The academic year is in full swing and for many families who have recently sent their last child off to university abroad, the nest that they spent years carefully building, feathering and filling is empty. And since many students head overseas for their undergraduate studies, they won't be back for weekends. For some, it may prompt a new lease on life - the chance to explore new opportunities and reconnect with their partner. For others, it brings a profound sense of loss and sadness.
"The big difference is how quiet the house is," says Hanan Sayed, a mother of two who lives in Abu Dhabi and whose second child has just left home for university in the US. "My son was always chatting about something, listening to music, watching TV, having friends over." Working long hours (she works for the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation) means that she can largely ignore their absence during the week. But, says Sayed, Fridays are difficult. "Our routine of my husband getting manakeesh in the morning for the kids, then chasing them to wake up before the noon prayers and just being around them all day really can't be replaced."
"I went to Spinneys on Saturday and I did not know what to buy," says Louise Armstrong, who lives in Dubai and whose third child has just left for university in the UK. "I've always bought stuff for the kids and all of sudden I don't even know what I like."
In some ways, says Armstrong, it is easier than when her first child left. "Now I know what to do," she says. "I kind of know how it's going to feel when I drop her off and I know I won't feel that awful for that long. Of course you don't forget and in the beginning it's very painful, but that doesn't last and the intensity of it fades."
For Aida Mansour, the managing partner of Café Arabia in Abu Dhabi, whose daughter is leaving for university at the end of this year, separation anxiety has already kicked in. "Because I am a single mum I find myself too clingy to Sarah," she says, "demanding more hugs and to be with her, while nothing has changed on her side. She finds me too emotional to handle. There is not one day that passes by without me thinking that next year, this time, this meal, this afternoon, she will not be with me. Sometimes I feel I need counselling, which I never needed in the past when I separated from my husband!"
Having a full-time job and an active social life and hobbies has lessened the impact of her second daughter's departure for university in Scotland, says Jenny Dolan, a nurse at Repton School in Dubai. "I miss them very much," she says, "but on the whole I think it's quite positive. In some ways it's easier in that things have slowed down a bit and you've got more time to focus on things you didn't have time to do before. I have read more books since they left than I have in the past few years."
Shifting the focus back on to you and your partner can be one of the biggest adjustments. "We've actually sat in a coffee shop and joked about: 'Well, what are we going to talk about now?'," says Dolan. "'You'll need to start thinking of conversation.' We find that aspect quite funny."
"If I didn't get on with my husband," says Armstrong, "and I know people who are in that situation, then that must be hell because you're left without your kids, who have been your life and then you're with this man who you don't particularly want to be with." In order to maximise their spare time together, the Armstrongs are active members of the sailing club. "As opposed to golf, which is something I can't get involved with," she says, "sailing is something we can do together."
Two years ago, Armstrong gave up her job as a school swimming coach and started working from home. "I was very aware that in two years' time I was going to be on my own," she says, "so I prepared myself for flexibility so I could leave Dubai when I want and be with my kids." She is now a currencies trader. "It's very flexible and I can work anywhere I like from my laptop so I can work from the UK when I stay with my daughter."
Sayed also made preparations in advance. "Almost five years ago I started to think of what type of work I could get involved in that would give me more flexibility, mobility and start to connect back to the States. Previously I worked on design and construction projects that required rigorous hours onsite. So I joined the Guggenheim, compelled by the exciting vision of a cultural renaissance and to give more flexibility in working hours."
Reflect, don't deflect
While many empty-nesters may choose to bury themselves in new projects or a new career, it may not always be the best solution, says Helen Williams, a counsellor and the managing director of Lifeworks Counselling and Development in Dubai. "All they do is transition from motherhood into career women and still don't make contact with themselves," she says, "so eventually empty-nest syndrome becomes 'What do I do now I'm retired' syndrome. What you need to do is grieve, for the loss of the role and the identity you had as well as for the child and the space that it creates. Not to replace it with something else, but to pay attention to it."
Then, she says, you need to rebuild your relationship with yourself. "Write a list of 50 ways that you can cherish and nourish yourself, that cost nothing. Things such as making space for yourself by going swimming or walking along the sand, by lighting a candle, by putting time aside to read. It really makes you look at what makes you happy."