In the latest edition of Celebrities, They’re Just Like Us, it turns out that even stratospherically huge stars like Madonna can suffer empty nest syndrome. The Queen of Pop told Australia’s Today Show she was 'a mess' when her daughter Lourdes left home to enrol in the University of Michigan.
'It was really hard letting her go. I've come to terms with it, but yes I miss her and she's a part of me. It was like losing my arm,' she said.
And while I’m fairly confident this is where the similarities between my family and Madonna’s end, Mother Cardiff didn’t take me flying the nest too well either. We’d always been the Hang Out House. You know, the one that everyone ends up at – a constant carousel of friends, relatives and the odd Jehovah’s Witness popping by to say hello. So when my brother and I both moved out to go to uni on the same weekend, leaving our sister behind as a 'lonely sibling orphan' (her words, not mine), that nest was suddenly pretty empty.
'One of the main things I found difficult was letting go of control,' Mama Cardiff tells me. 'Not in a "telling you what to do" way, but more that, when you were at home, I knew where you all were and that you were safe. It took a while to shake the thought that, if something ever did happen, I wouldn’t necessarily know about it straight away.'
Because I was the first to move, the full force of how much she’d miss us was reserved for my brother. The day she dropped me off, she was wearing her Super-Cheery-Excited-By-Everything mask – but I know her well enough to know that this was a slight front. As the day wore on, my belongings were unpacked and my little dorm room began to look a little more like home, I could see her mask beginning to slip. That’s when I knew it was time to send my family home – a goodbye that ended up being hugely anti-climactic.
A 'my new flatmates are all going to the pub, I think I should go with them and be sociable' from me, and a bear hug from her. I felt guilty about ushering her out like that, but I knew it was better not to make a huge deal out of it. We could do without the Broadway show of goodbyes. If I kept it casual, kept it light, maybe it’d feel like I wasn’t really leaving?
She later told me how for a few weeks after my brother and I had packed up the entirety of Asda’s homeware department and went on our merry way, she found it difficult to adjust to the fact that the Cardiff family was temporarily two members down. She’d still pick up our favourite foods from the supermarket or cook meals for five, instead of three. 'Of course I was excited and ridiculously proud of you both, but for a while – and this is a cliché, but it’s true – the house felt really empty,' she said.
It’s worth mentioning at this point – my mum is a World Champion Worrier. I still, at 23-years-old, can’t leave the house without being an audience of one to her 'don’t talk to strangers, look before you cross the road, never accept drinks you haven’t seen poured and don’t believe anyone who says they have puppies in their van' monologue. And while I never felt held back, I’d feel pangs of guilt stir if I hadn’t spoken to her in a few days and so, for those first few months, perhaps I did check in with Parent HQ a little more than needed. While friends around me went days, weeks, fortnights without the obligatory: 'hey, I’m alive' call, I’d make sure to phone her every other day or so. It wasn’t even wholly about making sure she wasn’t worrying about me, but more keeping her in the loop. However tiny the details of my day had been, I’d always want to share them with her. I knew how much she loved connecting the dots to paint a picture of my life 218 miles up the M1.
'The worst times were when you called me up when you were ill or upset,' she said. 'I wanted to helicopter in and save you but I knew it was important for you to look after yourself, so I’d try to keep the anxiety out of my voice on the phone.'
I, too, was occasionally guilty of putting on a polishing front, editing details of things that had happened so she wouldn’t have a shit fit. I hesitated before telling her my second year house had been burgled not once, but twice. As far as she knew, I always got taxis home from my bar job (if you’re reading this, sorry mum. Sometimes I walked back. At 3am. Writing about it now makes me realise how monumentally dumb that was). If I ever did find myself in the throes of doing something, well, really fucking stupid, I’d always hear a voice, muffled somewhere in my subconscious pipe up: 'do you know how mad mum will be if something happens to you?'
And, while I was pretty quick to call her with a physical problem – conversations which were usually a medley of asking whether I can put metal in the microwaves and questioning how much sell-by dates really matter – I wrestled more with whether to deal her in on the emotional stuff.
I knew she’d take them harder because an illness, stress over an assignment, a thinly-stretched student loan - they all have solutions. But emotions? Nobody can protect you from them. Not even your mum. My family were irreparably fractured when my dad died in 2004, so, along with the exciting milestones, my moving out held a few harder to swallow firsts – anniversaries, the first Father’s Day away from home, dealing with what would have been his 52nd, 53rd and 54th birthdays without my family around me. And, while I always spoke to my mum about them and she was anxious to make sure I was coping, I always slightly over-sold how remarkably fine I felt. I didn’t want her to think of me so far away from home, nursing a wound even she didn’t have a band aid for.
It seems that being shielded against how worried our parents really are is pretty common.
Take my friend, Elle. 'My dad never told me this until after I graduated, but apparently he’d cry every time he dropped me off,' she said. 'I think he knew it would upset me and he wanted me to have loads of fun and not think about my little daddy weeping down the M1.'
'He’d put on a brave face until I got out the car, but I could see his lip wobbling the whole way. In first year, he’d even drive all the way to Sheffield from Coventry just to take me to Subway so he could see me.
She tells me that, while she never felt guilty about his cross-country trips all for a Steak Melt on hearty Italian and a few hours of his time, they made her 'heart hurt.'
'It kind of made me want to live at home forever so I didn’t have to leave him but that’s not what he’d want for me,' she said.
In some extreme cases, empty nest syndrome can creep into darker territory, with research linking it to depression, alcoholism and marital issues. '[Parents] self-worth and self-value are so tied in with their children. Without that sense of purpose and being needed, they can question their whole role and function in life, which can lead to depression,' says Dr Sandi Mann, a Senior Psychology Lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire.
'Even though they know it will happen, it can still leave a void if it is not filled with other ventures. The loss can be as demoralising as redundancy – the feeling of loss of value and self-worth.'
So Madonna, if you’re reading this – don’t worry. You aren’t alone. And for the record, my mum is available for tea and a chat any time.
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This article originally appeared on The Debrief.