Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Would like to meet......

I have an article about new ways to meet people in this week's Body and Soul in Saturday's Times. You can read it there (where there is a great picture!)

Or you can read it below....

From The Times
November 22, 2008

Singletons find love at singing and dance classes
Forget speed-dating, performing arts classes are increasingly playing Cupid to those looking for love

Sarah Ebner

Adam Mattison-Ward is no Gene Kelly, but acting, dancing and singing have changed his life. He met his girlfriend, Anne, in a singing class, and is convinced that shared interests and the buzz he gets from performing led to his “amazing” new relationship.

“I wanted to do something completely different,” says Mattison-Ward, a television producer. “I'd been with someone for 11 years, but that had come to an end, and I was interested in meeting someone new. The only thing was, I wasn't sure about the best way forward.”

The 34-year-old wanted to meet someone “like him”, with similar interests and values. And like an increasing number of today's singles, he rejected internet dating in favour of joining a performing arts evening class to de-stress and learn new skills, as well as to meet someone new. “I'd always been interested in drama and singing, and when a friend told me about the City Academy performing arts school, I signed up. I got such a kick out of it. It gave me a new identity and inspired me. And it quickly introduced me to new people.

Everyone's in the same boat

“When you meet somebody in this way, there's far less pressure. Everyone's in the same boat, so you're all supportive of each other, and of course, you lose your inhibitions. You know everyone's seen you make a fool of yourself singing and dancing, so you can't be embarrassed. You also know you have some interests in common - otherwise you wouldn't be there.”

Mattison-Ward started at the academy, based in North London, in December 2007. In March, Anne joined his singing class. He was smitten.

“To meet someone and hit it off with them instantly is amazing,” says Adam. “We have such fun and enjoy the same things. It's like a clichĂ© - to find love when you're not seriously looking.”

There are more singles than ever in the UK (6,622,000 aged between 25 and 44 in England and Wales in 2006, compared with 4,657,000 in 1996 and 2,532,000 in 1986 - and these figures don't include the divorced or widowed). Around 8 million people use some form of online dating service, evidence suggests that it often doesn't end with a lasting relationship. A survey by YouGov found that only a quarter of people who used internet dating sites were confident that they would find the person they were looking for, and many lapsed members insist that the pool of potential partners is simply too broad.

“We mustn't raise the internet's status too much,” says Dr Lisa Matthewman, a chartered psychologist at the University of Westminster and an expert in romantic and sexual relationships. “There's such potential to portray yourself - and of course for others to portray themselves - falsely. It can feel artificial and impersonal. Classes, particularly classes in the performing arts, can be more fruitful as inhibitions are cast aside and friendships quickly formed. You build up an emotional connection as well as a physical one. People are looking for all sorts of values in their partner, and it's hard to see how you can get those from the superficialities asked for by internet matching sites.”

Bridget Ragazzini, 39, a publishing executive, initially turned to the internet when she split from her fiancĂ© three years ago. “I started with such high expectations - it seemed a lot less daunting than speed dating, which I tried and hated - it's all about first impressions. However, I quickly discovered that while prospective dates sounded wonderful in their profiles, in real life' we would struggle to find things in common and there would be no chemistry at all.”

Ragazzini persevered for a year before logging off for good. “The whole experience was actually a bit depressing, and shook my confidence in the dating process. Instead, I resolved to focus on myself for a while. I'd enjoyed acting at university, and signed up with my local drama group. I attended an open audition one Saturday, which was pretty scary, but I quickly found myself opening up. The nicest thing about it was that there were so many people like me there - thirty and forty-somethings who were interested in the theatre and up for a laugh. By the end of the day, we'd acted together, eaten together, laughed together and were really bonded. I left with five new numbers in my phone and found the whole experience really liberating; I felt more confident and open to new experiences as a result. The theatre group has definitely expanded my social circle, which can only be a good thing in the search for a partner.”

Andrew G. Marshall, a relationship expert and author of the forthcoming book The Single Trap: How to Escape it and Find Lasting Love, sees clear problems with what he calls “conventional dating” and is fully in favour of expanding social circles and interests to meet new people. “The problem with internet dating and speed dating in particular is that we judge people so quickly when they walk through a door,” he says.

