I will come clean - my eldest is off to university in a few weeks and I am struggling a bit. I have spoken to others and it seems I am not alone.
After years of care, nurture, feeding, cleaning up the mess, listening to the daily woes, the time has arrived. Your child is leaving home. You 'should be' feeling exhilarated, liberated shouldn't you? But instead you are feeling sad, lonely and possibly even grief stricken.
This may be a familiar story at this time of year with our clever young adults going off to university and starting their exciting new journey. You are used to being part of their daily life, you miss having them around. You know exactly where they are and what they are doing for the majority of every 24 hours. Now, quite suddenly, you know nothing except which city they are in. Coupled to this you might be worrying about them - are they happy, making friends, coping with the work load, managing their finances? Are they eating their vegetables, looking both ways when crossing the road?? The worrying is infinite!
It is also perfectly ‘normal’ to lose a part of your identity. All those years of actively being a parent and suddenly it feels like you have been given your P45. You might feel sad, angry, anxious.
It doesn't seem so long ago I dropped her off for her first day at nursery and watched her walk away clutching her snuggle blanket. I vividly remember how long her first day at primary school felt and how relieved I was when I knew she had settled in easily. When did I stop reading her bedtime stories and brushing her hair? When was our last trip to the park? These endings happen without us even realising. Her secondary school years whizzed by, consumed by exams and university applications. And now it is a stark reality-she has blossomed into an amazing young woman who is off to university to start the new chapter in her life without me.
I see this as an important part of my job as a parent; allowing my child to gradually move away, gain independence and experience the world of an adult gradually and safely. I will always be there if she needs to come home, if she wants a chat, if she asks for advice. But equally I know other people will become important in her life. It is a natural transition. In me, she will always have a secure base from which to explore her opportunities.
"There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in." (Graham Green)
Can you ‘prepare’ yourself? To some degree yes, you can. Try to start shifting the focus from your child to you. Try to rediscover interests, hobbies, friendships; try something new. Maybe this is the time for new studies or a career change, a start of a new chapter in your life. Rather than facing it as a time of endings reframe it as a time of beginnings, of new opportunities.
Plan to stay in touch. Regular contact can benefit you both. Just because she/he has left home, doesn’t mean all communication has to be stopped. If you have a good relationship, you will find that keeping in touch often benefits both of you. It can be difficult to adjust to your new roles and it is difficult to hold back and let your child take the lead in how often you communicate. This is all new for them too though. They need their privacy and independence. And when they come home to offer up their dirty washing or to hoover up the contents of your fridge, try to remember they have grown up and changed (although it may seem they haven’t) but they are still part of the family.
Share your experience with your partner - it is likely they are also feeling upset by this change. Don’t forget your other children. If you have children still at home, they will be feeling the difference too as well as seeing your emotional rawness. Talk to them about how you feel and encourage them to do the same. Pretending everything is fine won’t fool them - quite the opposite, it will make them feel confused. Talk to friends who are experiencing the same.
If the feeling of sadness is overwhelming and long lasting, you might benefit from professional help. Counselling can help you to understand and work through your feelings.
Navigating this time of huge change successfully can not only lead to a brighter future for you and your child but will also enhance your changing relationship. You are now the parent of an independent young adult and that in itself can feel hugely rewarding.
Cecil Day-Lewis captures the bitter-sweet emotion beautifully in his poem Walking Away "...selfhood begins with a walking away, and love is proved in the letting go."
I will try really really hard to take my own advice, but I know I will shed a few tears!