, about parents being the bows and arrows from which children ‘as living arrows’ are sent forth. The stronger the bows, the further and straighter the arrow fly. That’s a lovely, comforting image. But will it be enough to sustain me when I’m trying to hit bulls-eyes and sink putts on my own? I fear not.
“I remember when Gbeke, our middle child left for the university up North and I’d seen him off at the airport. I had spent ages reassuring my wife that he would be fine, but it wasn’t anxiety about his safety that hit me like a ton of bricks seconds after I’d hugged him and started walking back to the car park. It was something else, something indefinable, something about fatherhood. Whatever it was, by the time I got to the exit, I was blubbing like a baby, with people glancing at me and then away, embarrassed.
“Now it’s Dare’s turn to fly the nest. Only he doesn’t need my protection any longer. He’s a man and off to start his manhood in time—honoured fashion by drinking lager and socialising with fellow students like I did.
So where did all that leave me when I confronted the empty nest? When our daughter left to go to the university six years ago, we still had two sons at home, so that was different. Moreover, she was a girl. I missed her, but not because I spent lots of time talking and watching and playing sports with her, because I didn’t. Gender makes a difference too.
“And yet, the real loss this time should really be my wife’s, she is the one who has made a 25-year project of all our children, taking them to school, helping them with their homework, teaching them to cook, replacing their lost iPhones, always dependable, always there.
So I do not underestimate how hard my wife is going to find it now the nest is completely empty. She will feel Dare’s absence deeply, and has admitted to being fine when she whisked him off to buy bits and pieces he would need, but then jolting awake in the middle of the night, with the sudden painful realisation that her baby (all over 6ft of him) had gone!
“The truth is, this is not just about me, about my void. But it is very much about a husband and wife who have shared our home with our children for almost all our 26 years of married life. We are on the threshold of a new phase just as much as Dare is, and we’re already trying to embrace it. We’ve just booked a cruise with close friends that takes of a couple of weeks from now, which we would never have done when Dare was at home.
Yet our new life together is bound to throw up challenges as well as pleasures. What will become of cherished traditions like the Sunday special meals which my wife insisted on cooking even when there were just three of us? I’m sure that was mostly about feeding her young. I can’t imagine her rushing around pots and pans on Sunday just to get lunch for the two of us!
“The good point is we will have to talk more, do more, play more. It could even be a boom to our sex life—no danger of an afternoon liaison being interrupted by the indignant teenage bellow ‘where are my football boots?’—but then, we might miss the frisson of adventure. For so long, our children’s needs and proximity have determined the rhythms of our relationship. Now that’s about to change for ever. And in all honesty, that scares me too!”