“We think they're too fat, too thin or too Primark for us. But the problem is that we're actually making a judgment on the most superficial of levels. What counts is whether we have a proper emotional connection with them, whether they complete us and provide balance. If you join a choir or a dance group, you talk to the other people there as human beings and you have room to talk to each other and to find out if there is a proper emotional connection rather than just lust.”

Marshall also has another explanation for why meeting in this way is beneficial. It's all to do with the difference between what he terms “bridging” and “bonding” capital.

“Bonding is like the friends in Sex and the City; people who are like you,” he explains. “It's very good for getting by and for emotional support, but it's a defined unit. You're not going to meet new people through this circle. Bridging, however, is quite different. It crosses existing groups of people, and is a great way to meet new people.”

Anne Birgit Saeves - Mattison-Ward's girlfriend - can echo that. The 28-year-old is a television production manager and joined classes at the academy to meet new people. “Taking a class is not like a pub or a club, it's a nice, safe atmosphere, where you meet people you already have things in common with. I wasn't really prepared to meet the love of my life, but when I met Adam, I did.”

“We thought it would help people destress”

Mike Ward, the co-founder of the academy, is amused, but not surprised that his evening classes in the performing arts now have a sideline in romance. “When we started the classes in 2007, the idea was that it would suit people in the City, those who wanted to de-stress after work, and also to express themselves. But while we're finding that people love the courses, it's also become clear that they don't just come to have fun, they also want to meet someone. It's a great place to develop relationships.”

Performance classes aren't the only option for those sick of internet or speed dating. Romance thrives more in an atmosphere conducive to relaxation and breaking down barriers, than the intense pressure of a “date”, as organisations like the adventure and social group Spice UK have found. Dave Smith, its founder, says he never pitches his “multi-activity adventure, sports and social group”, as a singles' club. The purpose “is to have fun, not just to meet people. Relationships blossom though, because this is a far more natural way to meet someone than singles nights or speed dating”. Spice UK members, he claims, now boast a wedding a week.

“We are all about coming together and having fun at the events,” he says. “But that can lead on to other things. I used to give people a spice rack when they said they were getting married. Then I started to buy in bulk. Now I've stopped, because it cost too much.”

You may not get a spice rack any more, but if you try something new, you will be adding more flavour to your life. And if you want to meet someone for a lasting relationship, you probably need to move away from your computer.

For more information about the City Academy, call 020-7704 3717 or visit www.city-academy.com

Don't fancy singing? Try these...

Charity fundraising

Having values and interests in common is always good ground for romance - especially, it appears, when it comes to the desire to help others.

The disability charity Scope has been running fundraising treks and challenges to far-flung locations, including China, Peru and Vietnam, for more than 12 years. Recently organisers have noticed that a number of participants have met their partner while taking part. “Kilimanjaro 08 with Scope was advertised as a life-changing experience and for us it has been,” says Graham Isaacs, 32, who met his partner Julie Evans, 31, on a Scope trek in July. “I think the environment of challenge and achievement with new people really brings personalities to the fore so it's a great way to meet like-minded people.”

Those taking part usually include a good mixture of men and women so the chances of meeting a partner or simply making new friends are pretty high. The average age is early thirties but there are twenty, forty and fifty-somethings too. For more information: email events@scope.org.uk or visit www.scope.org.uk

A new body and a new partner?

Research by Mintel has revealed that one in five private health club members met close friends or their partner at the gym. More than one in four saw it as a good place to meet “like-minded people”, and an increasing number of gyms are now organising social activities for their members.

Victoria Branch, marketing manager of Harpers Fitness, says that people tend to use their trips to the gym in two ways - to flirt, but also work out, or to switch off and work out. She says that the gym definitely appeals as a place to meet.

