University Challenge

4th October 2013

When children leave home, family dynamics change dramatically, discovers Heather Harris

‘Have you been smelling the pillow yet?’ is a question that apparently resonates with a cross section of the population whose child has just left for University for the first time. I use the word ‘apparently’ with some astonishment: as the mother of three younger teenagers the prospect seems positively joyous.

“That’s exactly what I thought, until suddenly I was waving her off and tears were streaming down my face all the way down the M1,” says Ruby, whose first born ‘flew the nest’ last autumn. “It is a physical pain, a feeling of loss and I can honestly say I am still grieving,” she adds, with some embarrassment.

Research shows that this is perfectly normal. A recent study by the University of Sheffield revealed that more than two thirds of parents in the UK find their child’s departure for university ‘emotionally difficult’. Many mothers reported being unable to go into their child’s bedroom, let alone smell the pillow. Others try odd practical coping mechanisms…

“While he was at home being a sulky sixteen year old all I did was tell him to turn his music down. Now he’s gone, I put it on full blast to try and convince myself he’s still upstairs!” another mother admits.

But why is the grief at the natural process of growing up and moving away so palpable? According to journalist Shirley Mann, whose daughter recently untied the apron strings, “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.”

Or, as Hilary, another mother of three boys, told me, “It just felt suddenly wrong: as if my whole identity had changed. I had always been a mum of three and now my role had been depleted. I was only setting the table for two.”

The medical profession accepts that this sense of loss can spiral into depression if ignored. Dr Gill Williams recommends finding a new interest to fill the void. It’s a strategy that certainly helped her when her son followed his sisters off to university – she took up long distance running. She is about to compete in two Ironmen, while her husband takes to the golf course. “For couples I also think it is important that they find separate interests. We always have something to talk about at the end of the day now it’s just two of us sitting on the sofa.”

Empty-nester Mary agrees: “It was really horrible when all three had left home but taking up regular sport gave a structure to the day that was lost when suddenly there was no school run.”

It’s not only the severing of maternal bonds that causes distress. Recently I idly asked a fellow dinner party guest whether he had children. His face clouded over and he said quietly, “My daughter has recently left to go to University and the loss is catastrophic.” He felt his grief was more acute than his wife’s as he had enjoyed all the ‘quality’ time with their daughter. Thei relationship was all positive: he worked such long hours that he wasn’t involved with the tedium and stress of day-to-day family life, and was too busy working to prepare himself for the fact she was going. “And then she was gone!”

That sentiment is echoed by Annabel. The eldest of her four children left last autumn a few months after her husband retired. “I think he was more upset than me as he’d spent so many years working when they were growing up and was now looking forward to spending time with them all. Then suddenly she left, and along with it came the realisation that the others will soon follow.”

Annabel herself felt almost guilty at her own reaction. “It was almost like a cleansing process… I could relax from all the worry that goes with getting a daughter to the stage where they feel ready to go off to University to lead their own life.”

And this is the flip side of the ‘pillow smellers’. From my own research, although many interviewees would agree that there is an ‘emotional difficulty’, they observe too that it was short-lived and replaced with a feeling of pride – and also of freedom.

For Sarah, whose first child has just gone to Nottingham to study, leaving her with two boys at home, the relief is significant. “Tara had suffered from bad panic attacks in the past and we actually thought she would never have the confidence to leave. She knew that if she didn’t make this step she would be at home forever, so all of us are delighted that she quickly embraced Uni life.”

And, ironically, as the four left behind settle into the new dynamic, Sarah admits that long distance communication is almost too easy these days. “She texts all the time and I feel guilty for getting on with my own life here and forgetting to text back!” In fact, she says, it is almost as if their daughter hasn’t left, especially since Skype means that her face can literally be with them.

Not surprisingly, this was a situation voiced by the parents of girls more than boys. As Hilary explains, “It is almost worse the fact that we can now text and ring so easily, so when I don’t hear from Ben for weeks I am even more cross, as it would only take a minute! I actually get more news from his brothers who he does keep in touch with.”

Siblings are another interesting factor in the whole debate. So often all the attention is on the child that is leaving and how they’ll cope that brothers and sisters are not considered. “I was so upset when my son left that I was genuinely shocked when my daughter asked to go to boarding school as she was so lonely without him,” says mother of two, Philippa.

For Wendy, the arrival of a girlfriend caused difficulties. “My daughter really misses her brother when he goes back to Uni – and every time he comes home for the weekend or holidays he brings his new girlfriend with him. I did have to speak to him and now he makes sure he spends time with his sister too.”

But it’s not all bad news. For some families a change in home dynamics can be the making of a younger child.

“[My second son] came up in the food chain. My eldest son had a really strong personality and with him gone, suddenly No 2 no longer had to play second fiddle. I realised how much he had missed out,” says one parent, adding, “It has also improved the relationship between the boys. They fought for years but now there’s space between them, they appreciate each other more.”

The feeling is shared by Gail, who notes that her second son has blossomed with all the extra attention “and his new position as top dog in the family.”

Clearly, the whole emotional roller coaster that is parenthood is as turbulent as they hurtle into adulthood – hopefully staying on the rails – as when they take their first steps. But speaking to all the families involved made me realise that the only thing worse that your children leaving home is when they return…

“Suddenly they revert back to being a child and expect you to run around after them,” is a common complaint, along with comments on the lines of “They dump their washing, take your car and go out with their friends without so much as a hello after you’ve been counting the hours all day for their arrival.”

There’s a definite mismatch in expectations. Students want to lead their lives without restriction, but often appear to think that parents will put theirs on hold. As one mum adds, affronted, “She gets really cross if we’ve made plans and then she unexpectedly decides to come home. She even wanted me to cancel my night out so I could cook her nice welcome home meal!”

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