EXCLUSIVE: Kylie Gillies reveals how she’s adapting to being an empty-nester

A strong support network and deep family ties are key.
Kylie Gillies and her sons Gus and Archie

There’s a quote which Kylie Gillies looks at as a constant reminder. Originally uttered by Mother Teresa, it has since become a mantra for many parents across the globe: “You will teach them to fly but they will not fly your flight. You will teach them to dream but they will not dream your dream.”

The Morning Show co-host forced herself to think of these words the day her eldest son, Gus, sat her and husband Tony down to announce he was dropping out of university, getting a job in a pub and then planning an open-ended trip to travel the world in the hope of finding his purpose.

She has continued to think of them in the 12 months since. For when Gus made his announcement, she admits, “I did lose it”. Not just over his change in direction but the fact that, for the first time, her boy would be leaving home – the slow march to empty nesting beginning – and for the first time, she was completely unable to oversee or have a hand in his decision making.

“Is this my dream – for Gus to defer uni and see what happens?” she asks The Weekly as we sit down with her, one week before her eldest is due to depart the country. “That’s not my dream. That was never my dream. My dream was to work really hard and get a cadetship, be a journalist. But that’s not his dream.

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

“So you have to trust. That’s been a really big lesson for me – to learn to trust the process. And I’m not there yet. I don’t want to be too fairytale about it. Gus is about to leave for Europe, and I am filled with anxiety. People on the periphery can look in and go, ‘Wow, how exciting, how awesome, he needs that to spread his wings.’ And, in theory, I get that. But my heart is breaking.”

Today’s shoot is one which has been on Kylie’s bucket list for years, serving as a bookmark to the first time the trio were in front of The Weekly’s lens in 2009. Back then, Kylie was competing in Dancing With The Stars. The boys were six and four, respectively.

Now at the more mature ages of 20 and 18 the duo visibly squirm when their mum takes the resulting portrait off the wall it hangs upon to proudly revisit.“I’ve seen the photos, but I don’t remember actually doing it. It was so long ago,” Archie says. Not so his older brother.

“I clearly remember doing it,” Gus says with a grimace. “I feel like we hated it. I hated it at least. But it has been fun doing it now. I hadn’t really thought that nobody else does photo shoots with their mums for magazines. I’m grabbing onto it now, it’s fun.”

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

“In that first shoot it was like, ‘Look at them in their smart little pants and their smart shirts,’” Kylie says, her eyes misting over. “And now look at them. They are in their suits and they’re grown men. They’re not my little boys anymore and that makes me happy and sad at the same time. It’s the bittersweet feeling of pride mixed with sadness that this chapter will end. I think any mum with kids the same age would feel exactly the same way.”

If the suits, the facial hair and the fact they now tower over their mother didn’t already make it crystal clear that Gus and Archie are “all grown up”, this shoot certainly does.

First, we take pictures alongside the car the boys remodelled over the space of a year with their dad. They share possession, taking it for drives to the beach, to the skate park. They’ll take it later this week to their “boys only” holiday with their mates – being only two years apart in age means they’ve grown up close and share mutual friends and interests.

How is Archie taking the news his brother is leaving home, we ask. “Don’t get me started on that because that makes me very sad,” Kylie says, her voice breaking as she swallows impending tears.

Kylie and her boys in 2009 (Image: Supplied).

“I keep asking, ‘Archie, are you going to be okay?’ Arch is quiet, he doesn’t say much. But I know they’ll be in touch. They know stuff about each other that I will never know.

“I want nothing more than for my boys to grow up as great mates. They will always be brothers but if they can be great mates as well? That’s a bonus.”

It’s not just a brothers’ trip away that will mark the end of his time in the family home, a gorgeous place nestled in an idyllic pocket of Sydney and backing onto the Parramatta River. Gus has cajoled his parents into allowing them to host a farewell party in the backyard, a place that’s been the scene for much merriment over the years.

During the COVID lockdown years, both boys were in high school. With school rooms and socialising off the agenda, the river became their personal playground, the place where they devised wild water stunts and performed them in front of both bemused and aghast onlookers.

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

“We were a bit infamous for it,” Gus says as the brothers grin at the memory. “There were no complaint letters from the neighbours but there was a [local] mums Facebook group who were complaining about us being too loud.”

Kylie rolls her eyes at the quip but it’s clear she loves to watch the devilry in action as her sons bond over their love of sports and adventure.

She and Gus share a competitive streak, he laughs, adding, “She’s just the older version of me. It’s fun to have someone on my level. She’s a cool mum too.”

