When the children leave home

The prelude to your child leaving for university can be so stressful it may even seem like a relief when they finally go. But then the truth hits you. They aren’t coming home. Shirley Mann shares her experience

Have you smelt her pillow yet?” I knew immediately what the woman walking next to me meant. I was grieving, I mean really grieving, for my daughter who had gone off to university for the first time. Of course I had not sniffed her pillow. I had not even been able to face going into her bedroom.

Thousands of young people are about to start getting settled into their new lives at university, making new friends and happily drinking away their student loans. But never mind the children, what about the mothers who have given birth to them, changed their nappies, and seen them through illness, betrayed friendships and lost loves?

I was so unprepared for the reality of a child going off to university. We had spent months living on a knife-edge with a tetchy, stressed-out sixth former. That had been followed by a summer of frustration as she lay in bed or reclined on the sofa watching endless daytime television shows.

When the day eventually arrived and she finally started to tidy her room, packing every possible CD, every hair bobble and every shampoo into her rucksack, two cases and four boxes, it was almost a relief. We were very excited for her, reassuring her that the place would not be full of swots and geeks, that we would all be here for any trips she wanted to make home, and yes, the train fare would be refundable. We were full of tales of our youth and anticipation of new adventures.

It was not as if she had never been away from home. She was an intrepid sort who had organised her own fulfilling teenage years with holidays walking in the Lake District, spent camping trips up freezing mountains for her Duke of Edinburgh award, travelled Greek islands with friends and worked in dubious bars.

But she had always come home. She was still part of our family. So we took her to her halls of residence, blissfully ignorant of what was to come. All the doors were open, and cheery faces greeted us, as longsuffering parents traipsed up-and-down corridors with duvets and lamps. Her neighbours and their parents were immediately recognised as kindred spirits and the atmosphere was upbeat and friendly.

Then all of a sudden, there was nothing else to do. We stood, aimlessly, in the corridor as we physically and emotionally watched all the doors closing one by one as young people started to make the divide between home and university. Unwilling to appear rude, our daughter did not actually want to tell us it was really time to go. But my husband (the product of years at boarding school) took the lead and did not need the hint. He hugged her, her sister hugged her, but I stood, suddenly bereft.

All those years of the first day at nursery, the first day at school, the first boyfriend, the first driving lesson, racing before my blurred eyes. I wanted to yell, to shout, “No, not yet, it’s too soon”. Not too soon for us to be leaving the halls, but too soon for my role as a mother to end. Too soon for me not to know where my daughter is at three in the morning. Too soon for me not to know whether she’s eating enough greens. Too soon for me to be consigned to thinking about retirement because there is no one to cook tea for.

The goodbye hug was heart-wrenching. I was bewildered and lost and, as soon as I got into the car, I burst into unsophisticated tears. There was not a trace of the mature woman who runs her own business. It got worse when I got home and I set the table for three. There was no going back, my daughter had left home; my family of four was no more.

The next weeks were terrible. I tried very hard to be brave and to be almost cavalier about the fact that my elder daughter had gone to university. I was surely being a complete and utter wimp. What had happened to that capable, confident woman who urged her children to be independent and outgoing? I will tell you what happened to her: she woke at 2.30am in a cold sweat wondering whether anyone knew, or cared, whether her daughter was tucked up in bed, safe and sound. She cooked enough potatoes for four at every meal, having to confine leftovers to the dog’s bowl. She worked in a blur, with no sense of purpose or achievement, just doing what was essential.

And she certainly could not go into the bedroom where her daughter had spent her last few days. It sounds ridiculously dramatic but I felt she had died. I know that is the most stupid thing any mother can say, because to lose a child is too horrific to contemplate. But, in a way, that loss and sense of bereavement was real. I hid behind platitudes and enthusiasm for her new life as I talked to family and friends, unable to admit that the whole process had left me stunned. It had taken me completely by surprise and, in typical female fashion, I decided this was my fault. I was not dealing with it correctly.

And then came the breakthrough. We were out walking with some people I did not know very well, and I was comparing notes on university halls of residence with another mother, when she asked me about smelling the pillow. I stopped in my tracks and stared at her. My stomach churned with emotion and relief as two women connected with a depth that is primeval. This is how mothers must have felt for centuries, seeing their sons off to war, their daughters off to marriage. It struck a part of me so deep that I did not know women still had in the capable, independent second millennium.

We shared a tear, a laugh and a shared bonding that is rare, and I suddenly realised I was not alone. After that, it improved. I was able to go into my daughter’s bedroom and tut happily at the dirty washing I found behind the bed. I was able to get cross normally about why she had not rung, and I was still able to rush to the bank to deposit some remedial cash so she could survive the week. I was still her mother.

Since then, I have been able to share reassuring hugs with other mothers who have been more readily able to express their feelings, and I have made sure I give cups of tea, coffee and glasses of wine in extremis. I listened with sympathy as a friend confided she keeps putting loud music on in her daughter’s bedroom, just to fool herself she is still there.

Women in the year 2008 can run companies and offices, organise social events, keep fit and look after ailing parents, all the while encouraging our offspring to explore life in a way that we envy. But when it comes to facing the reality that we are no more and no less than other women throughout history, it can be a real shock.

Now all I have to do when I see an exasperated mum trying to control a tetchy toddler is to fight the urge to tell them: “They leave home you know.”