Empty nest? Grab a bottle!

9th September 2005 at 01:00
Another new term: schools back, universities revving up, dons rolling up their sleeves and spitting on their hands or whatever they do.

So in media-land, features editors are looking glumly round the office for suckers to write the two hardy perennial articles of the season. These are How to Survive Freshers' Week, and Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome. Work experience kids are dispatched to the photo library to dig out a picture of a girl in a strappy top shrieking, and for the second one some old saddo of a Depressed Mum with a gin bottle.

Every year, the advice to both sides recurs, putting terror into the hearts of families. The Freshers' Week article is my least favourite, usually being written by nostalgic twentysomethings deep in debt and short of a girlfriend, who need to reassure themselves that they were really wild, man, when they were 18.

It paints a picture of kids, off the leash and far from home, plunging into non-stop compulsory debauchery, drunken corridor parties and random sex.

"Don't think of staying in! You'll meet tonz of new friends," cries the writer, in one recent case adding the instruction: "Grab a bottle and a handful of condoms and join the fun!"

The result of this terrifying instruction, in the case of one girl I heard of, was a weepy phone call home saying "I don't like noisy parties, I hate discos, but if I don't go on this coach to the freshers' club night rave I'll never, never have any friends for three years!"

Her parents spent ages persuading her that lurking in rooms all around her were kindred spirits, anxious for a quiet cup of coffee and a chat about home and hamster, or even (good grief!) about their course of study.

Others believe the hype, plunge into freshers' week with gusto, and end up making such tits of themselves that they spend the rest of their first term in embarrassed purdah, broke.

The second seasonal article, Coping with Empty Nest Syndrome, is designed to demoralise parents already reduced to jitters because the stuff on Freshers Week makes the start of higher education sound like the last 20 minutes of the Roman Empire, only without a separate vomitorium.

Empty Nest symptoms, we are given to understand, chiefly afflict mothers and involve weepiness, marital discord, a sense of futility and a constant snivelling over the lost darling's bed, teddy, and discarded trainers.

Without our teenagers to prop us up, it explains, we will soon take to drinking sherry at 9am and bursting into tears of grief for vanished childhoods every time we pass a branch of Toys R Us. The cure apparently is to take up a new hobby or evening class, and spend "quality time" with our husbands, who may seem disgustingly cheerful at having the house tidy but who are actually suffering as much as we are, so there.

Some of this is true - Jack Rosenthal wrote a wonderful TV play called Eskimo Day, about parents coming to terms with this phase, because someone once told him that when eskimos feel they are no longer of use to their offspring they go off and die in the snow, on purpose. However, just like Freshers' Week it is monstrously overplayed for the sake of dramatic headlines.

Perhaps this year we need a fresh, creative approach to telling people how to survive the autumn trauma of either being at university or having a child who is. Resisting the impulse to shout: "Oh, pull yourself together - you're not clinging to a roof in the Mississippi Delta!," I have a suggestion.

Let the next article cunningly amalgamate the two sets of dire predictions and prodnose advice, and start a trend for Freshers' Weeks For Parents.

"Yippee!", we begin. "They've gone! We're free!" No need to keep quiet and make cups of cocoa and give them priority on the computer because they've got A levels!

No more being tied to the house clearing up their mess and setting a good example and making nutritious balanced meals! Party time has come, and this is Fresh-empty-nesters' week!

Neighbourhoods must organise raves, karaoke nites, pub-crawls, piss-ups and risque new clubs and societies for liberated parents to join during termtime: Strip Poker Soc, Extreme Golf, Women's Karaoke. Go party! Grab a bottle and a handful of condoms (and, obviously, your reading glasses in case you get breathless dancing).

Make tonz of new friends! Forget to ring the kids just as they forget to ring you! Fill that empty nest with empty bottles and pizza boxes! Well, it would make a change.

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