Advice from my mum a few weeks after our first child was born*. A combination of sleep deprivation and the lack of any manual to operate a crying baby put proper critical examination of this aphorism on hold.
Since then I’d like to think we pretty much lived it right up until the point when they leave you. Strip the emotion out, and the endpoint for parenting is punting your offspring into the wider world. Be that nursery, school, sixth form and then higher education.
This gives you ample time to embed the skills and values they need to thrive in an environment lacking a family safety net. Let that emotion back in and you’ll never feel they can be ready. Which is clearly so much more about you than it is for them.
So, there’s a final dance before you go home alone. A rushing chronology bounded between results morning and moving in afternoon. On the surface nothing changes but bubbling underneath everything feels broken. Even displacement activity, mostly focussed around toaster selection, fails to stop the clock.
It’s a hoary old chestnut to hark back to your own educational experience. This is in no way is going to stop me doing so. Mostly to measure how much better it is now. Except for the crippling debt and uncertain economy. But regardless of your views on the marketisation of university education, it has fundamentally moved the dial on student experience.
I see this most days what with it being my job and everything. But you don’t really see it until one of your own engages with it. Back in 1985, I moved myself into a condemned block of flats with absolutely no idea what happened next. What happened next were four amazing years where I fell in with a good crowd and harvested enough self-esteem to find I was pretty damn good at the whole learning thing.
Oh but to be an undergrad now. Technology makes a difference; architecture makes a whole lot more. Jess is on the 17th floor of a building not yet three years old. Rooted in beautiful parkland and cupped by overlapping student services we used to call pastoral care.
So we had a moving in slot, a daughter flicking between anxiety and excitement, a car full of possessions old and new, an acceptance the world had moved on and, for the least self-aware member of the family, an understanding this wasn’t about him.
Moving in was cheerfully managed chaos. The Vale is a fantastic venue for new students. 3000 or so of them distributed across a green space centred by a lake and criss-crossed with pathways leading to a social hub including three restaurants, two bars and a shit-load of confused looking parents and their soon to be separated sons and daughters.
Everyone trying to play it cool. Almost no one is pulling it off. For one reason, it’s bloody hot even in late September** which sort of explains the sweaty vein busting exertions of the high viz crew trying to find us a place to park. We were soon swept into the arms of the pink shirted helpers proffering trolleys and calming smiles.
17 floors up the lift pinged and we rolled into Jess’s flat. Blimey. I’ll leave the hoary chestnut at the door, and instead provide a quick virtual tour of her new home. Room, not huge but amazing view over the always-surprisingly green city, big bathroom, Wi-Fi speeds unlikely ever to be seen in rural Herefordshire, massive picture windows in the shared kitchen/living space, shy flatmates, sense of discombobulation.
Hasty unpacking followed by a walk into Edgbaston for food now and supplies to make simple meals in the first week. A bit more mooching about and then it’s time to say goodbye. No one is ready to say goodbye. This is the bit they don’t tell you about. When you know what the right thing is, but you’re kicking over touchstones of what right used to feel like.
What we’re talking about here is abandonment. 18 years of nurture. Keeping your kids safe. Watching them grow. Wondering how they’ll turn out. Being proud, surprised, astounded, annoyed, occasionally angry but always through a lens of love and caring.
A timeline punctuated by regular events; school terms, skinned knees, birthdays, sad times, holidays, great times, exam results, memories. And some firsts; watching them walk, dress themselves, take themselves to school, drive on their own, first night away, doing loads of stuff without you. Making choices, striking out, finding their way, leaving you behind.
My standing joke is – from a parenting perspective – I’m been mostly irrelevant for the last five years unless someone needs a lift, or the Internet is broken***. Hence, I fully expected Jess starting her next great adventure would be way harder for Carol than I. For all sorts of reasons. Me being a bloke covering most of them.
But sat on that park bench running out of things to say, I felt as lost as I ever have. Had we done enough? Was she going to be okay? Would she get homesick. And if she did, what should we do? And more practically, could she even find her way back to the flat? Not a given with Jess’s navigational anxiety.
That leaving them thing. Now I get it. I wish I’d got it just a bit earlier. We had a hug. Tears were shed. Then she had to go. A wave over her shoulder and she was gone. Sure, she’ll be back but that’s not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.
90% of me is so proud of Jess. Worked bloody hard to get where she wanted to be. University will be a brilliant experience. I expect she’ll come out the other side a fully rounded individual ready to mark her place in the world.
The other 10% of me worries. About everything a parent worries about. And that other thing about being irrelevant. About what happens next.
I guess we’ve three years to find out. It’s going to be an awesome ride.
*she also reminded me that while you always love your kids, you will not always like them. She is a wise woman 😉
**one of Jess’ flatmates hails from Dubai. She was wearing a thick jumper on a day recording 24 degrees outside. I have a feeling she may not enjoy winter in the West Midlands.
***my NEW standing joke is telling Jess if she wants to come home, she’d best check AirBnB to make sure her room hasn’t been rented out.