“There's less pressure,” she says. “If you're single and on a night out there is always that thought - will I meet someone? Whereas when you're in the gym you are relaxed and not usually expecting to meet someone in that way. Also, if you meet someone at the same gym you probably know that you are quite similar in terms of lifestyle.” www.harpersfitness.co.uk

Spirit of adventure

Dave Smith set up Spice UK because he wanted to join a club just like it, and couldn't find one. It began in Manchester, by offering outdoor pursuits each month, but now runs a variety of activities and get-togethers all over the country. Children are not invited. Membership is £12 a month, and there are currently 12,000 members. “It's about making friends and enjoying yourself,” says Smith. “It's best described as an adults' youth club.” www.spiceuk.com

The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting

Brett Berk is the author of a great new parenting book called The Gay Uncle's Guide to Parenting. You can read my interview with him in The Jewish Chronicle this week

Or you could read it here:
By Sarah Ebner

When Brett Berk invited his friends and their young son for dinner, he didn’t expect a potty to be placed next to the table.
“We should be celebrating,” said the boy’s proud mother, after her son had demonstrated his toilet training prowess.
“We should be fumigating,” Berk replied, quite put off his food.
This was the trigger for Berk to take action. Having seen too many friends fall prey to what he calls the “parenting bubble” (where they can no longer see sense, and life revolves around the children) he decided something must be done. The resulting book, The Gay Uncle’s Guide to Parenting, has become a phenomenon in the States. Berk has become a modern parenting “guru”, and there are now plans to turn his book into a reality TV series.
“These days there’s so much emphasis on people being perfect parents and raising perfect children,” says Berk from his apartment in New York. “I wanted to offer parents a new perspective on how to deal with kids and deliver sound, actionable advice. I also wanted to let people laugh at themselves and to realise that they are the grown-ups.”
Berk, who’s 39, seems to have delivered what he intended. The book is 230 pages of candid advice, wrapped up with some delicious anecdotes - the parents who worry that their pre-schooler is choosing the “wrong” child to be friends with, the new mother convinced that her baby’s nappies don’t smell and the granny who pinches her 3-year-old granddaughter and claims that the pre-schooler “started it”. As an “outsider”, Berk considers himself eminently well qualified to try to bring parents back to reality. He’s emphatic that the book is for those who want to be “people as well as parents,” and wants them to step back from trying to control every aspect of their children’s lives,
“Investing all your time and energy in your child is a lot of pressure to place on a kid,” he says, “but there are things you can do to really focus on the big picture, rather than whether you’re feeding them the right organic grape or not.”
Berk is scathing about people who pander to their children’s every whim. He clearly feels that parents are out of control, spoiling themselves and their children with all sorts of things they don’t need.
“The baby business seems to play on your fears that you’re ill equipped for the job and going to do it all wrong,” he writes. This is where his checklist for “Baby Product Substitutes” comes in. Instead of a digital bath thermometer, Berk suggests using a finger or wrist. Instead of an “infant in-crib sleep positioner,” he suggests a mattress or rolled up towel, and instead of a baby wipes warmer (for those ever so sensitive babies who just can’t handle a wipe at room temperature) he suggests…a lobotomy.
Despite having no children himself, he doesn’t see that as a problem. He’s worked with children for such a long time (he has a Masters in education, taught in schools and also ran a day-care centre) that he feels he knows an awful lot about them. He’s also convinced that it’s about time gay men, who are already feted as gurus on clothing, style and grooming, moved into another arena.
“Some people said maybe we should take the “gay” part out of the title,” he says, “but in some ways, that’s part of the shtick of the book, you know what I mean? Gay men have taken on this role as lifestyle gurus and this is the next logical thing for us to address, telling people how to raise their kids.”
The appealing thing about The Gay Uncle’s Guide is not just that it’s funny, with a wry sense of Jewish humour (Berk says that, although the book isn’t “overtly” Jewish, he guesses that “everything I do is somehow informed by my Jewishness), but that the advice is actually useful. Much of it is common sense – that the adult should be in charge, or that children benefit from routines – but it’s amusingly presented.
“Don’t worry about whether your child or children can cope if you’re thinking of adding another child to the family,” he says. “Think about whether you can cope. Your children are going to resent you for the rest of their lives anyway, regardless of how many or few of them you have. Providing a sibling will at least give them someone to corroborate the reasons for their resentment.”
Berk has been with his partner, a screenwriter called Tal, for 18 years, but is adamant he doesn’t want children of his own.
“I’m not opposed to gay parenting in any way, shape or form. It’s just not for me,” he says. “I do more good as an uncle and an educator than I would do as a parent. I think we all muck it up as parents. It’s impossible not to.”

