There are so many stages of independence in your child’s life but nothing quite prepares you for the awful realisation that soon they will be ready to fly the nest. The thought is always there at the back of your mind but it is generally easy enough to keep it firmly under wraps until that day when they first return from school with literature about careers choices or further education. Suddenly it hits you like a thunderbolt – your little baby is leaving home. It makes no difference when people reassure you that they will still return in the holidays or they will be working near to home and in all probability still be living at home. The fact remains they are becoming independent adults, free to choose where and how they live. You become assailed by doubts and wonder whether secretly they are champing at the bit and will leave home without a backward glance. Is their interest in a University at the other end of the country a reflection of their desire to put as much distance as possible between themselves and home? Is their interest in a Gap year in Africa a way of escaping from their family? You find yourself encouraging them in everything they propose regardless of how it makes you feel personally which then results in their conviction that you want to see the back of them.
Leaving home is hard to do. We’ve all been there and know how on the one hand it can be an exciting and liberating time but on the other scary as hell. For siblings left behind it can be a chance to grow up, be taken more seriously as the family dynamics change, to develop one’s own personality without the constraints imposed by an older sibling. But it can also be lonelier without an older sibling who was always ready with help and advice, was an ally when parents were being a pain, or who perhaps acted as a surrogate parent by putting you to bed or reading you stories. As a parent there is the need to adapt to a smaller household and also the loss of a friend. You worry that you haven’t prepared them enough for the big bad world. You worry that they won’t be happy. You worry that you won’t be there for them when they most need you.
My eldest went through a period of uncertainty during his last year at school, not quite sure if he wanted to go to University or not. He chose a University and a course that really enthused him but still had doubts. I naturally encouraged and supported him, reassuring him that no matter what he chose to do I would support him 100%. I often met up with a friend at a similar parenting stage and we laughed as we discussed how we both came out with all the stock phrases about our children leaving home all the while secretly harbouring a desire to shout out, “don’t go, stay at home like this forever!” For my son, I think one of the deciding factors in choosing to go on for further study was the promise of another three years of long holidays; as a homebody he wasn’t quite ready to totally leave the comfort and security of home.
The day I drove him up to Manchester to start his university life was one of the hardest ever. A four-hour drive is tough when you are dreading reaching the end of your journey and things became worse when we saw his room in hall, one of the most depressing I have ever seen. We quickly hopped back in the car to hit the shops and came back with brightly coloured cushions, lamps and other homely accessories. Eventually it was time to leave with instructions to my son to go down the hall to the Common Room to introduce himself to whoever else was around. I stumbled back to the car, just about managing not to cry and then started the lonely journey home feeling like I had totally abandoned my little boy.It was like his first day at nursery, only a million times worse. I was so glad that I was on my own and didn’t have to consider the feelings of my other children at this point, in particular my youngest who was already distraught at the thought of his biggest brother not being around anymore. It gave me a chance to brood in peace without the need for presenting a cheerful demeanour. By the time I got home I was in control although it was a good few weeks before I could bring myself to go into my son’s bedroom.
Naturally, we all adjusted: my son to University life which he loves, the rest of us to a diminished household. I think it was hardest for my youngest child who missed his big brother dreadfully and for the second oldest who, although very different from his older sibling, perhaps needed him around to keep him grounded. The fact that my son was happy made it easier for me to adjust to his absence and I discovered the advantages – one less person to ferry around and also less anxiety about his safety; because I didn’t know what he was doing I couldn’t really worry about it. And it also gave me chance to focus more on the younger ones, something my Mum had said to me when they each went to nursery and she told me it was time for the next in line to receive some more one-on-one attention. He phoned me regularly and also kept in touch by text and email (so much easier than in my day), sometimes sending me a picture of an item of clothing to see whether it should be put in a whites wash or a coloured wash; obviously all that help with the washing when he was a toddler paid off! And I learned that I had prepared him well for a life outside the nest; I had done my job and now it was time for him to spread his wings and take advantage of all the opportunities that life offered. Home would always be here for him, I was only ever a phone call away and would always drop everything if he needed me but he was ready to fly and was making me prouder than ever in the process.
I now have two sons studying away from home so our house can seem very quiet during term time. Today is the first day that I’m back to only three at home and already the house seems different, tidier(!), quieter and with a slight air of abandonment. It will take us a few days to become adjusted to calmer meal times, reduced grocery buying, smaller laundry piles but we will adjust: boy three will regain control of the remote control, there will be less teasing of the youngest boy and of me, fewer demands on my time. And then, before we know it, the house will be a seething mass of male bodies again and the family will once more be complete.
I have at least another year before I am down to only two boys but the thought doesn’t scare me in the same way as it did. I know that when they make the move they will be ready but most of all I know that they will always want to come back, to see their home, to see me, to be with their brothers. Life is full of change and we need to embrace it if we are to flourish. It may be hard but that’s ok, we’re used to that.