This child-leaving-home business seems to get harder every time. My first experience of it was as the child, albeit a 19-year-old one. Very upsetting it was, too. My parents went away for the weekend so as to avoid any doorstep melodramas. But my younger brother, who hitherto had only ever cried after coming off his skateboard, horrified me by shedding a tear as I left. A mate of mine was starting college in London the same day, so we’d hired a van for a friend of ours to drive us down from the West Midlands. “I couldn’t believe your brother was crying,” said the driver, as we left the place the three of us had called home all our lives. This was September 1986. You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon was on the radio. To this day. that song tightens something in my stomach.
Accordingly, three years ago when I took my older daughter off to college, I was braced for the blubbing. It didn’t quite happen as I expected. I was fine until I drove away from her halls of residence but then, almost without warning, I found myself sobbing so hard that a contact lens popped out. I found it, re-inserted, and carried on bawling for a good bit more. Then I felt kind of, sort of, OK, and drove home.
You would have thought these things get easier, but my younger daughter leaving last Sunday turned out to be even worse. I wonder if this is a known thing. If you have half a dozen kids, does it get progressively more painful?
I was dreading the day with some fervour, but again the pain didn’t pan out quite how I expected. As a football commentator might put it, the tears came early doors. Forty-eight hours early, actually. I had taken the dog out for a poo late on Friday night and called my daughter to see how she was doing. She was in a pub I was just passing, where her mate was working her last shift before she too was off to university. “We’re out the back,” my daughter said. “Come and see us.” No such invitation had ever been extended to me before; my lower lip may already have started wobbling.
The problem was that this pub, I now saw, turns into a big disco late on weekend evenings. (Is “disco” a word still in use, by the way?) Anyway, through steamy windows I could see flashing lights and writhing bodies. And there I was at the door, in shorts, covered in bits of mess from the cooking I’d been doing earlier, with a dog. The bouncer beheld us, doubtfully, but opened the door for me to blunder through the packed dancefloor pulling a large, astonished dog past a melee of puzzled dancers.
I sat with my daughter and her mates and talked about their hopes for, and fears of, what the coming weeks and months might bring. They were all so sweet, kind, open and honest. I became aware that my eyes were wet and I had to get out of there without delay. I hurried through a few hugs and croaked some goodbyes before tackling the dancefloor again, which was now even more packed. As Michael Rosen might have put it, we couldn’t go over it, we couldn’t go under it, we were gonna have to go through it. I was proper sobbing now, which made things no easier. Sweet Caroline was playing – So good! So good! So good! – and that song may now have the same effect You Can Call Me Al has had on me for the past 35 years. With a concerned dog looking on, I continued to make loud sobbing noises all the way home and into the early hours.
Yes, I know, all embarrassingly self-indulgent. I appreciate I am truly blessed to have a happy, healthy daughter opening a new chapter in her life at a university. I know things could be an awful lot worse. People have said this to me, as I have said it to myself. But at moments like this, when you’re feeling stuff so viscerally, it is very hard to be rational. As anyone who has suffered from depression knows, being told things could be worse helps not at all. Apart from anything else, it is so true that it is essentially meaningless. After all, unless you’re tied to a train track with a freight train approaching there is always someone worse off than you.
I assumed that it was married couples who struggled most with their youngest flying the nest, leaving them to deal with just having each other for company for the first time in 20 or more years. But I’ve been divorced for donkey’s years and still feel terrible. A generation or two ago there seemed to be much less fuss about this kind of thing. Few people of my vintage remember there being much parental emotion about their grand departure. Was everyone more stoic then? If so, was this necessarily a bad thing? We are told it’s healthier to express emotion than suppress it, but I wonder if this licence to do so may cause as many problems as it solves. In other words, am I really just showing what I’m feeling, or is the freedom to show it heightening the feeling? Put it like this: I was feeling OK when I started writing this. Now, not so much.
The endless drive and university drop-off I had dreaded so much were no picnic, but generally bearable. It was only when I got back home that I realised I’d been so busy worrying about getting through the day itself that I’d somehow forgotten that my daughter wouldn’t be around for a while. I miss her. But I’ll also miss the whole phase of my life that has now come to an end. I am going to devote myself to lecturing exhausted-looking parents of younger children in parks and cafes to make the most of it all, because it’s suddenly all over. And other useful stuff like that. As my older daughter has been blunt enough to put it to me: “Get a grip – you’re being pathetic.” I hope I live long enough to be around when it’s my daughters’ turn to be pathetic too so I can be of some assistance.
• Adrian Chiles is a Guardian columnist