There have been times during my 10 years of parenthood where I have read about Empty Nest Syndrome and thought: "How I wish that was me!"
The feeling has struck hardest while trying to crowd-control my kids and their friends on a wet and windy afternoon.
Or hanging up a machine-load of washing for the second time in a day after a particularly muddy session in the park.
Or having to make tedious small-talk on the school run, thinking: "When the kids leave home, I'll never have to ask how Johnny's maths/English/P.E. is getting on ever again."
And especially every frickin' morning when I have to get three kids up, breakfasted, dressed, teeth cleaned, book bags packed and out of the door.
Often my wife and I have fantasised about being 'just' a couple again.
We'd go for care-free walks in the countryside and end up in the pub, our heads permanently lolled back in laughter.
We'd meet for a drink after work and then go on to a restaurant or show in the West End, unfettered by the need to get the children's dinners on the table or the expensive necessity of paying for a babysitter.
We'd lie-in and talk about what's in the newspapers with a tray of bacon, eggs and beans nestled on our duvet.
Well, now it's happened.
Despite the fact that our kids are only 12, 10 and seven, we had – for one week only a prematurely - shrunken nest.
This came about because my stepdaughter spent the week with her dad and our 10-year-old son went to an outdoor pursuits centre with his classmates for five days.
We're used to the oldest not being around because she sees her dad every weekend and pretty much every holiday – just as it should be – but our middle child has never spent more than a night away from home on sleepovers.
Last week, though, he was spending four nights away from us. How would he cope? How would we cope? How would his little brother, who had never spent more than a night apart from Big Bruv in his entire life, handle his absence?
As the day approached, his mum and I became increasingly fretful.
We worried about where he'd sleep, if he'd sleep, if he'd cry himself to sleep missing us, if Blue Ted would be enough to comfort him in the darkness of a strange place.
And we worried about him getting hurt or homesick. But we made a pact to keep our worries to ourselves, lest we caused him to worry needlessly.
When the morning came, we walked our son to school, lugging his over-packed suitcase behind us.
There was no big farewell because we didn't want him to get upset at the enormity of the occasion, so I kissed him on the forehead as I always do, while his mum gave him a hug and a squeeze.
He responded matter-of-factly: "Bye, see you on Friday."
And then I hid around the corner so I could watch him board the coach that would take him 100 miles away from everything he knew and everyone who loved him.
That would be the last we saw of our son for a whole working week. There was to be no contact from him to us, nor us to him, until Friday – character-building. The only prospect we had was that he'd write to us via a stamped-addressed envelope we'd packed into his suitcase.
All his mum and I could do was wait and speculate about how he was handling it all.
Throughout Day One, my wife and I sent each other texts and emails.
"I wonder what he's doing now?"
"I wish he was coming home tonight."
"I miss him."
But our youngest missed him more. There was no-one to play cards with, no-one to watch greatest ever goals videos on You Tube with, no-one with whom to chitter-chatter after lights out.
So instead of the usual drawn-out fuss over bedtime, he simply put his head on his pillow and went straight to sleep, leaving his mum and I bereft in an eerie silence.
There was no shuffling, no floorboards creaking, no whispering and giggling like there usually was as the three took it in turns to stretch out the night with endless visits to the toilet for 'one last wee'.
There was just the sound of our sighing and the sound of the house settling, moaning, as if it missed the other two as much as we did.
Wasn't this what we'd wished for? The peace and quiet of a (semi) empty nest?
Wasn't this the perfect time to arrange for the youngest to sleep over at a friend's so that his mum and I could trip the light fantastic?
No. We just weren't in the mood. The absence of the other two made us even more protective of the one left behind, and that need to be close to what was left of our pack may have infiltrated his sub-consciousness too.
On two of the four nights, at precisely 4am, the youngest staggered upstairs to our room and climbed in between his mother and I before zonking out again – something he hadn't done for three years.
Yes, five becoming three was discombobulating for us all.
Were other parents feeling the same? I bumped into a couple of mums in the supermarket and they looked almost zombified. They shot me sad expressions, muttering: "Only two more nights."
But a dad had a different take.
"Missing Stevie?" I asked.
"No chance. The house is so peaceful withouthim – and tidy! I wish he could be away for a fortnight."
Unfortunately, I didn't feel the same way and longed to hear word from my first-born.
And then on Thursday morning, I heard the letterbox go and an envelope plop onto the floor – a letter from our Tom.
I didn't open it straight away: I wanted to share that joy with his mum, so I called her at work. And then I red this out to her:
"Hi mum and dad, Im feeling great.
Jesse started the nail varnish craz and I've got mine done. I share a bed with Jesse and I sleep on the top.
So far weve done hazel frames (witch are stick taped ointo shapes and they have leaves in them) giant games, orienteering, house building (with logs), rope climbing, wall climbing (both amazing) night walking.
I miss you quite a lot but Im having fun. (Dad there's giant chess here). Today we are doing swimming and ice scating whitch will be verey fun.
Rose set the burgurlur alarm off on Monday and it was at twelve o'clock!! We stayed up all night on Monday. We normally go to bed at nine and wake up at seven thirty.
Ive made up a colouring contest. Lots of people have entered. Ive done colering in to. Well I hope you are ok.
love from Tom!"
OK, the spelling and punctuation was atrocious, and I'll deal with that in due course, but that aside, our relief was enormous – and for the first time we stopped pining for him and felt hugely happy that our little lad was having the greatest time of his life.
Despite the fact that we weren't a part of it, that we couldn't witness it, it gave we felt a huge sense of pride that our parenting had played a part in giving him the confidence to be away from home for so long and for him to be able to take so much from the experience.
Even so, I couldn't wait for us to be reunited so, on Friday afternoon, I – along with other parents – waited and waited for our children's coach to return.
I'd visualised my son's eyes lighting up when he saw me, running into my arms, hugging me like he'd never hugged me before. Perhaps he'd eve shed a few tears.
But instead, as nonchalant as he always is, he got off the coach and handed me his suitcase.
"Hi Dad," he said. "Do you like my nails?"
And before I had a chance to take in the fact that my 10-year-old lad had come back with his fingernails painted bright pink and yellow, he turned on his heels and ran off to the playground to play football with his mates - while I dragged his suitcase back home and loaded his filthy clothes into the washing machine!
The nest is full again and normal service has been resumed.