“I love how active she is,” says Archie. “Like, she’s always taking us to things we’re doing, takes interest in what we’re doing and helps out whenever she can.”

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

As the boys were growing up, the Gillies family religiously ate dinner together around the table each evening, Fridays ending with a movie night. But when the teenage years hit, those shared moments at home became less common, a fact Kylie mourns.

“It’s that transition from little boy who loves and adores you and wants to hang out on the couch with you and watch movies and eat popcorn, to the peer group becomes so important to them,” she says. “Movie with mum on a Friday night? No way, we’re going out! I guess it’s the transition that their peers become far more important than you and their opinions matter far more than yours. If I could have my time again … Gosh, I wish I could have my time again. I would love to navigate that a little bit more smoothly.”

Fortunately, the friendships her boys made have had an unexpected pay-off: Kylie’s phone is constantly beeping with notifications from the multiple mum groups she’s part of. School group mums, rowing mums, long lunch mums – all these connections created through her sons means she’s got a long list of women to draw on for advice – some of whose kids will join Gus on parts of his adventure.

“Chances are, if I’m feeling a certain way about something, it doesn’t take long for me to reach out and I can guarantee you one of those other mums will be going through the exact same,” she says. “You have to be careful not to betray confidences of your own children but it’s a beautiful support network and one I rely on a lot.”

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

Today, Kylie is counting her lucky stars that Archie has no plans to join his brother in ditching his studies, although Gus laughingly suggests it to rile his mother up.

“Step away from my baby,” she cries in mock horror. “His dream is not your dream!”

However, Archie does tell The Weekly that once university is done, he’ll take his own travelling journey – he’s also keen to stretch his wings and see what the world holds. It’s then that the empty-nester years will officially begin for Kylie and Tony, a life phase they both acknowledge will be hard.

But with a marriage that has weathered more than three decades of storms and sunrises they also know they’ll have each other to lean on.

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

“It must be tricky for a lot of people,” Kylie muses. “When you no longer have the kids to talk about, what do you now connect with? So many marriages are put under pressure, and you can see why some people split or the marriages end.

“But for us? So far, so good. It’s been 34 years, so I think we’ve found our rhythm. We were married for 13 years before we had Gus, so I think we were in a pretty good rhythm before we had kids. And now that they are abandoning us? We have a shared love of Netflix and coffee – that goes a long way in a relationship!

“We have simple demands of each other, and that is to like the same TV shows and drink the same coffee. So I think we’ve got it made.”

Unlike his wife, who is right at home in front of the camera, Tony is a behind-the-scenes kind of a guy. He’s decided to step out of the photos and our chat today, but he’s been busy helping the crew – shifting furniture, grabbing props, corralling the kids – as he surveys the scene with pride.

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

While Kylie admits she’s found her sons’ desire to throw caution to the wind unsettling – “I’m such a straighty 180 who has to do everything by the book,” she says – Tony can relate to the desire to head to destinations unknown.

“Tony did the Europe thing when he was 23, 24,” Kylie says. “Europe, but mostly America. He worked in a hotel in Miami where they shot Miami Vice. So Gus has got a bit of Tony in him as well. He’s got Tony’s adventurous spirit and sense of get up and go. It’s a big adventure that awaits Gus and he goes with our love, but he takes a piece of my heart with him.”

As Gus jokes that his mother will probably put a tracker in his suitcase to keep an eye on him from afar, it’s now that another popular motherhood quote comes to Kylie: “To be a mother is to have your heart forever walk around outside your body.”

“When it’s in the same city, you can kind of wrap your head around that,” she says in an effort to explain the enormity of loss she is feeling in the days approaching Gus’ departure. “But suddenly if your heart is going to be thousands of miles across the ocean? That’s going to be a bit of an adjustment, to be honest. But it’s not about me.

Photography: Alana Landsberry. Styling: Mattie Cronan.

“Of course, I worry that he’ll run out of money and have nowhere to sleep. And that probably won’t worry him because he’s very resourceful. It’s cold, have you got your jumper? Have you got your vitamins?”

She laughs as she realises she’s going down the rabbit hole fallen into by parents across the generations; instead choosing to trust that she and Tony have prepared their eldest for all hurdles that can come his way.

And her final advice as Gus leaves for the airport?

“I will just tell him to make good choices and don’t do anything that can’t ever be reversed. Don’t go and do something silly where there are consequences you can’t get out of. I’ll word it somehow [so] that he will remember. But he’s just at this point where he’s so excited. I think he’ll be fine.”

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