The Empty Weekend: Missing the need to be needed

Photo: Alamy
Photo: Alamy 

OPINION: My youngest went to camp over a long weekend. The middle kid was busy too, so the house was quiet. I cleaned it once and it stayed that way. Magic.

No-one asked me what was for dinner or whether their black jeans/school top/soccer shorts had been washed. I started a little project in a corner of the garden and – praise be – finished it. Then I went out for dinner with my partner and friends and we didn't talk about our kids, not once.

This little three-day glimpse into life-after-kids was titillating. I thought about my youngest on camp several times but, without having any way of communicating with her, considered the matter outside of my control and went about my weekend business.

The middle kid was doing things what middle kids should be doing: working, studying, and hanging out with his friends … exercising his requisite independence to practise up for the looming, real world.

The oldest, well, since she moved out a couple of years ago, my relationship with her has changed. Recently we went to a movie together and were having a coffee afterwards, talking about the film. I felt like I was with one of my friends, casual yet interesting conversation that it was. Except that she isn't, and I felt un-old enough to be her parent. But I am. It was weird.

All of this got me thinking about the next stage of my life. When I was a younger working mum, people constantly needed me to do something. Each hour, each day was filled delivering, mostly, what other people wanted of me: reports, bedtime stories, hugs, presentations, emails, dinners, and dealing with (other people's) conflict resolutions at both work and home. To have some time where you alone could decide how you spent it was rare.

On this quiet weekend, however, it seemed pretty much all I did. Productive, introspective, relaxing, yes. But my long weekend was something more. It was, a little surprisingly, empty.

I know that in years past, when I was exhausted and constantly catering to the needs of my family, work, and various communities, that I longed for a time when everyone would leave me alone and let me get on with fixing up a little patch of my garden. But when the time came for me to have it, I felt a little, well, I felt a little unwanted.

It's a funny thing, isn't it, to live so many years of your life being needed? Really needed. Even when one of my jobs took me off travelling overseas several times each year, I felt as if my contribution to the household and my offspring was unique and irreplaceable. Only mum, I knew, could deliver that sort of love/lasagne/feedback/organising.

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Now that I've done what most parents do by nudging our kids along the continuum of dependency so that, eventually, they pop out the other end and can survive in the world alone, I find myself missing the need to be needed.

Also, I miss the noise. I miss the discussions about when volcanoes erupt and what two colours make up green and, if you were the Fat Controller, would you speak to Thomas the Tank Engine like that? I miss the put-put sound spilling out of my son's mouth as he moved his toy cars along every surface and I miss the twang of the old piano as last week's song was urgently practised before the next lesson.

Once, after one child questioned whether fish have eyelashes, we spent the next hour Googling fish species and facial features and learning about coral reefs and whether or not that bit of plastic belonged there, next to the lashless jellyfish. That was fun.

I knew when I was in the throes of working-mumhood that these were golden years. I knew that the Sunday morning snuggles with three kids and both cats in bed with a horrible cup of tea that the oldest had brought to me were never, ever going to be matched by anything as rich as this.

I knew that as tiring as it was to be needed, that it was part of the human experience, and especially a woman's journey, to be available emotionally and physically to so many souls. I kind of got that at the time.

But still, as I worked the soil and imagined new corners of my garden last weekend, I forgot about how little time there was left for me in those earlier years. I forgot about my bones aching and the mental fatigue and my inability to read more than three pages of my book each night. My body doesn't remember the pull of sleep as I woke to another child in need, then feigning alertness at work the next day.

Instead, I remember of those chaotic, purposeful years the wonderful feeling of being needed by people that I love.

The Press