Mum's the word: the stay-at-home student

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The Independent Online

We did the usual when our youngest child went to university. We loaded the car until its axle groaned, packing in toaster, laptop, wine and corkscrew and finally, almost on the roof rack, the embryonic undergraduate. At the other end we hugged, tried not to sound too pompous with advice, and set off along the A40 from her new halls of residence at Brunel University towards our home in Islington, north London. As the intervening 20 miles whizzed past, we contemplated empty nest syndrome.

We felt pretty experienced by then at delivering kids to university, since we already had one graduate and one in his third year. At home we cracked open a bottle to celebrate.

But while Katy’s brothers had gone to Manchester and Sussex, vanishing for weeks on end, Katy was still in London, at the other end of the Piccadilly line. Uxbridge also had a fundamental flaw for our drama student daughter: it lacked the huge, self-reliant student communities that Manchester and Brighton offered her brothers. Plus, there wasn’t much work for undergraduates in Uxbridge, and she still had a job in Islington. Inevitably, she came home lots of weekends.

Having her around so much set an unexpected challenge. I had steeled myself with her brothers to be as hands off as possible. I had a rubric: do not ring; text if you must, but don’t go into a tailspin if there is no response. Smile interestedly when information is offered but do not check their reading, shopping or laundry lists. The last one is easy for me, as I have no emotional problem in letting my kids do their own laundry.

But if one of them is at home, I do automatically expand the casserole. Even if I avoid cooking extra, I still stock the fridge for raiding. And at the table, inevitably, conversation includes, “What are you doing?” Having spent years believing that kids should fly off to independence at around 18, I suddenly really faced having to recognise the fact that my little child had become a young adult. I was flattered that she found our company tolerable but I had to let her fly the nest.

Most of our friends’ kids had gone away to study. The parents were not much help as sounding boards, although a couple had “returnees”, new graduates back in London looking for work. They too were finding it hard to avoid the automatic twitch to look after them. And I did find several whose kids were going to university from home. Some had stayed at home for financial reasons and one daughter because the university near home had her ideal course.

These parents were suffering problems we fortunately did not have with Katy, maybe because she was away half her time, maybe because she had her brothers as role models and was careful to keep her space. One mother was in a permanent frenzy, cooking every night for her 20-year-old and being inconsolable when he went to the pub with his mates. One father, whose daughter was planning to follow in his professional footsteps, thought he knew better than her lecturers. He said it is much harder not to interfere when his daughter discusses her course with him.

One of my sons is returning to London and using our house as a base while he finds a flat. It is easier to treat someone who has been away as an adult, I find – but not that much. Having now had a taste of the stay-at-home student, albeit part-time, I am more convinced than ever that kids studying away from home has huge advantages, especially for the parents.