They say it takes just ten seconds, when viewing a new house, to see yourself living there and to know if this is, indeed, the home for you.
Last October, as I stood in the hallway of a pretty period semi in Chichester, West Sussex, with its olive tree outside, I instantly had that intangible feeling that gets estate agents calculating their commission and Kirstie Allsopp handing out tissues to emotional house-hunters who have found ‘the one’.
I know exactly what it was that excited me as I wandered from the cosy living room with its open fire through to a lovely kitchen and bifold doors inviting you out to a private, verdant courtyard. It was the fact I could see myself living here. Alone.
There was a calm tranquillity that pervaded the whole interior with its muted Farrow & Ball walls, and the way the light filtered through the plantation shutters on all the windows. Most tellingly, this was a house with only two bedrooms. Meaning that my older three children would not be living here, so it would be just me and the youngest one for a few more years (my husband Keith works abroad) and then just me — alone.
After 22 years of house-hunting, clutching a checklist involving everyone else’s needs but my own, I now no longer needed to worry whether the garden was big enough for a trampoline, or the hall had enough space for buggies, scooters or hundreds of pairs of Nike trainers.
Shona Sibary has shared her hilarious parable for all parents who dream of downsizing (pictured with her children (from left to right) Dolly, Flo, Monty and Annie)
My most pressing concern as I wandered through the peaceful rooms of this empty-nest haven was whether it would just feel too quiet. Then I thought, ‘Don’t be ridiculous’ and went back to imagining myself in the courtyard with a glass of Cotes de Provence in the evening sun.
Fast forward nine months and this fantasy of an unencumbered life has been shattered — along with most of my wine glasses.
Because as fate would so ironically have it, at just the moment I thought I might finally be free from the shackles of parenting teenagers, they all stealthily moved back in. I would say back ‘home’. Except this was never intended to be their home. Just a small detail they all blithely ignore.
There are days when I feel like the old woman in the shoe who doesn’t know what to do. I’m pretty convinced I only gave birth to four children. But in this house — with its limiting 1,300 sq ft — it somehow feels as if I’ve had so many more.
Probably it’s the fact that there are boyfriends in tow; and then an entourage of friends who crowd around the kitchen island drinking, smoking and then stubbing out their cigarette butts on the lovely stone wall in the courtyard where I had envisaged a rose bush. I should have pre-empted this.
We are a family of six — although my husband Keith lives in Dubai most of the time — and we have two boisterous labradoodles, a cat, a hamster, three cars and more dynamics between us than a Dyson vacuum.
SHONA SIBARY: ‘Last October, as I stood in the hallway of a pretty period semi (pictured) in Chichester, West Sussex, with its olive tree outside, I instantly had that intangible feeling’
Last year, after an eternity of renting, we finally managed to save the necessary 20 per cent deposit to buy a house. It had taken 12 years, during which time we had moved an unbelievable nine times from one rental contract to another, always paying somebody else’s mortgage.
At long last Keith and I were in a position to buy a place of our own, from which no landlord could evict us for spilling red wine on the carpet or scratching the paintwork.
It felt so important not to get it wrong, this forever home we’d been yearning for. Heart over head told me to go big — find somewhere that had ample space for all of us, five bedrooms, the whole shebang.
But three of my children were on the cusp of leaving home. Annie, 20, had already gone — up to Bangor where she was studying nursing; Monty, 18, and nearing the end of his A-levels, couldn’t wait to get out of West Sussex and leave for the bright lights of a London university; and Flo, 22, was keen to head to Antibes and start life as a superyacht stewardess, sailing the Caribbean in winter and the Med in summer months.
Which left me, Dolly, who’s 11, and Keith, who is hardly ever here. Very sensibly, he pointed out that it might be depressing to be wandering around a family home with no family in it — peering into empty bedrooms and feeling the bittersweet sadness of children having flown the nest. What he said was: ‘Don’t buy somewhere for them. Buy a house for you.’
Never being one to argue with the logic of my husband, that’s exactly what I did. And that’s exactly how we ended up with a £450,000 two-bedroom townhouse in the centre of town in a place with no garden and a one-year waiting list for a residents’ parking permit. Perhaps I took him too literally because when I found this house I honestly thought: ‘This will be ideal for retirement when we need to walk to the shops.’
A friend came over recently and remarked that the problem is I’ve bought a home ahead of its time. About 20 years ahead. It would have been perfect for me when I’m 70. Just not right now with three young adults who have boomeranged back and appear to have no intention of ever leaving.
