So I’ve finally stopped dreaming I’m in America, and I’ve stopped waking in the night and wondering where the hell I am. My sleep cycles are set to England, and specifically Hepworth Towers, and my brain works from 7 a.m. onwards everyday. But I just got an email from Wendy, giving me domestic and family news, and I’m back in their living room in Bernal Heights, watching laughing Lux chase up and down.
How on earth did people manage with emigrating families before air travel and phone and email? I guess when you kissed them goodbye at Southampton or Liverpool, it really was goodbye. I’m so glad that’s not how it is for me.
And now it’s made me think of a piece I had in The Times, some years ago…
The continuing story of the empty nest: optimum distance
An empty nest is a place that is heartening to look forward to, in the way that the suffering, in olden times, looked forward to heaven. And now I have achieved nirvana I relish it.
But I still love to spend time with my children. Nor is my caring role redundant.
That ridiculous term "life long parenting" - to describe the phenomenon of adult children returning to live with their parents - must have been coined by a non-parent. Haven't children always been for life, and not just for Christmas? Whatever their offspring's pain - whether it be a trapped finger or a mangled heart - a mother always wishes she could bear it for them. Soppy? It's true.
The very week the 18 year old moved out and left us in peace, the 29 year old rang to inform us he had just spent the night hooked up to monitors after an emergency admission to hospital. The medics insisted his condition only required rest and an early check up, and sent him home, but I was unconvinced, and hopped on a train to go and make my own early check up. Mothers do that.
But even if there is an unbreakable bond, once children grow up there is an optimum distance at which parents and offspring should live: near enough to allow travel of either party for an emergency dash, or for a weekend stay, but far enough away to make it unfeasible for anyone to drop in unexpectedly.
Parents, just like children, have their own lives to lead, and their own need of privacy. If a couple of old fogeys are agile enough to want to make love on the kitchen table, they won't welcome someone with a front door key waltzing in unannounced.
The other advantage of having children easily accessible but at a distance is that a weekend visit provides a chance to get away from middle aged cosiness. For several years my eldest two children have lived in London, thus providing me with comfortable bolt-holes from which they could take me out to sample the delights of young urban chic entertainment.
How else would I - a country bumpkin who has led a sheltered life - have the chance to sample tequila slammers in an ex-engineering-workshop bar in Hoxton, with décor so uncompromisingly industrial I expected the ladies loos to consist of a row of galvanised buckets? My last exciting foray into their lives led to cocktails in a private bar with a secret Soho location, which, when I entered the blacked out frontage, made me feel as if I was time travelling back to the prohibition.
But now one of these children has moved to live within half an hour of here (Derbyshire) closing one of my bolt-holes; and the second child is threatening not just to leave London, but to flee the country. Last week he told us of his plans to stop teleworking for his American employer and to move out to Denver to work on site.
I wanted to scream "Don't do it - I'll miss you too much!" but I didn't. I was well behaved and breezy. I couldn't quite squeeze out "What a great idea," as the old man did (with no apparent effort, incidentally), but I did manage some intelligent questions about living in lofts.
Vacating the nest is one thing: leaving the continent is another. What is the point of having children if you can't spend time with them and enjoy their company? And how can you do this if they live a ten hour flight away?
What is troubling me now is the thought that because I voiced no protest he might think I don't care about his going, and that I really shall not miss him. It's the same kind of bind you get into when young adult offspring hint, for the first time, that they might not come back for Christmas. You wish they would come home but genuinely don't want to apply any pressure; but then you worry that if you don't sound disappointed they might think you don't want to see them. And then there is the Christmas when you long for a quiet time a deux with your spouse, but don't want to offend the offspring by suggesting they stay away.
It's a tricky skill to master, this next stage of parenting.
Also, the caring role has started to hover between the generations before it finally settles on the younger one. It was my adult children who were looking after me on our nights out in London. But on one occasion when waiting for the midnight tube, I wondered how safe we were, and if my children ever got nervous, and I heard myself ask “If I weren’t here, would you be scared?”
But we are getting there. On a recent protest march with my children my elder son left early, with the words (to me) "Take care. Have fun." Then, pointing to the other two, he said "Make sure you stay with them."
A woman walking alongside me overheard and laughed.
"That," she said, "must be your son."
© Sue Hepworth/Times Newspapers 2011
published here with kind permission of The Times.