Empty nest: grow them up, let them go

As my lead character in my work in progress (Wherever You Go) comes to a deep and life-changing realisation, I’ve been helping 19-year-old Monkey fly the nest.


Monkey’s been wanting to move in with friends for a while, so he’s understandably excited at the prospect of true independence. And I’m happy for him. I want him to be independent. But he’s the first of our four to leave … and I’m finally understanding the term ’empty nest’.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew what the phrase meant. I just didn’t know how it would feel. I didn’t know it would make me feel flat inside. Bereft. I didn’t know it would make me feel like crying. Like walking in and out of the empty bedroom a dozen times. And staring at the emptiness. Like peeking out the blinds over and over, and then remembering he’s not coming home. And reading the same words over and over because I’m wondering if he’s stocked the cupboards yet.

I have to remind myself that my job is to grow him up and then let him go. And he’s a great young man. No angel, but show me a kid that is. He’s got dreams and ideals and he’s ready to pursue them, without my help. What more can ask for?


I wrote the following letter for Monkey when he graduated from school. I didn’t get to see him graduate. He opted to attend Leavers week in Margaret River (his ceremony was smack in the middle of that week). I didn’t share it back then, but now that he’s made this final pull-away step, I wanted to share it.

My dear Monkey,

Tonight you’re graduating from school. You’re not going to be at the ceremony because right now you’re at Leavers Week in Margaret River instead. Even though I get that it’s a no-brainer choice for you, I am a bit sad not to watch you get the certificate. You probably wonder why. After all, school is done, end of story. It’s hard to explain, but for a mother, the story never ends. I’ve watched you every step of the way, from the time you were born, and your school life is a mere few chapters in the Christopher story.

Unlike Bear, you weren’t as interested in showing off how well you could write your name, sing the alphabet, or count to 10. Instead, you were more interested in drawing on pages and pages of paper, playing in the sandpit (sometimes for hours), and creating things with playdough (you could sit for even more hours with playdough). Sometimes you added army men and squashed them under mounds of coloured dough; sometimes you made cookies and cakes for me to “eat”. Lots of them.

When it came to pre-school, you were Not Interested. Not at all. Sometimes I’d carry you to the car crying (both of us) and you’d do that thing where you grabbed hold of the door with your arms and legs. And arch your back when I tried to put the seat belt on. I had to sneak out of the classroom when you were distracted. And then, when I picked you up and asked you about your day, you’d say the same thing each time: “It was horrible”. “Surely there must have been something good?” I’d prompt. “I had a sandwich,” you’d say. Or “No. Nothing was good about it at all.” I despaired of the day you would start “big school”.

When it happened, you surprised me. We’d moved to Perth and I hadn’t expected you to start school for another year (which would have been the case if we’d stayed in Sydney). The school suggested you start pre-primary and with much trepidation, I agreed. To my surprise, the only screams came from having to walk to school (and the day you rode your bike straight down the hill before I was ready). You loved pre-primary. Stories abounded of girls who, in your words, were “fools” because they wanted to chase you and kiss you … until the day you fell “in love” with one called Holly. You drew her a love letter and presented it to her the next day. “Thanks,” she said, and ran off, much to your disappointment.

Your cheeky side came to the forefront in primary school (and I suspect much of high school). I remember you on stage at the school concert, tying your alien antennae to Harry’s in a way that everyone except Harry knew what was happening. I remember you wearing your hair in clips because you didn’t want to have a hair cut. One teacher described you as the “funniest child she’d ever seen”. Others said you needed to learn when to be funny and when not to.

The last few years of school were difficult for you. A mixture of boredom and “can’t be bothered” set in. I’m sure you have some good memories of hanging out with your mates, but less of the actual school work. I’m also sure you were relieved to see the back of school.

So here’s where the advice bit comes in (work with me – just nod and smile a couple of times): some say when you leave school the real learning begins. I think learning is lifelong – your school years just set the foundation. But now, instead of learning complicated equations and discussing books you don’t even like (and possibly didn’t read), learning will take on a whole new meaning for you. It’s limitless, Monkey … there’s so much you can learn and most of it doesn’t come from books. And that’s my advice – live, laugh and learn. You’ll make mistakes (who doesn’t?), but hopefully you’ll only make the same mistake once.

Monkey, you deserve the best from this world – it’s time to go out there and get it. It’s up to you now – it’s time for me to stand back so you can discover how the world works on your own. But, whenever you need me, I’ll be there to listen, encourage, cheer, hug, console and marvel (and cook special dinners). I’m so proud of you – for the boy you’ve always been and the man you are becoming. Thank you for being such an important, incredibly wonderful part of my life.

I love you, Monkey.

Fly Monkey, fly. Just remember to fly home sometimes.


PS. The bird photos of birds were taken on my Tasmanian holiday. I spent ages watching the ducklings, while Mother Duck quacked nearby. She was so protective, and I wanted to say, ‘It’s OK, I get it.

Fairy wren at Port Arthur






Picture of Monique Mulligan

Monique Mulligan

0 Responses

  1. That’s a beautiful letter. I know exactly where you’re coming from, believe me! I was down for about a year after our daughter left home. It’s a real end of an era kind of thing. For me, it meant that the happiest days of my life were coming to an end—I’d no longer have all my kids around me. I’m still not completely comfortable with it, I must say, although we did replace our daughter with another dog, and that helped! Blessings to you, and please know I know how hard it is. xx

  2. Beautiful post, I moaned to my eldest only yesterday that I still can’t shake off after three years the hollow empty nest syndrome. Brittany said, ‘You raised us to be independent mum’. I said’ ‘Do other mothers feel like this’? ‘No only you mum,’ she said. I doubt that I thought X

  3. I’ve just discovered your website and this lovely post. I have two of my six children living out of home. One I see often the other rarely and I do miss him so but I try really hard not to guilt him into visiting. I remember I could go months without seeing my mother when I first left home and only realise now how she must have felt. I don’t want to even think about my other children leaving( although they are all keen and talk about it all the time) .

    1. Thanks Veronica for your lovely feedback. I remember being 19 and wanting to leave home and my mother was so sad. Now we live on opposite sides of the country.

      I have three left at home but one by one they will go. I do love them but I also think it’s important to spread their wings and fly. The great thing about Monkey moving out is that we have more to talk about now … that’s great, in my eyes.

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