The Gay Uncle’s Guide to Parenting: Candid Counsel from the Depths of the Day-care Trenches, by Brett Berk, is published by Three Rivers Press.
Brett Berk’s blog is at http://brettberk.com/

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Want to know about education? Read School Gate

Having spent the last year editing Supernanny.co.uk, I now have a new job, editing School Gate, a new blog for Times Online.
Please check out my blog and make comments and suggestions.

Monday, 23 June 2008

Placebo pills for kids.....

Today I have a piece in the Times about placebo pill for kids. You can read it here:

My original piece was rather different - firstly, because it was longer, but also because Dr Ian Paul and the GP mentioned were both people I interviewed at a later date.

So if you want to read my original piece, here it is:

By Sarah Ebner

Your child is crying, unhappy, and says he is ill. You know he isn’t hurt or so unwell he needs medicine, but long for something to help calm him down. Now the makers of Obecalp think they have the solution. Their product, the first standardised, especially made placebo “pill”, has just gone on sale via its American website. But their new product raises a huge number of questions.
The website for Obecalp (placebo spelt backwards) quotes “mommy” Jennifer Buettner, who came up with the idea. “It does nothing,” she writes. “Just like it’s supposed to. The brain does it all (with a kiss on the cheek.)”
It sounds like a brilliant idea, a harmless substance to comfort someone not really in need of medication. But if someone doesn’t really require medicine, should we be giving them a substitute at all? Many medical experts (and parents) think not.
“There’s definitely ethical issues about giving a medication that’s not got any active substance in it,” says Dr Margaret Bamforth from the Royal College of Psychiatrists. “You’d have to think very carefully about it.”
The placebo effect has long been documented. It is usually explained as something which occurs when a patient’s symptoms improve, despite being treated with a product that has no active medical ingredients. It’s thought this happens because patients believe the treatment will work (in other words, they don’t know it’s a placebo). Recent research also suggests that taking a placebo pill stimulates the release of endorphins (which release feelings of euphoria) in the brain.
Of course it would be very rare to find someone who would ask for a placebo rather than medication, and this is one of the ethical issues in which Obecalp is now tangled. By suggesting that parents give their child such a pill, aren’t they suggesting a deception?
Dennis Buettner, co-creator of Obecalp and Jennifer’s husband, thinks not. He’s hoping that Obecalp will help thousands of people, citing children, the elderly and those with special needs.
“This isn’t the deception of a child,” he says firmly. “We like to look at it as the protection of a child. To give them medicine of suspect efficacy is a deception. Children are over-medicated in this country. This is not medicine.”
The Buettners, who have, rather ironically, called their company “Efficacy Brands”, say they are genuinely amazed by the storm their product has created.
“That caught us both,” says Dennis Buettner. “This is a product that is designed to be absolutely nothing, inert. The controversy caught me completely off guard.”
It’s understandable that the Buettners were taken aback. At first glance, their product seems simple. It’s almost like giving a plaster to a child who doesn’t really need one, just to placate them. Except that a child knows that a plaster is just something to cover a scratch. The danger is that they’ll think this cherry flavoured tablet is medication.
“It’s full of contradictions,” exclaims Dr Bamforth, who’s an expert in child and adolescent psychiatry. “It’s saying go to your doctor, but when you find there’s nothing wrong with your child, give them a pill anyway. That doesn’t make any sense, does it?
“You’re also teaching children to rely on a pill. You’re not helping them deal with whatever the problem is, to develop a functional coping strategy.”
When the Buettners initially had the idea for Obecalp, it seemed straightforward.
“My wife and I had our young niece to stay because her parents were on vacation,” says Dennis. “We anticipated that she would be anxious and when she said she had a bad tummy. Jen said that I should go to Wal-Mart and buy a placebo. But they had nothing. That’s when I began to research and found that nowhere in the world had retail placebos.”
The Buettners thought they were on to something big and decided to make a placebo pill themselves. They contacted every drug manufacturer in the country, spoke to numerous scientists (one of whom gave them the idea for making the pill out of dextrose) and eventually came to an agreement with one particular company (with whom they have a non-disclosure agreement.)
