As September heads to a close, many youngsters are embarking on a new phase of their life – university. Although fresher’s week will be very different this year due to the current pandemic, parents are still having to wave good-bye to the child they nurtured for the past 18 or 19 years. Gone are the days when you tucked them up in bed, read them stories, wiped their snotty noses or soothed their grazes. The child has gone and a new adult emerges.
In the lead up to their departure, some parents may feel a sense of relief. You look forward to having you home back to some form of normality. The idea of not having to deal with a tantrum teenager leaves you full of excitement and hope of a return to a more congenial existence of your own choosing – holidays, social gatherings with other adults, a clean house, lower food bills and being able to have control of the TV remote. Your job is done. You raised your child to the best of your ability and now it’s up to them to grab the opportunities presented and take the next step into adulthood.
But nothing prepares you for the feeling of loss and grief that hits hard and possibly unexpectedly when you see them walk away. Your child has gone and so too has your sense of purpose. From this day on you will no longer be the mummy or daddy of that little boy or little girl. You feel surplus to requirements, discarded, set aside to pick up your own pieces and find some sense of purpose in the void they’ve left behind. As you return home and step into their now empty room you may experience a surge of feelings as you reminisce about past times. Finding a pair of their socks in the wash or a discarded tube of toothpaste can trigger a tsunami of emotions that you struggle to control. You then realise you weren’t as ready to let go as you may have thought.
It’s natural to go through a cocktail of emotions that take you on a rollercoaster from joy and pride of their achievements to grief and loneliness. Changes have been happening all along, from when they made the transition from nursery to primary school; followed by what seemed a big leap into secondary school. Each phase brings with it its own adjustments and this final one of their education will probably be the biggest.
What you’re experiencing equates with bereavement. Grieving for the loss of the child that no longer needs you in the same way. Your son or daughter has embarked on a their journey into adulthood. You’ve been there along the way to support them, nurture them and show them the way since birth. The time you spent chasing them to clean their room or picking up their dirty washing off the floor or checking if they’ve done their homework is now yours. You’ve earned it.
Take time out and be kind to yourself. Acknowledge how you’re feeling and what you miss. Avoid self-judgments; especially avoid being critical of how you’re coping. And when the time is right, explore new hobbies, travel or courses. You may have more time to focus on work or career, a new business, friends or that project you’ve been putting off.
Relationships can take a hit when parents spend their energy on supporting their offspring as well as working and maintaining the home. Set aside time to nurture your relationship with your spouse or partner and rekindle those embers that have faded whilst caring for your child/children. You may find yourselves rattling in an empty house wondering what to say to one another. Some couples struggle at this point and may need a little help from a couples’ therapist.
Set aside time every day for a catch up chat – reminisce about when you first met, when you had your first child, holidays, decorating disasters, anything that will bring a smile and even laughter. Go for a walk or dinner together and discuss where you’d like your next adventure to take you.
Most of all, remember that once you’re a parent you’ll always be a parent re