Empty nest? Or room to move?

Hilary Wilce, mother of Lizzie and David, says the university years are a big transition for the family
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The Independent Online

Your child is off to university. Welcome to the rollercoaster years of family life! Gone are the routines of yesterday: the predictable school timetable, the predictable holidays - even the predictable arguments about dirty mugs and clearing up bedrooms. In their place comes a world of constant flux, demanding from you deep reserves of parental adaptability.

Of course you miss them dreadfully when they go. Even if they have spent the last year back-packing around Cambodia, there is still something undeniably final about the way they pile up their worldly possessions and leave home. For weeks the house seems too quiet, the washing machine underused. You miss them, their friends, their music and their mess. You miss being plugged into their younger view of life. But then - human beings being the most adaptable creatures on Earth - you start to get used to it. You find it's nice to have more time to yourself, and not to have to turn out a big meal every night, or trawl the house looking for things that have gone astray. It's orderly and grown-up and your mind begins to mull over prospects for this whole new stage in your own life.

Then, just as that process gets under way, wham, they are home again! Bags are dumped in the kitchen, trainers pile up in the hall, you can't get onto the phone and there are too many drivers battling to use the car. The house is full of their presence, and your car boot is full of Sainsbury's shopping. For a day or so it is wonderful to have them back. Then you find you are niggled by all the dirty mugs left everywhere again. But, of course, it's still lovely to be surrounded by their chat and laughter, and life quickly slips back into the old routine. Then, just as you are getting thoroughly used to that again, the new term sucks them back and you are left restoring order to a battered, empty house.

This goes on for years. Meanwhile, underneath, all sorts of other things - really big things - are happening as well. Because, for everyone in a family, the university years are a time of huge transition. Your first-year student child still sees home as home, but by the third year the place will have become little more than a dumping ground for unwanted possessions. Meanwhile, adult lives are also in motion. Who are you, now you are no longer mum or dad? What sort of life will you lead from here on in? If you have sunk yourself in your family, this is when you look up and see your working friends enjoying great careers. If you have sunk yourself in work, this when you realise those lost family years have gone forever. And there's no getting around something very uncomfortable: having a child at university shouts from the rooftops that you are no longer as young as you were.

But, never mind, life moves on. There are plans to be made, options to be considered. Maybe you'll do more work, or retire, or take a course, or embrace a new career. Maybe you'll sign up for VSO, or join the choral society, or plan a walking holiday in the Hindu Kush. Maybe you will. Except not just at the moment. Because, look, wham, the next university term has just ended, they're home again, and right now, all you can think of is how to make time to get to the supermarket before supper.

Hilary Wilce writes the Quandary column in The Independent's Education section

One of the first lessons you learn is how to handle your independence, says Lizzie Dickson

There is no doubt that starting university is a daunting experience. Aside from the fact that in two days you meet at least 300 people but can only remember two of their names, it is the first time in your life that you become anonymous. Until this point, someone has always been directing/praising/haranguing you. It's what you are used to. So, it seems inconceivable that it should all just stop when you get to university .

Grasping the concept of taking responsibility for your own education can prove tricky. It takes even the laziest at least two weeks of dutiful lecture attendance to realise that you don't have to go, and what's more, if you don't go, nobody cares. After that, only the most astute will realise you should go anyway.

There is something vaguely Lord of the Flies-esque about living in a hall of residence in your first year. Freed from the constraints of family life, you suddenly find yourself in a place where the cheese toastie is hailed as a valid source of nutrition, your music is not referred to as "that awful swearing racket" and you won't be judged for wearing your pyjamas to lunch. Or dinner.

Even if you've had a gap year, this is a new kind of autonomy. It's somehow more reckless and infinitely more communal. For some, moving into halls will mean a staggering regression in maturity - setting off a fire alarm or urinating in a dustbin has never seemed so funny.

Halls never sleep. Neither, it would seem, do the pizza delivery men who service them. No matter what time of night, you will always find doors open, a bass thudding, or a kettle boiling. At first, you wonder how you will ever sleep with this constant noise. When you go home, you wonder how to sleep without it.

And at university, the seven-day week becomes perversely inverted. The weekend starts on Monday. And at the real weekend, half the hall mysteriously disappears and nobody goes out because it's too expensive (or too dodgy). And at 5.30 on a Sunday afternoon in November, when you are attempting unsuccessfully to swallow a piece of overdone broccoli from your roast dinner (dinner? At 5.30pm?), an interesting thought might occur to you. Wouldn't it be nice to be at home now? To eat a meal without pausing to speculate about the dubious origin of the meat? To have a parent tell you to go to bed because, really, you are quite run-down and tired?

But then Monday comes. And there is life, you have a purpose, you've got hockey training, you've handed in an essay and you can get excited about the prospect of a full five nights of flinging your limbs around in an over-capacitated club to the exhilarating pulse of the Baywatch theme tune. You might actually never go home again.

Lizzie Dickson is studying history and American studies at Nottingham University

After three years of fending for yourself, home doesn't seem quite so bad after all, says David Dickson

One of the main things you learn from going away to university is that the grass is always greener. You can't wait to leave home to go there, but it takes only about a term for the novelty of life in halls to wear thin.

While it was once exciting to be living with a thousand strangers, it doesn't take long to realise that you have nothing in common with the majority of them. The inedible meals become unbearable; awkward conversations with people who you still recognise from Freshers' Week but would really rather not become tiresome; and you've had enough of people stealing your food from the communal fridge. In short, you long to get into a place of your own.

Ahh... a place of my own - every student's dream. Somewhere I can be with people I like, where I can eat food that I want, when I want. A place I can decorate to my taste, where I can watch what I want on TV, and have impromptu parties when the mood takes me. A place where fire alarms won't wake me at 5am and the washing machine will clean my clothes.

Inevitably, these dreams of domestic bliss are short-lived when, a few weeks into independent living, you realise the house won't clean itself, bills don't go away if you just ignore them, and you're not quite the gourmet chef you thought you were. Early morning fire alarms are now replaced by housemates phoning, knocking, or chucking stuff at your window when they've locked themselves out. And now, when the washing machine floods, the toilet blocks, or an out-of-control house party causes damage, it's you that has to deal with it.

Of course in the second year these minor inconveniences are easily ignored. Who cares about squalor and a diet of cereals where there is so much else going on? But, by the third year, going out every night of the week is no longer so appealing, and the pressure of work means more time is spent at home. You realise it's quite nice to eat a good meal on a regular basis and that it isn't that difficult to keep a place clean - in fact, your house finally becomes spotless just as dissertations are due.

So, what have I learnt from leaving home? That I can bear a considerable amount of grime before feeling compelled to clean; that you can avoid getting a TV licence for four months before the red letter arrives; and that it costs a lot to run a tumble dryer. And something else, too. That, strangely, the home you so longed to get away from three years before, the one where someone else cooks and cleans and pays for the electricity, no longer seems quite so bad after all.

David Dickson recently completed part one of a degree in architecture at the University of Newcastle