“One guy told us that he’d spent his entire career developing products that were designed to do all types of things, but really did nothing. He couldn’t believe that he met us, and we were asking him to specifically design a product that does nothing.”
The sample products (given a cherry taste, because, Buettner says, it’s the most popular over-the-counter flavour), were tested positively on friends and family. Rather surprisingly, Buettner admits that none were tried as a placebo on someone who had a malady, but simply handed out to taste. The couple were obviously happy with the results as the first batch of tablets (5-7000 bottles) went on sale to the public at the beginning of June. The first orders are just being dispatched.
Buettner is passionate about the idea that too many people are given medication when they don’t need it, and argues that Obecalp addresses that issue. That children (and adults) are given too many pills is something others agree with. What they can’t understand is why a product which looks like a pill (even if it isn’t one) is seen as the solution.
“It’s a nonsense,” says Imti Choonara, a professor in medical health at Nottingham University and expert in paediatric clinical pharmacology. “I have no problems with placebos in general, but I’m concerned that this will make children think they always need a medicine to make themselves better.
“I don’t see the logic in having something available that you can buy over the counter as a placebo. It’s a contradiction in terms. You’re not going to buy it for yourself, and it’s inappropriate to give it your partner or other family member because you know it doesn’t work.”
Buettner is exceptionally keen to stress that Obecalp is not medicine, that he doesn’t have medical training, and that he recommends speaking to a doctor before using the product. He won’t even say what he thinks Obecalp might be able to treat, just that it is sold as an over-the-counter dietary supplement.
“We make absolutely no claims which might be construed or misunderstood to be medical advice, so I am unable to give particulars as to its use,” he says when pressed.
However, he is less reticent when talking about the placebo effect in general. He cites a number of medical studies, explaining that recent ones which appear to show that both cough medicines and Prozac work little better than placebos, inspired him to speed up production.
One study he enthusiastically points towards is from the University of Chicago. Earlier this year researchers there found that nearly half the doctors they questioned admitted to giving out a placebo to patients at some point.
“We’re hoping that there’s a potential that if you see your physician and he thinks there’s nothing wrong, we’re providing him with the knowledge that there’s a standardised placebo of high grade quality that exists for use,” says Buettner.
It’s ironic then that Professor John Hickner, who worked on the Chicago study, is not a fan of Obecalp.
“I think it is a terrible idea for parents to give placebos to their kids,” he says. “We are already a society that believes pills are the easy answer to too many problems.”
But Buettner is sticking to his guns. He says that sales are already going well and is keen to move forward. He has plans for a diabetic version of the pill, and a distribution deal to take it into Europe. Could the next big American export really be something that is simply mind over matter?


Saturday, 19 April 2008

The lowdown on parenting websites


Today I have an article in the Telegraph Weekend Section about parenting websites. You can read it on their site: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/main.jhtml?xml=/education/2008/04/19/famums19.xml

Or by continuing to read here:

Internet mums: help's within site
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 19/04/2008

The internet is proving invaluable for isolated mothers, discovers Sarah Ebner

Ellen Kirkby was nervous. The birth of her first son, Matthew, had not been easy and as the due date for her second child loomed, she realised she didn't want to be alone.

Fortunately fate - in the form of parenting website, Mumsnet - intervened.

"I posted a thread saying I was worried. DaisyMOO came on and said she would like to be there for me," says Kirkby. "It was a week before my due date and I knew nothing about her. But we chatted and I thought: 'Go for it.'?"

DaisyMOO (who's also known as Caroline Newey) was indeed there at the birth, and Kirkby says her presence made all the difference. (Her second labour was far better than her first.)

