Change: an act or process through which something becomes different.
I’ve just left my seven year old crying at the school gates. He’s not good with change, even ones he is used to and has done many times before. And neither am I, even though over the years I’ve been forced to deal with many different changes in my life. Some chosen. Others not. September, for example, is always a tricky month for me and I wonder if it stems from forty-two years of September being a period of huge change in my life.
You start school in September. Start college, university, always new beginning after new beginning. I left home in September. Found out I was expecting my first child in September. The body remembers what the mind forgets. Feelings I experienced during each and every one of those Septembers haunt me now, whether I’m starting a new venture or not. Sleepless nights filled with anxiety and self doubt, body aches, butterflies, a feeling of uncertainty. September is the one month of the year where I become full of nostalgia and can reach the exact feelings I felt as a teenager.
And then this September my teenager, my beautiful, confident and wonderful eighteen year old, left for university. More change. Except, just like it was during the September I found out I was carrying her, I felt like I was facing it alone. None of my peers have children leaving for university. They all have children the same age as my younger two sons, and they don’t even want to think about their children leaving home as it’s too painful and a long way off. But, and yes it’s a hideous cliché, it’s never as far off as you think. Blink and that’s it. Childhood done. Gone. And my god you just have to pray that they’ve listened and they’ve learnt and they can actually function in the world without you.
I’ve always been the kind of parent who believes our role is to bring our children up to be independent confident human beings who can survive in the world without us. When my children started nursery I was straight out the door. When they started school I was the first parent to leave them in the classroom. I didn’t cry. This was the order of things, they would go, be confident, survive without me at every stage. And it was the same that very first day for my daughter at university. I was the first parent to leave, on her terms I might add, she asked me to go. But for the first time ever I wasn’t happy to do so. My husband drove the car home because I thought I’d be an emotional wreck. Turns out he spent the entire journey bawling like a baby, whilst I sat emotionless comforting him. (I’m not good at reaching out or being vulnerable, it is not a good quality at times.)
The next few weeks were tough. People asked me how I was, but no one really got it. Oh she’s only an hour away, they’d say. But they didn’t understand that she might as well be in Outer Mongolia for all the time I was going to see her. Oh you must be so proud she’s so confident and enjoying herself, they’d say. But they didn’t understand that I felt as though my heart had been ripped out and left there with her. Or I spoke to women whose children left a long time ago, and were enjoying all of their child-free time. Oh I love it when they go back, she said. I can do whatever I want now. And so I sucked everything up and didn’t voice how I felt anymore. I didn’t need reassurance it turns out, I just needed someone who felt the same to understand.
And then I bumped into a mum of an old friend of my daughter’s from primary school, who’s daughter had also just gone to university. And she asked me how I was, and as she did she looked at me with tears in her eyes and said she felt bereft. That she was walking the dog constantly because the house was too unbearably quiet. That she didn’t know what to do with herself. That she felt as though something had died.
And that was it. Nail on the head. It was grief. I was grieving. Grieving for the relationship I had with my daughter and how it had changed the day she left. Of course I’m still her mum and am there when she needs me, but not in the same way. Not like when she’d fall over as a toddler and reach out her arms for comfort. Or when she’d had a tough time as school and needed some reassurance. We’d never been apart for more than a week before she left. I missed tripping over her shoes in the hallway. I missed telling her to be quiet because her younger brothers were trying to go to sleep. I missed hearing about her day. Sitting on the sofa with her watching a box set together. Cuddling her. Cooking for her. Mothering her.
I often wonder (I like to find a reason for things) as to why her going away hit me harder than I’d expected, and I’ve reached two conclusions. The first has to do with our relationship. When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter her father wasn’t pleased about it and I knew I would be going it alone right from the start. For five years it was just the two of us, until I met my husband. We were close. She is great company and knows me better than anyone. The fact that other people now know her better than I do hurts a little. As well as the fact that she’d rather be with them than me, even though I totally understand, I was the same.
Which brings me to the second thing. My relationship with my mum, which wasn’t quite the same. We weren’t as close when I was a teenager (thankfully we are now, my daughter giving us common ground) but when I left for university it was different. I was very close to my dad, who passed away when I was twenty-two. He was the one who phoned every Thursday to see how I was, who came to pick me up when I had glandular fever, who’d write me letters and slip me a tenner with strict instructions that it not be spent on cheap white wine. My daughter going away brings a lot of that back and I am stuck reminiscing about a time of change that wasn’t always very pleasant with some difficult memories I haven’t quite dealt with, but maybe that’s for another blog post.
Change is a big thing for lots of people. Some embrace it, some shy away from it, and some, like me, struggle to adjust. And children are often the source of major change in our lives.
My daughter has been home for the Christmas holidays for two weeks now, and with her brought more differences for us both to get used to. She likes to stay up Face-timing her friends until 3am. I like to sleep from 9pm. She’s fighting hard to prove how independent she is by driving all over the country to see her university friends. Cooking for herself. Applying for jobs for next term. Not asking for any money. She’s changed. She’s thriving. She is living her best life. And maybe if she hadn’t left for university we might have started to grate on each other a little bit more. It had already started, niggles here, lack of understanding there. Maybe we needed some time apart to find out who we both are independent of each other, before coming back again and forming a new bond. A different type of mother daughter relationship. One where we are both adults capable of looking after ourselves and each other.
Someone I know recently said to me, ‘wait until they get married, then you really do lose them forever.’
But we won’t think about that change yet.
I’m still adjusting to this one.