What could you do when your children leave home? Colchester scientist worked with Ebola victims in Sierra Leone while Suffolk couple care for teen mums in Kenya
13:09 30 January 2016
With the deadline for many university applications coming this month, the reality of the looming ‘empty nest’ is starting to hit home for lots of parents.
But although this momentous life change is a time of sadness for the mums and dads left behind, it can also offer opportunities, as Sheena Grant reports.
It can be hard to cope when your children leave home.
In the midst of the 20-or-so-odd years it takes to raise them, when they are the centre of your world, delighting and exasperating you in equal measure, it can feel like your whole life.
But, in reality, childhood passes shockingly quickly. It really can seem that one day you’re watching them take their first steps and the next you’re waving them goodbye as they depart for a home of their own, university or some other adventure, while you’re returning without them to a silent, empty nest.
For many, that empty nest can be a desolate place. Feelings of sadness and loss or a lack of purpose are common among parents whose children have recently moved out.
Parents never stop being parents, worrying about their children and being there for them, but if you view the situation positively, the new order of family life can be an opportunity to do things you have never had time for.
You can think as big − or as small − as you like. For some, enrolling on a weekly yoga class or rediscovering relationships with their partner or friends will be enough, or at least a starting point. But why stop there? Philippa Unsworth, a biomedical scientist in Colchester, has recently returned to the UK after working as a volunteer in response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone.
Philippa, who lives in Coggeshall, flew back home two days before Christmas after spending four weeks in a Public Health England laboratory in Port Loko, about 45 miles east of the capital, Freetown. It was a role the scientist, based at the microbiology unit on the opposite side of Turner Road to Colchester General Hospital, felt able to take on only after her children had grown up.
“I’ve worked for 30 years in the microbiology unit but this is the first time that biomedical scientists have been asked to support an international relief effort,” she says. “It was good for me to get out and realise that I can make a contribution and do things away from my role as a parent. I enjoyed the whole experience. Volunteering is something I would definitely consider doing again. Now that my children are grown up and away at university I was in a position to use my skills to help.”
Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free just a fortnight before Philippa arrived but at that stage people were still worried about the possibility of a new flare-up and relaxed more only towards the end of her stay. Her role was to test swabs taken from people who had died with symptoms of fever, including many babies, to rule out Ebola. While working in the laboratory she had to wear surgical gowns over theatre scrubs, two pairs of gloves and eye and face protection. At first she was one of a team of nine scientists, but the number fell during her stay and no more swabs were tested after December 15.
Philippa, whose three children are aged 20 to 24, put herself forward as a volunteer shortly before Christmas 2014, soon after her youngest child had left for university.
“I suppose it is inevitable, at a time like that, you reassess your life and what you want to do in the future,” she says. “Once the children are gone you’re left with a house that feels very big.”
Because the severity of the Ebola epidemic diminished, it wasn’t until almost a year after she first volunteered that Philippa was called to do her week-long pre-deployment training at the rare and imported pathogens laboratory at Porton Down, near Salisbury. She says this prepared her well for her time in West Africa, as did travelling off the beaten track in Cambodia and Vietnam, where she had encountered extreme poverty. That was a trip she and her husband made without any of their children, just before their youngest went to university.
“We were tourists but that trip enabled us to see parts of the world we wouldn’t have gone to when the children were younger,” she says.
For Jane and Alan Hutt, empty-nesters who lived at Rendlesham, the departure of their youngest child for university was a time of even greater change in their own lives. The couple left their jobs (Jane was a school learning support assistant and Alan a painter and decorator) and headed to Africa, where they have set up a home for “child mothers” − girls who find themselves pregnant and have no family to support them. “We settled in Nakuru, Kenya, in September 2013 and began to see a need that wasn’t being met − girls, sometimes as young as nine, becoming pregnant and finding themselves facing choices they should never have to face: homelessness, prostitution to support their baby, or abortion,” says Jane, whose three children are now aged in their early to mid-20s.
“In June 2014 we moved into a house that lent itself to our vision and in October that year we opened the doors of The Beehive, a home for very vulnerable young mothers, to our first girl, 15-year-old Naomi, who soon gave birth to Jennifer. A week later, Chep, also 15, joined us with five-month-old Precious. Both these girls are orphans and have no family to take care of them, so we became mum and dad and our Kenyan family began.
“In February, 2015, 16-year-old Silvia was given into our care with her seven-month-old son, Lorenzo. Silvia’s mother had abandoned her family and left them in the care of a frail and sick grandmother. Sadly, Silvia decided that life with Lorenzo was not what she wanted and she has since left, but Lorenzo is still with us, awaiting the decision of the Children’s Court as to what should happen to him.
“Next came 16-year-old Petti, who gave birth to baby Allan, named after ‘grandad’ Alan. Sixteen-year-old Ann and Dini, 15, have also joined the family, both of whom are expecting their babies in the next month or so. The newest arrival came just this month, a 16-year-old orphan called Jacqueline, whose baby is due later in the year. Live-in social worker Mary helps in the day-to-day care of the babies and their mums, and we also employ a house-mum who takes care of the cleaning and cooking.
“All the girls committed into our care (we become their legal guardians) have no other option. They want to keep their babies, but life has not offered them any hope. They have no home, no family to take care of them and no real chance of survival as a very young mother.
“The Beehive aims to change that. We live as a family, the girls return to education once their baby is old enough to be left at home, and we ensure that they learn life skills relevant to their culture. They also learn other skills to add enjoyment to life, such as jewellery making and baking. We employ a part-time tutor who comes to the home to teach the girls who are unable to return to school, having not yet given birth, or because the baby is too young.”
The Beehive’s young residents are also encouraged to participate in running the household.
“It’s an important part of Kenyan culture and we try as much as possible to empower them,” says Jane. “Some of our girls have been very damaged by their troubled pasts so we work at restoring their confidence and letting them know they are valued and loved. The long-term vision for our girls and others who join our family is that they will return to the community in the future, be able to support and sustain their child and that we will be like a regular mum and dad, looking on and assisting where necessary.”
Already, the “family” is outgrowing its first home and this year may bring a change of address. In the meantime, two of Jane and Alan’s three children remain in the UK, while the third, Christie-Lee, lives with her Australian husband not far from them in Nakuru.
“Sam, our son, is at Sussex University, studying English literature and philosophy, and graduates this July,” says Jane. “Our oldest daughter, Mckenna, is undertaking her first year as a primary teacher in Ipswich.
“We had no realisation, even five years ago, that with our own family leaving the nest another family was waiting for us in Kenya.
“It’s a growing, noisy and challenging family that stretches us but one we love and look forward to watching flourish and embrace life.”
Coping with an empty nest
The charity Family Lives advises parents whose children are preparing to leave home to acknowledge their own feelings without passing guilt or negativity to their offspring.
Stay in touch − if they live nearby, invite them for dinner, or plan a shopping trip together. If they are further away, phone or email, but be aware they are adjusting to a new life and may not want to chat all the time.
Planning is key, so keep busy and rediscover your interests and relationships.
Think about what you want − whether it’s spending time with friends or pursuing a dream.
For more information, visit their website