"She gave me the confidence to have the birth I wanted, to turn down drugs I didn't want and to help get Joe to breastfeed. She even went to get my ex-partner so he could see the baby, while making it as stress-free as possible for me."

To those not familiar with the astonishing growth of parenting websites, Kirkby's story may sound unusual. But to the hundreds of thousands of devotees, these sites fulfil a very real need, and one which politicians have heeded. David Cameron recently made his second appearance on Mumsnet, while the Department for Children, Schools and Families has just awarded a £500,000 grant to Netmums.

In a world where the extended family has often disappeared, parenting websites provide support and friendship 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They offer advice from other parents who have "been there", an emotional outlet and the opportunity to chat about anything from global warming to what to cook for supper.

Mumsnet stands out because, with 75 per cent of its users having a degree, much of the talk is caustic, argumentative and some might say intimidating. "They are honest," says Kirkby. "Maybe people in real life aren't brave enough to tell you to snap out of it. They will on Mumsnet."

"We have 20,000 posts a day so it's any question you may want to ask," adds the founder of the site, Justine Roberts. "It's not just sleeping and breastfeeding."

Parenting gurus have been around for decades. Dr Spock, Penelope Leach and more recently Gina Ford have told parents how to bring up their children, but these days many parents want more than the one point of view they get from a single expert.

"I've read so many books, but they seem almost dictatorial," says Suzi Shaw, who credits Mumszone for helping her through the loneliness she felt when her husband was diagnosed with depression.

"It was really hard being on my own, but knowing other people were going through the same thing really helped me," says Shaw, who adds that she loves getting "15 different points of view, instantly".

Linking people up, wherever they are, is definitely one of the websites' main attractions. The cloak of anonymity probably helps too - there are some questions parents don't want to ask face to face.

"I can be the person I want to be, not necessarily the person other people think I am," says Shaw, who adds that she constantly asks, and offers, advice to her friends online.

Chrissi Hudson, a Netmums aficionado, does likewise. "I don't want to be labelled a bad mum by someone in a white coat," she says. "I meet people in the same boat as me and we support each other. If I had a problem I would go on Netmums first."

It's that instinct, of going to a website rather than a professional, which prompted the huge grant awarded to Netmums. It's intended to help more than 50,000 parents in 18 months and Siobhan Freegard, founder of the site, hopes to employ some expert advisers.

"When we set up the site, we weren't expecting to get the number of serious cases that we did, from postnatal depression to domestic abuse," she says. "We have mums at their wits' end, some suicidal, but we don't have any specialists, just one counsellor behind the scenes. We told the Government that we had the mums and the problems, so the money should come to us. We're filling a gap in the system."

Freegard initially set up the site on a local level, with information for mothers in Harrow, where she lives. Soon emails came in from elsewhere asking for similar sites. There are now 152, which are all tightly moderated to provide what Freegard describes as a "safe and friendly environment".

But parenting sites aren't all about anonymity and computer screens. Many of those online have now met up with their friends offline and found a real connection. Perhaps one reason for this is that unlike mother and baby groups, websites allow you to meet other parents without children being present. You don't need to talk over, or even pretend to like, someone else's wailing toddler. Instead, you have the time to discover shared interests.

"It's like lonely hearts in effect," says Chrissi Hudson. "I've made so many friends."

www.mumsnet.com: witty, acerbic, with a huge range of topics. Just signed six-figure deal for a series of "modern, funny" parenting books.

www.netmums.com: vast membership, lots of support and advice. Also has publishing deal.

www.badmothersclub.co.uk: set up by Stephanie Calman to reassure mums muddling through.

www.supernanny.co.uk: advice based site based on the TV show

www.gurgle.com: newest site, backed by Mothercare and the Early Learning Centre.

www.mumszone.co.uk: supportive forum, section on mums who work from home.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Shortlisted at the Press Awards


I have some news - I have been shortlisted for feature writer of the year at this year's British Press Awards. I am, as you can imagine, delighted, especially as freelancing is never easy. It's the fourth time I've been shortlisted for one of these awards (and, I don't think I'm being particularly humble if I add that it's very likely to be the fourth time I don't win!) Still, I am very pleased.

