“Your children are not your children/ They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself… You are the bows from which your children/As living arrows are sent forth.”
I’ve always loved that poem by Kahlil Gibran. At the moments when our kids shift from one phase to another, on their journey to independence, it feels particularly apt. And never more so than now when my eldest daughter and all of her friends are off to university. Some went last week, others go tomorrow; like flocks of birds migrating for winter they fly the nest, heading off on the first stage of their adult lives.
For the whole of secondary school our house has been full of girls — we live round the corner from the school so our sitting room has become an unofficial sixth form common room. It’s normal to come home and find a gaggle of teens drinking coffee or cooking cake in the kitchen. The chat is intense; I love their passion for the environment and their compassion for their friends, the crazy coloured hair and micro skirts and tops. Their dramas and triumphs are a constantly unfolding soap opera; who is going out with whom, who has “linked” (snogged), who is “peng” (fanciable/hot), who got in where to study what. Sometimes I am excluded as they huddle outside on the balcony in the cold sneaking a cheeky fag (I pretend not to know and am always desperate to hear the hot gossip being shared out in the chilly air). But not any more.
In a few short days they will all have left. The kitchen will be quiet. This time will be over. I pretend not to mind; I am quite the on-it mother as we discuss student finance, new bank accounts and whether she needs a meal plan. But when I think about it too much, or picture her bedroom without its constantly building “floor-drobe” (my god it is a mess) I get a bit wobbly. I don’t want her to know but when I think about her going my eyes fill with tears.
It’s visceral, not logical. Intellectually I am proud of my daughter fleeing the nest, heading off to university. But emotionally it’s different. I know she will never come back; never live here again in the same way. The 18 years we have had when she has been with us always is coming to a close. It’s a new phase, a new time. But it is also a loss — it hits deep, I am reminded of so many other markers and other losses along the parenting road; the sadness of stopping breast feeding, the leaking of the milk, that bond of flesh feeding flesh grown in my womb broken. I was inconsolable — but then I went back to work, and it passed.
Or the first day I dropped her at school, her trying to be brave, pretending insouciance, and then at the last a frantic, “Don’t go mummy…” her bottom lip trembling. I stayed strong for her, biting my own lip to stop the tears — then cried all the way home. Or when she left primary school for the last time — on to big school where parents are banned, where even appearing outside school is an embarrassing sin.
And now gone again.
I’m not the only one who feels this. I chatted to a pal whose daughter left last week. She says every time she walks past her daughter’s bedroom she weeps. Another friend was so desperate for a glimpse of her offspring when she left last year that she drove all the way to Bristol to take her some extra towels (my daughter would kill me if I did that). Another friend tries to reassure me, saying she’ll be back — confiding that she longs to tip her own nest, sick of her boomerang adult children who never seem to leave.
I think I’d love it if she came back. One of the joys of lockdown was the teenagers being around so much more; forced to be at home with boring old parents, cooking, mooching, revising, watching telly cuddled up on the sofa. Heaven.
So to those of you earlier on this parenting road — relish the days, revel in those pudgy hands, those clinging hugs. Store them up for when those children, like arrows, shoot away from you into the future. Bittersweet.
Eleanor Mills is founder and editor-in-chief of noon.org.uk, a new platform for women in midlife