Education: Goodbye . . . we're going to miss you: They used to be toddlers, filling the house and dependent on Mum and Dad; now they're at university, learning about life. Five parents tell Celia Dodd about watching the children leave

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The Independent Online
WENDY and David Cockerill have four sons. The eldest, who has now left home completely, went to university six years ago, and the youngest started last year. The three younger sons come home to Cheltenham in the holidays.

Wendy: Before my eldest son went, I began to dread it. When he left, I panicked because I knew that it was only a few years before they would all be gone and I realised how much my life was bound up with them. There was this great blank and I felt, what the hell will I do?

It just felt awful all the time. You have to face the fact that someone who has been an indispensable part of your life for nearly 20 years is lost to you as abruptly as if they had died. As a mother you're all-important. Then suddenly you've got to adjust to being not important. Of course, you still are, basically, but you've got to stand back. That's very difficult.

At certain points I did feel as bad as if I'd been bereaved. After one of the boys left, I can remember walking to the shops with this great lump in my chest - it was real physical pain. I felt bad for a few weeks, but then, of course, it got better.

I don't think being busy helps; I couldn't have been more busy. I'm a freelance proof-reader, a childminder and take in foreign students.

University weans you off gradually. At first I missed the mess and bustle of family life. Then within weeks they were back and I missed the new order I had created without realising it. Then when they went back I had to say goodbye all over again.

The boys knew how I felt, but not too much I hope. I didn't want them to feel guilty. I never worry about them; I never think are they cold or have they got enough money? We pay their rent by standing order. When I get emergency demands for money I'm totally outraged, then this vision of a little blond toddler comes to me. That's why we can't afford a car.

This is a rite of passage you have to work through gradually. I've come through it now, but at the time I was extremely distressed. I felt desperate to talk, but couldn't find anyone who felt the same. There was a sense that I should pull myself together, that I was too wrapped up in my children.

Dave: When the eldest was about to go, Wendy asked me what I thought about it and I said I thought it was wonderful. Her reaction was 'You bastard, he's going and you don't care'. I did care, but I saw it not as someone leaving the nest but as someone going to a wonderful world. I didn't go to university, I joined the army.

I think there is a difference between the way Wendy and I feel about them going. Wendy sees them as her flesh being ripped from her, whereas I've still got this joy of them going out and doing it.

When each one went off in the train I felt unutterably sad. They are very different and I missed them all for different reasons. We used to go on cycling trips to France and I miss planning to do things like that with them.

They're terrific guys; they've all blossomed at university. But at the age they are now I don't wish them to be lurking about at home smoking in every corner. What I do wish is that they were all eight years old again.

EVELYN NAPIER'S daughter left her home in Surrey two years ago to go to Durham University; her son went to Liverpool six years ago.

I can remember driving down the M6 after we'd dropped my son off on his first day, bawling my face off. It really was like a bereavement. I missed his physical presence and I was surprised at what an emptiness and an ache there was. Even though mentally I was prepared for it, my feelings weren't. I've always worked, so it wasn't that I didn't have other things in my life.

When my daughter left four years later it was easier in some ways, but harder in others. I was mentally more prepared for the fact that the nest was going to empty completely, but I missed her terribly and I still do.

It was harder in that I was conscious of trying not to make it more difficult for her. I was aware that when my son left, I was much more of a clinging mum. I found it difficult to let him go, to appreciate that he was a young man now, on his own, and it was his life.

Initially, I was careful not to be standing on the steps wailing my face off, and I try not to do that still. But there's also the part of me that needs a hug.

University is a useful transition in some ways. This is their home, but they spend two-thirds of the year away. You learn some coping mechanisms, you try to adjust. I look forward immensely to when they can be home, even if it's for only 24 hours. You learn to make the best of these times, to enjoy just being together.

But it can be quite tough because each time they go again, you feel sad. I still shed a tear, in spite of knowing that they're happy and doing what they want to. The house is empty again and it takes me that 48 hours when I'm as bad-tempered as hell and I have to get out and do something to get to grips with it. Then it settles down again.

And they tend to be in and out when they are home. That's quite a difficult adjustment: you're dealing with them as adults who have spent the last year living on their own. You have to renegotiate the boundaries.

Home takes on a whole new meaning to them. They love being pampered, and I get a positive buzz out of looking after them again. Deep inside, that's still important to me - it's my way of showing love in that relationship. Now we talk about quite personal, emotional things that I might not have done a few years ago. I would hate to be back to the young childhood stage - that era is past. I'm still there for them, but in a different way - it's a different kind of relationship.

JOHN and Deborah Wood's younger son, Bartholomew, started at Reading University last year; their elder son, Tom, is in his final year at Sheffield.

Deborah: I miss the boys, of course, but not with tears every night, and not in a bad way. We talk about them a lot, and we're concerned that they're all right. But they're in touch all the time so it's no big deal really. It's such a nice feeling to see them going off so independent and happy, which means that John and I can concentrate on us.

This is the best time of our lives. It's wonderful. We can do as we please without reference to anybody else, which is very nice after 23 years of gearing everything - your life and your plans and your finances - towards the children.

We were delighted to do that. They have been great and we've thoroughly enjoyed them, but now it's very nice to be able to spend a bit more time thinking about us and not them all the time.

It's the natural progression of things: you have children to bring them up to be independent people and live their own lives. That's what they're doing. Sometimes I do gulp when I see them go, and I hope they'll be OK. But it lasts momentarily.

Mostly I'm very pleased to see them going as confident young men into their own world, and that's a great source of pride. That really overrides everything else.

It helps enormously that John and I are a very strong unit: we're very happy together and like talking to each other. We've got a long time together - we're relatively young and healthy and that's a very pleasant prospect.

John: Last year I drove Bartholomew up to Reading and got him settled in hall. I wasn't emotional about dropping him off because there were too many practical considerations. It was a bit strange coming back to the house with him not here, but it didn't last long.

We're quite happy without the boys, as long as we know they're OK. I think if they hadn't been happy, it would have been a lot harder.

They like to come home for a couple of days and then they're off again, which is just how it should be. That's long enough for them, and after a couple of days I'm glad to see them go, too. Quite quickly you get used to not having them here, and they do tend to disrupt your routine.

I thought they would become a bit more distant, but they haven't. They're quite affectionate, and not frightened to show it. They still give me a kiss in public, and say I love you, which is great.

(Photograph omitted)

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