OK, so the timing wasn’t brilliant. We actually ended up moving in November 2020, just at the start of the second lockdown. Annie was in her second year at university, Monty finishing his A-levels, and Flo biding her time until she could travel.
It wouldn’t be long, we all thought — the whole country thought. We could stand this for a few weeks/months. Then Annie had a miserable year at university, with stringent Welsh lockdowns and sketchy online learning. She felt so isolated and lonely, it all eventually became too much and she came back to reassess her life — something we have all done during Covid.
Monty decided not to apply to university at all this year for much the same reasons, and Flo is stuck in the UK working long hours as a carer to save money waiting for restrictions to lift.
The house I fell in love with because it was ‘bijou’ now just feels bloody small.
I have shoved Monty into an upstairs loft conversion that can’t, apparently, be called a bedroom — something about its height and emergency access.
After sleeping with me in my double bed for several months, Dolly is now in the basement, with no windows and no escape route if there’s a fire, which terrifies me, while her two older sisters are crammed into her little girl’s bedroom with its lemur wallpaper and tropical theme.
Then there’s the car situation: between us we have a Skoda, a Fiat 500 and a VW Beetle — all permanently parked on double yellow lines outside, which incenses the neighbours and anyone else wanting to squeeze past on the pavement pushing a buggy — or, worse still, in a wheelchair. We have had so many parking tickets, the enforcement officer now knocks on our front door to give us a heads-up that he’s outside.
I think the girls have been flirting with him, which is probably the most proactive thing they have done since coming home.
I can’t begrudge them the need to be here. It’s tough, and made so much tougher by the pandemic. And I would never want any of them to be rootless, without a base to come back to.
My parents waited for me to go to university before ending their marriage, which resulted in our family home being sold. When I dropped out, aged 19, my choices were a futon in the living room of my mother’s new one-bedroom flat, or the tiny spare bedroom in my father’s girlfriend’s house. I felt displaced, my life contents shoved in a bag. Perhaps that’s what I’m finding hard about our current situation. I never wanted my own children to feel that way.
They seem, however, almost sanguine about the squeeze we have found ourselves in. Then again, they are not paying rent, so they are hardly in a position to complain if they have to queue for the one bathroom, or have to watch TV in their bedroom because we can no longer all fit comfortably on the sofas. If anyone is struggling it’s me, from the practicalities of living in a house that just can’t cope with so many human beings in it. The doorknobs are all falling off thanks to the force of youthful energy.
My lovely Eiffel kitchen chairs are now all wobbly because people swing back on them, causing the bolts underneath to loosen.
Glasses are broken, plates chipped and the bathroom presents me with a constant battle against mould and mildew because of the 30-minute showers being taken around the clock.
Even our Virgin wifi, which I was promised would be super-speedy thanks to fibre-optic cable and paying for the most expensive broadband package, can’t cope with the overload of people streaming stuff.
There is nothing more annoying when I retire to the solace of my bedroom to watch something on Netflix than to have that whirring icon in the middle of my screen because someone else, somewhere else in the house, got there first.
Desperate to reclaim a tiny piece of my own square footage back, I got a builder to erect an insulated timber outbuilding in our courtyard. We barely have any space out there but this spot — previously home to pot plants and a firepit — was the only option I had, having already utilised every other inch of the house.
This outdoor ‘room’, all of 8 ft by 7 ft, is where I go when I’m in danger of blowing a gasket because no one has dealt with the washing-up piled in the sink or the dog crossing his legs by the front door.
That’s the thing when you’ve got young adults living at home. The teenage years were bad enough, but I could blackmail them to clear up after themselves with the promise of money or a lift somewhere. Now they all earn their own money and, with breathtaking entitlement, appear to think this exempts them from doing anything else.
When I challenged Flo the other day about why she never puts her dirty dishes in the dishwasher, she looked at me in shock and said: ‘But Mum, I’ve got a job.’ At which point, I retired to my shed.
Keith’s opinion — from his one- bedroom pad 4,000 miles away — is they need to leave and live with people who don’t unconditionally love them just to experience how the real world works.
He’s probably right. But there is also something rather wonderful about having this second chance to live with my children just as they are on the cusp of making their final flight from the nest.
For starters, they are hugely more fun than they were a few years ago. We can crowd around the kitchen table in the evenings and play rowdy games of cards, cook together and enjoy spontaneous sessions of karaoke without someone stomping off in a huff.
We are still a long way from the domestic bliss of The Waltons. But once everyone is in bed and we have all yelled goodnight from our respective bedrooms, I do feel incredibly lucky to have them all back. Until the morning, that is. When I go downstairs and see the state of the kitchen . . .