• Children leaving for university symbolises a big time of change for parents, too

  • Sarah Meadows shares her experience of the complex feelings related to her child leaving home, as well as what has helped for her

It’s an ache, a wrenching pain, a gut feeling that swoops in and out, up and down. Tears come from nowhere, deep and anguished. It could be the menopause, but it’s not that: it’s the long awaited and dreaded point at which my only child leaves home for university. You could say that I'm not coping with it very well, though in my way I am: there is a lot to feel, and I'm feeling it.

However, I'm noticing that some things I do are helping me cope, and some are making things worse. It is early days yet, but hopefully not too soon to share what I am learning.

There are two elements to this: firstly the physical missing of my child, and secondly the worry about how a fairly introverted, shy young person will cope with the business of shared living, cooking for themselves and settling into a wholly new environment.

The physical missing is just that: an absence, a space at the table, a clean and tidy bedroom, a bathroom which has a visible floor. It’s a physical connection in me too, a visceral sense of the connection between my body and the body that emerged from it 18 and a half years ago. It feels like the loss is for ever and that motherhood has ended. At first it is a flooding of my senses, an overwhelm, but as the week goes on it subsides, most of the time to a dull ache.

The worrying bit is more complex. Some of it is grounded in reality, seemingly factual, worrying that they aren't doing the “right” things (e.g. eating or talking with others, “having fun”). But we can’t live their lives for them. We can be available if needed, and whilst we have the means through our endlessly-on phones to contact them 24/7, we need to respect their space to make mistakes and learn for themselves. We are being challenged to end our lifelong worrying habit, and its friend, the “helpful suggestion” habit. Also known as “letting go”.  Easier said than done….

Is it you?

Part of this worry may not be about them at all. A friend reflected on her experiences at university, getting involved with someone early on and how limiting this was. I remembered the isolation of the first part of my gap year in Africa. Someone else had a nervous breakdown. Our own experiences of leaving home, whether to work, to travel or to go to university are all being reawakened.

So what has helped?

Acknowledge your feelings

I noticed a complex array of feelings surging through me, jostling for attention. Not just sadness, not just anxiety, but also anger, confusion, excitement, hope, envy, sympathy, curiosity, and unsurprisingly, exhaustion. Everyone has a different relationship to their emotions, but as a psychotherapist, and maybe this is why I am a psychotherapist, I believe in meeting these emotions, feeling them, and naming them, drawing each one out of the tangled knot of discomfort.

Tapping (see https://www.selfhelpfortrauma.org) may help to clarify what you are feeling: it may induce calm, and it can also bring about a burst of expression of emotion, clearing the air for a while. Mindfulness can also help, particularly if you can do it with someone else.

You are not alone

Recognising that this is a rite of passage, a transition, a movement from adolescence to adulthood, requires that we make meaning of it with others, and recognise that we aren't alone. Talking to people helps: people who have been through this and come out the other side, and others experiencing their children’s recent or imminent departure. It’s not the whole picture: there are also those parents whose child is not following this well-trodden path, but have their own feelings about this process not happening with them, which can be just as hard. Bottom line: it’s hard being a parent!

Talking can have an edge though. Each young person is different and some conversations have reminded me of a time long ago, those exhausted conversations where you heard that everyone else’s baby is sleeping through the night and then talking/walking/potty trained, able to count up to 10….I'm glad that some of my friend’s children have launched themselves into a dynamic social life with instant friends. Of course, I would like that for my child, but that isn’t the sort of person they are. They will get there in their own time.

Accept that we don't know what’s best

The wisest counsel I received in response to my worries was from a friend whose child has just finished university, after a long, and bumpy ride. In addition to acknowledging and naming your fears and concerns, sitting with these, she suggested pausing for breath, stepping back.

“You don't know what’s best for them. You don't know how things are going to turn out, and you don’t know what will emerge, given time”. 

It can be hard to accept this, but if we can accept this not-knowing, there is a peace, a calmness to be had, a peace in not knowing. And this requires trust: trust in yourself, trust in your child, and trust in a wider providence, whatever that might be for you.

You will always be a parent

One of the most agonising thoughts that afflicted me at first was the sense that I have had my go at motherhood: this amazing adventure started 18 years ago, and thousands of photos later it has abruptly come to an end. But I am starting to realise that this is a myth. I will always be their mother: there is a psychological umbilical cord that doesn’t get cut, but does needs to be stretched, softened and extended.  

There is also the reality that they will be back at Christmas, for the long holidays, and quite possibly, given the cost of accommodation, back afterwards for an indeterminate time. 

Acknowledge the filter of your own experiences

What was leaving home like for you? As our own child enters this transition, it is utterly natural to be reliving our own experiences of being 18 or 19, navigating the complex world of relationships, feeding oneself, feeling homesick, feeling excited, falling in love, crashing into heartbreak…. Let these memories surface and recognise that they are yours. Your own child is different: they are not you.

Look after yourself

Just as you hope your own child is doing, make sure you eat well, if you live with someone, pay attention to your relationship with them. Get plenty of rest, allow yourself treats and distractions, and if you are working, enjoy the absorption that this can offer. As time passes, it will get easier.

What doesn’t help?

Social media is an asset in some ways and terrible in others. If you have any form of tracking them, turn it off! The point is to allow them to separate, though doing this in a supportive way. The possibility of infinite communication makes an absence more obvious. Comparing yourself as parent to others, or your child to others, is a destructive habit that most of us have engaged in at some point. It isn’t helpful here! This is an opportunity for our own growth in many ways, as our default positions get exposed, and it’s a chance to learn about ourselves, just as we want them to.

They will be back – just as we are getting used to them being away. The mess and the laughter will return, and they will want to know that you have missed them, of course, but most importantly that you have survived and coped with their absence. This growth towards adulthood is a transition, and any transition involves loss, a death as it were, to allow new growth, the new phoenix to emerge.

Sarah Meadows is a pseudonym

Further reading

Once a mother, always a mother? The challenges of parenting adult children

Loss and hope as I move on from motherhood as I know it

Why can mother-daughter relationships be so complex?