I know a lot of you are facing this as I was last year, the countdown to the day when your son or daughter leaves for university. They will be brimming over with anticipation as you brim with tears of dread. I thought it might be helpful to give you an idea of what to expect, not from an expert point of view, just from a fellow mum who has been through it.
It is going to be hard for you, however well you have tried to prepare for it. Let’s face it, your child has no idea at all of just how much you have loved them, or the detail that you have invested in their every day. They don’t understand that your parenting journey has gone in a flash. For them it has been a lifetime and now it feels like too long. They are ready for something new and yet to you, they are suddenly just as tender as the day you first held them. That’s just how it is.
You have to have this separation. I began to fret about the departure of my eldest when my own Mum died, even though he was still just 14. I suppose it was all part of the cycle of mothering and being mothered. Luckily I was seeing a bereavement counsellor at the time and she quickly unearthed it as an issue.
She spoke to me very frankly and told me that if I held my sons too close in their teenage years they would, sooner or later, have to fight me for their freedom. Her warning was that the rebellion they would be forced to make in order to achieve their independence would be far more painful than if I just let them go. So, I made a conscious effort to do just that. I have sent a silent thank you to her so many times since for the easy relationship that we have now.
It was still tough when the big day came though but, as we say in our family, these things are like a bear hunt (remember that story book “you can’t go round it, you can’t go over it, you’ve got to go through it”). This was the morning of our big goodbye.
I’ve been thinking back to those early days and weeks. Here are some of the things it would have been helpful to know.
Things to consider when your son or daughter leaves for university
They might not get in touch with you for a while. If they do, it will be brief and probably by text. It isn’t a bad thing, they are reorienting themselves and too much contact with home throws them off track. It’s important that you hold back and let them plough their new furrow for as long as you can bear it.
No news really is usually good news
You will generally hear from them when things go wrong – which they will without warning. You will be immersed in a heart rending telephone conversation about a big issue. You will talk them through it and follow up with thoughtfully worded emails. You will ponder over it and wonder about them for days.
In the end, when you can stand it no longer, you will call to enquire tentatively about how things stand. They will respond with “what – oh yeah that, it’s all fine…” They will have sorted it out and moved on. You will feel exhausted. Just remember that the important thing is that you were there when they needed you. That is what matters.
They will eat terrible food
After a lifetime of balancing their meals to ensure maximum nutrition you will wonder what the point was. They will eat junk, bulk buying ‘value lasagne’ that is on offer because it has reached its sell by date. If they’re not thinking about what goes into it, it’s better that you don’t either.
They will drink [lots of] alcohol
If they haven’t already, they will truly explore their capacity for alcohol. When they are thrilled to discover a bottle of 90% proof absinthe in their new flat that has been left behind by last year’s students, they will not listen when you tell them what it did to the Impressionists. They will still try it for themselves, even though you strongly warn them not to. They will learn the same lesson that last year’s students did…and Toulouse Lautrec didn’t. This could or could not have happened to someone we know recently!
They will never have enough money
You will soon be told that everyone else purportedly has more money than they do. Even though it is unlikely to be the case, stay strong, having less is a good thing. Remember that however much you give them, they will spend it. Knowing how to budget is an invaluable lesson that we all learned as students and so should they.
They are now adults so it is time for them to learn that life does not come on a plate. In my view they should also contribute. I am so very proud of how hard the eldest works in the holidays in his lowly waiter’s job. I have every confidence that he is going to go far in life so I know that the tough lessons he is learning now, at the very bottom of the industrial food chain, are ones that will help him stand out when he hits the workplace. He will also be a good boss because it will have taught him how not to treat people.
One last thought on money – you don’t need me to tell you to pay them monthly rather than termly do you? Those students whose parents pay for their accommodation up front, leaving them to go wild in Freshers’ Week with their whole student loan, are generally the ones who have blown the lot by the end of the month. My advice is to do it the other way round, let them put their loan towards their accommodation and then pay them a monthly living allowance.
Don’t spend a fortune at John Lewis (not on this anyway)
They are not setting up home. Most equipment will be lost or ruined after a year of living communally. They generally don’t cook very often and things like baking trays are more likely to be used for sledges than their intended purpose. What is essential though is the best mattress protector you can buy, or even a good mattress topper. The mattress they inherit will make you shudder. Also pack fairy lights, even for boys, student rooms can be pretty drab.
Prepare them for Freshers’ Flu
It exists. It’s hardly surprising when you think of the melting pot of new germs that are colliding for the first time. The eldest suggests making sure that you provide: a full year’s supply of Berocca (enough for many hangovers too), paracetamol, ibuprofen, Alka Seltzer, tissues (because nice ones are expensive) and a microwaveable furry animal for comfort – yes, this came directly from the rugby player’s mouth.
Expect a progress vacuum
You will know nothing about the studying side of things other than whatever they choose to tell you. No grades, no behavioural reports, nothing. Universities seem to assign a lot of important, graded, first year assessments to group projects. These marks can count towards finals and I know I would have found it hell. Your son or daughter is at the mercy of the other indivuals’ work ethics, ability to speak or write English and their level of school training in producing reports and dissertations.
This makes it really stressful, especially when it comes to deadlines. Things happen, such as the entire piece of work being deleted from the university servers by a spiteful member of the group who has a temper tantrum days before the deadline. Yes really. As a parent you are ‘persona non grata’ with the powers that be, you are unable to help. You have to stand by and hope that your son or daughter has the wits and guts to sort it out for themselves – which, you will discover to your delight, they probably do.
When you drop them off, remember that before you know it, they will be home for the holidays
When the big day comes, you will think you have prepared yourself and then something small will get you. For me it was when we went into the collegiate bar where registration was taking place. At every other stage in his life, I would have accompanied my son and filled in the forms for him. This time I had to step aside and, very symbolically, leave him to go forward alone. That was my moment. The other hard parts were saying goodbye, driving away, arriving home and the first week of passing the door of an empty bedroom but I had prepared myself for those.
Remind yourself that this is your success too and think of the alternatives – the problems you would be facing if they hadn’t achieved the grades or worse, if they hadn’t achieved the age of 18. Look forward to them coming home again which they will. When they do, you will find that they see you in a new, appreciative light…along with the well stocked fridge – they develop a whole new love affair with that too.
A friend who was feeling sad about her son’s impending departure asked me if they change. I replied that they do – but for the better. Having spent a lot of time with my son this summer I can say that he is still the same sweet, funny boy I have always known and his principles haven’t changed. The only difference is that he is more worldly wise, I’ve had some fascinating conversations with him. I’ve had a glimpse of the man he will become and I’m so pleased with what I see.
I’m going to leave you with another poem – you can tell that I had a lot of time to read beside the pool on holiday. I first heard this when I was 19 and my brother read it at the funeral of his little daughter. It has stayed with me ever since. It is the perfect poem for someone at the beginning of their parenting journey but also for someone who has reached a later stage of letting go – as we have. I’m sure you already know it – but here it is again.
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and he bends you with his might
that his arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as he loves the arrow that flies,
so he loves also the bow that is stable.
Good luck to you if you are at this point with your children. Have faith, it will all be fine. My account of what felt like ‘the end of days’ last year is here, when we dropped our son off at university for the first time.
In the meantime please forgive me for not replying to your last few comments yet, I’ve been juggling lots of things that I’ll tell you about soon, along with getting everybody ready to go back to school next week when I’ll be able to catch up. Thank you for bearing with me and have a wonderful weekend wherever you are.