The shifting sands of the expat empty nest

It’s taken me almost five years to write about my empty nest. It’s a surprise, particularly to me, someone who has no compunction about revealing my vulnerability. It is five years now since Josh left home for university and seven since Sam left before him.

Living in the Netherlands at the time, both our boys moved to London a month after receiving their A Level results, as is the British way. So, when they left they moved abroad. We’d already been there five or six years. We had great friends, fulfilling work and felt totally at home. Their absence did not leave the gaping hole I had been anticipating. What’s more, their proximity meant we saw them often. I always remember hearing ‘Superwoman’ Shirley Conran speak at the Savoy. She told us women with kids not to put our lives on hold for the children because one day they would leave home and then, where would we be? I think I did a pretty good job of retaining my professional identity to avoid this. Maybe too good?

I knew I was not unaffected by the loss of young men raiding my fridge frighteningly fast, but I thought I was coping fairly well. Also, I was kind of waiting for things to settle down to a new normal. Only, that hasn’t happened. My empty nest keeps changing. It changes size and shape month on month. Like the sand dunes in Dubai it moves and shifts, gently morphing imperceptibly into something new.

Then, almost three years ago, Ian and I moved to Kuala Lumpur and left both boys in Europe. After 28 years on the move we’re used to being a short plane ride from family and friends but being a long-haul flight from our offspring was a big deal. I think this was when my empty nest really hit home.

Moving to Malaysia was a different story in other respects too. Here we were in our fifties and with no social network, no support group and for the first time in decades I was not going to set up a business locally. I would keep working but do so wholly online. So no women’s business networks for me. No school gates. No clients. No kids.

It was time for me to take note of what I’d been preaching for years and put my own advice into practice. It was all very well having a huge global network – now I needed a local one more than ever. And that has taken time. Being defined for so many years by my work I was distinctly uneasy at coffee mornings. I didn’t do morning events; that was when I worked. I preferred evening business clubs with an inspiring speaker and networking with people like me. I tell you, it’s been a learning and what’s more, it’s been slow going. Where it used to take me a year when the kids were at home, to settle in a new place, this time it’s honestly taken two. As usual I’ve set up a writers’ circle. I contribute to the British women’s club magazine and have made friends via a yoga class and the condo we lived in for the first two years. Oh how glad I am that this empty nester picked a condo to start with. I’ve even joined a book club!

Apart from the impossible time zone difference between SE Asia and Germany, where Sam is now living, there have been unexpected benefits to our new childfree status. We go away every bank holiday weekend, usually taking a low cost airline somewhere pretty exotic. In fact, I wrote this on the plane to the Margaret River knowing that we wouldn’t return home to a kitchen sink full of dirty dishes, dirty plates in bedrooms and the dishwasher still needing to be unloaded.

By living somewhere exotic and having lots of wonderful friends who also find their nests empty, instead of the weekend visits with the family we used to enjoy, they come for a week, or two, or even three and we get to go on more trips with them too.

These days, now the boys are grown up, we also get to go visit them in their own exotic locations. Josh is now in Jogjakarta and, as I said, Sam is in Berlin.

The biggest surprise has been the joy of hosting young strangers in our house. We regularly open the door to a range of lovely young people we have never or scarcely met before. This is the age of the backpacker, the perpetual traveller, the wwoofer and couchsurfer.  It usually begins with a Whatsapp message from Sam or Josh asking whether we are in on such and such a date. Then they say they have a friend who just happens to be coming through KL and on a tight budget and… and…

kitchen help
kitchen help

And so they visit and in a flash our nest is full of life and smelly feet again. We enjoy the company. In a way they become proxy children. They arrive, rather smelly, turtled with backpacks, yet without agenda, history or emotional baggage. They ask our advice. They listen to us. Recently, Geraint, an Aussie cycling from Down Under to England, called in on his way through, with the British cyclist called Tristan, he’d met en route. After I had frog-marched them to the washing machine, they asked if they could help cook dinner, lay the table, wash up. Ian and I went out for a while and when we returned home, they had mopped the kitchen floor. A week later and Josh popped home and ‘accidentally’ brought his French friend Léandre with him. Overnight, we ran out of pillows.

Entertaining one of ours and a spare!
Entertaining one of ours and a spare!

Nests, I realise, have different degrees of emptiness. Making sure they, like beds, never get completely cold, is definitely my preferred coping mechanism. I feel privileged that the kids consider us ‘okay’ enough to spend time with their friends and welcome the fillip these impromptu visits provide.


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