Clearing 2015: How do single parents cope with saying goodbye to children who leave for university?

Notes from a non-nuclear family say a lot about letting them go

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The Independent Online

Leaving your offspring at university for the first time is emotional for any family, but no more so than single parents. "In two-parent families, you have someone else who you know feels the same as you and so it's a shared experience and you can comfort each other. With me, it broke my heart leaving Oliver at Exeter University the first time. I sobbed for all of the two-hour drive home," admits Lucy Day, who lives in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire.

It's not that Lucy didn't want her son, who is now 19, to do a degree. "Far from it," she says. "Oliver has always been a clever clogs and knew he wanted to do further education, and I supported him all the way. In fact, I started saving up money as early as I could, putting £8 a week into an account by direct debit. I also saved every extra penny I could from my job as a mobile hairdresser. It amounted to £4,500 by the time he left - not bad for a low income family!"

Initially, Oliver wanted to study law. "So we went to Bristol crown court to get a feel of how it all worked in practice. I can remember people warning me that it would be horrendously expensive and although I wasn't going to let that stop us, in fact Oliver changed his mind to study languages instead and applied to study Russian and German. He visited several universities, but liked Exeter the best because of the atmosphere and he was impressed with what graduates go onto do. Luckily there was financial help, including an extra £2,000 that Exeter University gives children from low income families."

When he got the grades he needed to get in, Lucy and Oliver were both over the moon. "He's not one to jump up and down, but I could see he was really chuffed and I could not have been more proud. I remember joking that he better start drinking. I was worried he'd wind up getting really drunk at university if he had no practice!" laughs Lucy.

Oliver, who spent his first year living in a halls of residence with seven other students, is rubbish in the kitchen, claims Lucy. "But he manages to get things from the freezer into the oven, so he gets by. I was concerned he wasn't used to doing the washing either, but as he pointed out, you only have to put stuff in a machine and press a button."

Lucy wasted no time from the day the offer of a university place came through in putting together a starter pack for both these tasks. "I bought washing powder, packets of rice and pasta and tins of sausages and so he was able to go with a great pile of stuff. We had a party for him before he left too, where friends and family brought gifts like a pack of cutlery or smellies as a goodbye gift. That was great."

Because Oliver has been brought up in a family where scrimping and saving was the norm, Lucy says he's good at budgeting. "In fact, I tease him for being a bit of a stinge! He recently won a £300 award for being outstanding at German and he wouldn't even buy his mates a drink in the pub last week. I told him, 'You wouldn't be my friend!' Seriously, though, he's very sensible. If his friends go off to Starbucks for a coffee and cake, he doesn't go as he sees it as a waste of a fiver. I think it's because he's seen me be so careful with money. I work, save up, go on holiday, work, save up, have Christmas, and so on. It's given him good values that are standing him in particularly good stead in his student years."

Lucy knew it would be emotionally challenging when Oliver finally left for this first day at university. "I can remember leaving him in his new room and noticing the bedsheet didn't fit properly. I said, 'Oh I must pop out and buy you a new one,' but he looked at me and said, 'Mum, I'll be fine.' I knew he would be really."

Six weeks into term, Oliver came home for his first visit. "I was so happy when I went to pick him up that I cried," admits Lucy. "Since then, I've been to see him a few times for the day and he comes back to stay every now and then."

A year on, Lucy says she's noticed quite a change in Oliver's maturity. "He's more chatty to my friends and a lot more confident too. He was both before, but there has definitely been a change."

As for other single mums whose offspring head off to university, Lucy's advice is to keep busy when they go. "You need lots of distractions to keep yourself from feeling sad. We've got a small terraced house and I moved Oliver's younger brother into Oliver's old room and decorated it. Then I decorated the smaller bedroom for Oliver. I also texted, Facetimed and phoned Oliver a lot - probably too much, when I think back, as he didn't always answer the calls or texts after a few weeks. I think we've got the communication about right now and he does enjoy chatting to me about the people he's living with and what he's up to. He has a great social life, which is always nice to hear about."

If money is tight, Lucy points out that it is worth doing your homework about all the financial assistance available. "There was more than I expected and Oliver also got a place on an internship in the civil service in London for a week, which was aimed at students from low income families, among others."

The irony is, says Lucy, that for all her blues in the weeks after Oliver left, she now finds herself struggling this summer. "Of course, it's always lovely to have Oliver around and this summer he's been particularly helpful with things such as cutting the grass and putting the washing out. But it drives me mad on the days when he gets up at 11am and is still in his PJs at 3pm. 'You've got to be kidding me,' I tell him."

But she also knows you should be careful what you wish for. "He'll be gone again, starting his second year, and I'll miss him all over again. That said, I know it will be much easier this time. I think the real test will be when he does his third year overseas in Russia. As it is, I know he's only a couple of hours' drive away. But I know it's the right thing for him and I'm exceptionally proud of all he's achieving."