You can see the list of nominees here:


Monday, 25 February 2008

Empty nest syndrome - and he's only two!

I have an article in the Daily Telegraph about early empty nest syndrome. You can read it here.....http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/main.jhtml?xml=/education/2008/02/23/fanest123.xml

Or here:

Empty nest: mothership lost in space

Sarah Ebner knew empty nest syndrome would strike one day - but wasn't expecting it when her youngest was just two

I feel bereft. My son has left me. My cheerful, gorgeous, golden boy has moved on, with barely a thought for how I will cope. He talks now of other women and has become so secretive that I have no idea what he's up to ("I don't know," he repeats firmly). He's only two and a half, but it'll never be the same again.

If I'm honest, I can't believe it. I had no fears about my son starting nursery. I thought that as long as he was happy, I would be. But I was wrong. As Robbie skipped away merrily, I felt ridiculously emotional. While the staff were thrilled that he was so happy and un-clingy, I felt an almost irresistible urge to rush into the nursery, grab him and bring him back home with me.

He's only at pre-school for three hours a day, so could I really be suffering from empty nest syndrome?

"Yes," says Jacqui Marson, a chartered counselling psychologist who specialises in motherhood. "It's a definite loss and reacting to it is completely normal."

I have to admit that I'm feeling pretty silly. When my elder daughter began at the same nursery, I waved her off with none of the same emotions. But perhaps that was because I still had a baby at home with me. Now that he has bounced off into the (beginning of the) adult world, I am strangely lost. The time, which is only relevant on the two days I don't work, seems so vast that I worry about how best to fill it. How did he grow up so quickly? It's as if he doesn't need me any more.

That's a feeling Jeannie Ford can certainly relate to. Her younger son, Oliver, joined reception class last September but still doesn't spend every day at school.

"There's a very long settling-in and assessment process and we're now at the stage where Ollie does four days until 3.20," she says. "His teacher has said that he can now do that on the other day as well, but I don't want him to. He's my baby and I can't face losing him for that fifth day too. Then it'll be forever."

Empty nest syndrome was so termed to explain the loss and sadness that many parents experience when their children no longer live with them or need day-to-day care. It's very common, usually when children leave home for university. But it can strike, as I now know, at any age. Parent coach Sue Atkins says that a recent client was worried about her 25-year-old son, who was getting married. She felt she was losing him to his wife.

"Parenting is a constant letting-go," says Atkins. "From the moment you play peek-a-boo with your child, you've started them off being independent and letting them know that you won't always be there. Feeling sad is common at any stage. There's no right and wrong about it." I know I should be thrilled that my son's so settled and secure but a hint of clinginess from him would, secretly, be nice. Maybe that's selfish. But losing your baby to the growing up process is always hard.

Alison Dishington would agree with that. Her youngest child, Grace, began school last year.

"I was very emotional and cried when I got home. I actually felt a little sick," she says. "I was sad when each of my four children started but it got stronger with each one. With Grace, it was the end of an era and the house seemed so empty and quiet. I still find it terribly quiet and always have the radio on."

But Alison says that the feelings of sadness didn't last. "I felt very morbid at the loss for a short while, but then I felt some relief too. After all, I now had time to empty those cupboards I'd been meaning to do for months and space to do some things for me, too. I began swimming again and took up yoga, which I love. So I have to say there is a positive side and you can certainly fill the gap."

Jacqui Marson agrees that the key is not to panic desperately about filling the time with more work, as I have done, but to take it slowly and decide what's best for you.

"We all neglect ourselves when we have young children. So, with the realisation that you are beginning not to be the centre of your child's universe, you have to work out how to be the centre of your own universe again. It might be that you turn back to your career but it might also be that you decide to take up pottery." Sue Atkins suggests that the key is to try to relax and to celebrate the start of nursery, school or university as a step forward for your child and for you.

"Focus on the plus points," she says. "Be delighted that your child is happy, having fun and learning new things. You can't live your life through your children and when your last one goes, they do leave a gap. You have to decide how to fill it." My new life has begun. What do I do now?