Carol Williams (left) reunited with daughter Lisa, a student at Birmingham City University (bottom left) / Joel Chant

For many parents, waving their children off to university is the start of a difficult time of transition and worry. But it gets easier, says Kate Hilpern

Empty nest syndrome was the last thing Carol Williams expected to feel when her daughter Lisa started at Birmingham City University last September.

Not least because she had a younger daughter still at home.

“I knew the time had come for Lisa, who was 19, to become more independent, and having grown up with parents who were extremely restrictive in what I was allowed to do at that age, I was determined that Lisa had more freedom. But the house just felt so quiet. It didn’t feel right without her here and I struggled with that,” says Carol, 49, who lives in Burnham, Buckinghamshire.

“It wasn’t helped by the fact that I wondered why Lisa hardly ever called. I imagined her just larking about and not getting on with her work and I got into this whole spiral of missing her and worrying about her. It was hard.”

Carol was also mindful of the fact that she hadn’t prepared Lisa for her newfound freedom. “Her dad had died the year before and I hadn’t got around to teaching her things about washing and cooking in the way that I should have. And because she’s naturally quite lazy, she’d allowed me to do everything for her. I wondered how she was coping with those practical skills.”

The reality was that Lisa wasn’t just getting on with her studies – she was producing outstanding work. “Lisa’s degree is in radio production and when she sends me the links to the pieces of work she’d done, I can hardly believe how good they are. I feel really proud. She’s so creative and had a brilliant report back from Woman’s Hour, which she worked on.”

Lisa, with a few hiccups, has also managed practically and made a good circle of friends. “Despite my early concerns, I now realise university has been the best thing for Lisa in every way,” says Carol. “As a parent, you do worry like mad about your kids going off. Perhaps it’s just something you have to go through, but the important thing to remember is that those feelings aren’t necessarily related to how things actually are.”

As for Lisa not phoning regularly, Carol was to discover that Lisa was waiting for her to call. “I thought my Mum didn’t want to speak to me and it was only later that I learned she was just trying to give me space,” says Lisa. “That didn’t help when I had the inevitable feelings of homesickness.

It wasn’t that I wanted to talk to her every day, like some students do. But I’d have liked some more conversations. As it was, it was me that would usually make contact by phone or for FaceTime. Maybe we should have had a conversation before I went off about what both our expectations were around communication, but then again you never know how you’re going to feel until you’re there.”

Much to Carol’s surprise, Lisa took complete charge of the university application process. “I wasn’t in a good place when it came to Ucas applications due to my grief and every time Lisa mentioned it, I said, ‘I will do it, I just can’t face it right now.’ When I finally felt ready, she said, ‘Mum, I’ve done it all!’ We went to visit various universities including Birmingham and it was the last place I wanted her to go. I felt it was too far away and that it was culturally a million miles away from what she was used to. I worried she’d be the odd one out. I wanted her to go to Hastings, another of the places we visited, and have the seaside life.”

When September finally came around, though, Carol says the university could not have been more supportive – not just to Lisa but to her too. “They listened to my concerns and took it all on board and made it very clear that they were there for Lisa – that really helped. That was the day I also realised I needed to take a step back – that this was Lisa’s journey, not mine.”

Lisa felt at home immediately. “I loved the vibe of the city from the first time we went and having talked to the tutors and students at the university, I could see myself fitting in there well. Right from the moment I arrived, I felt excited and confident. Of course I felt a bit nervous, but I had a good feeling about it.”

Lisa hadn’t minded heading up the application process. “I thought, ‘If I’m going to university, I’ll need to be independent, so I might as well start now.’ In fact, Mum tried to get involved more than she remembers, but I just got angry when she tried to help. I felt it was my thing, so she definitely shouldn’t feel guilty about it.”

It was easy to settle in, says Lisa. “The university goes to so much effort in those early weeks. I do remember feeling worried that I didn’t click with anyone in the first couple of days though. I think, like many students, I had this expectation of making great friends immediately, but the reality is that it happens throughout your time there. Many of my closest friends are people I met much later in the year.”

It hasn’t all been plain sailing, admits Lisa. “Apart from sometimes feeling homesick and wondering why Mum wasn’t calling, I was disappointed with the lack of hours and learning I was doing on the course.

Also, I was meant to have a threemonth placement in the middle of term, but that never happened, despite me pestering my tutor. In the end, I got a placement at the BBC in my final term and lots of friends have pointed out that the first year can be slower in terms of workload. And to be fair on the university, I’d done quite a lot of radio before coming to do the course, so I was on a different level to others in the class.”

Lisa, like many students, also found budgeting a bit of a struggle. “I’m still learning about managing money. It’s really easy to go crazy at the beginning of term and I found it particularly hard towards the end of term, having run out of money. But on another level, it’s been quite good for me and there’s something quite satisfying managing on practically nothing. I did ask for advice from the university once when I was in a particularly sticky situation with my finances, but apart from that I’ve dealt with it on my own.

“I’ve made good friends and they’ve been fantastic. Mind you, one of the things that surprised me is that university can feel quite lonely sometimes. There have been times I’ve been in my room alone for ages.

There’s this expectation that you’ll always be working or socialising, but actually there can be a lot of empty time. Those would be the times I’d want to text my old friends from home who’d gone to different universities, but of course they often didn’t reply because they were busy and then I’d feel they’d forgotten about me. The way I got round it was to get involved in sports, find places to go out, invite people round and try to make new friends by introducing myself to people.”

Back at home, Carol was still balancing her struggle with the fact that her girls were growing up so fast with feelings of immense pride. “Lisa was the first person in our whole family to go to university, so I was really proud of her, particularly as it’s not in her character to be so driven.

I had even tried to put her off radio studies, which she’d got involved in at the local hospital when she was 16. I kept telling her she should get a proper job, but then I realised she was serious and good at it. But alongside those positive feelings, I couldn’t quite face the fact that my girls had reached the age of independence. My youngest daughter goes to university this September and it just all feels a time of massive change. But I’ve gone back to work and met someone and seeing just how much Lisa has matured in the past year is helping enormously.”

Lisa feels closer to her family than ever. “University has definitely improved my relationship with my sister,” she says. “During my visits home in the early months, my mum used to say to me, ‘Your sister misses you, so can you please be nicer to her when you are here?’ I didn’t believe her. But then I found I started missing my sister too. Now she comes up to stay and I show her off to all my friends. I find I want to ring her more and now we get on a lot better.”

Lisa feels her relationship with her mum is better than ever too. “She’s not so clingy and genuinely wants me to stand on my own two feet. She’s more confident and stronger too. I know that me going to university has helped her achieve that. I like the new level that our relationship has reached.”

Carol agrees, although she laughs when she thinks about her recent reaction to Lisa telling her she was coming home. “Having missed Lisa like mad during those early months, I thought I’d be over the moon when she came back to stay at the end of the year. But, in fact, I couldn’t wait for her to go back to her own accommodation! It’s just that we both have our own lives now, and that’s as it should be. I guess you could say we’ve both done a lot of growing up this year.”