The nest doesn’t stay empty for long nowadays

‘Mum, please don’t do that,’ my daughter says on Skype from Vancouver when I tell her I’ve been mooching around in her bedroom

‘My children’s bedrooms are empty, but only for now.’ Illustration: Thinkstock

‘My children’s bedrooms are empty, but only for now.’ Illustration: Thinkstock

Fri, Jul 18, 2014, 01:00

The woman next to me in the changing room had just finished getting two very young children into their togs and was telling them to run along to the pool, where Dad was waiting. They trotted off, and she packed away all their clothes and shoes and juices and bananas and things in the locker before undressing quite slowly. It was 9am and she might have resented not having a little more privacy. We had been given adjoining lockers, in the same way that empty restaurants will put a handful of customers sitting side by side. She was all tangled up in the straps of her swimsuit when a voice came from beyond the sheep dip-type stall that separates the changing room from the pool. “Helen,” the voice called, “Helen, are you there?” Dad, presumably.

“What?” she bellowed back “What, what, what, what, what?” Her fury was magnificent. Did she mean, “Jesus can you not leave me in peace for five effing minutes so that I can get undressed?” Or was it, “Thanks to the lot of you; I am struggling to get into this swimsuit when I used to wear a bikini.”

I wanted to wave a magic wand and transport her to some tropical beach with her own sunbed and umbrella, and someone to give her a head massage. I wanted to tell her, “This will all pass”, but I doubt she would have welcomed the advice. At her age I didn’t believe any of that guff from older women: those warnings to enjoy every minute with the children because the time would go by in a flash and then they would be gone. But it does go by in a flash. One minute you’re blowing up armbands poolside and the next you’re wandering in and out of empty bedrooms, sitting on perfectly made-up beds and staring into space like someone in a depressing play.

“Mum, please don’t do that,” my daughter says on Skype from Vancouver when I tell her I’ve been mooching around in her bedroom. “It’s a bit creepy.” She doesn’t know the half of it. Access to this private, princessy space has tended to be by invitation only in recent years, but now she is away I can marvel freely at all her stuff – all the purses she has collected since age two, her treasured Harry Potters, her vast amount of make-up, the various fake-tan stains on the carpet, and her wardrobe, which I’ve been rifling through. I’m not looking for a diary or anything, I just like to be around her things. Still, there was no excuse for trying on her debs dress. That is creepy, I grant you.

And on to the next room

Next door my adult son’s room has a shrine-like feel too, what with his tin of Brylcreme still open by the wash-hand basin even though he moved out months ago. Recently we suggested that his room could evolve a little, say into a guest bedroom. I joked about my own childhood bedroom disappearing forever the summer I moved to London, converted into a TV room. Clearly that was another time, another planet even. Could we please not touch his room, as he will need it back. He’s 22.

Well, I have no objection to that. There’s an understanding now that children don’t simply grow up and leave, that because of our fragile economy, they are liable to keep coming back. The Americans call it the boomerang generation – the children who end up living back in their old bedrooms because they can’t get jobs that pay well enough to have their own households. There, one in five people in their early 20s and 30s are living with their parents, double the number from a generation ago.

So, these bedrooms are empty, but only for now. They can fill up in term time and empty in the holidays; fill up again when jobs can’t be found, or when relationships break up, empty again if they decide to emigrate for real, fill up again when they want to come home, with, who knows, their own families in tow.

I read of a woman recently who, when her son moved away to college, extended her house so that when he needed to come back he would have a self-contained bit to himself. A neighbour with several grown-up children never seems to have less than two in residence at any given time, and the only thing she regrets is not having put in another bathroom when things were flush. That might be her advice to the lady in the changing rooms: cherish them now, but plan for en suites.

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