The Parents’ University Challenge

The Parents' University Challenge

By Karen Doherty, Parenting and Family Expert

This week I went to my first lecture in the Family Studies course at The University of London, which was a strange experience because, for starters, I was old enough to be many of the other students’ mother. As we discussed the family life cycle, I kept thinking – here you are learning about this when I’ve already lived it!

But one point in particular resonated with me because many of my friends are going through it at this moment as their children go off to college. We raise our lovely children from babies to teenagers, through thick and thin we support them all the way, and then with a packed trunk and a duvet – poof – off they go. Parents reactions vary, but those in the know keep saying, “Don’t sell the house just yet, they’ll be back.”

But will they? And if so, the setup is unlikely to be the same as when they left because siblings are unlikely to be living at home at the same time. So we need to say goodbye to the family units we’ve created and cherished. It’s all part of the family life cycle, plainly documented in my textbook but more resonant in reality.

At the moment I’m treading water because my oldest is taking a gap year and is still at home for a couple of months, postponing the inevitable. In fact she is home more than she used to be when she was in school – so it’s a double bonus.

But as their offspring head off to uni, many of my friends aren’t feeling so chipper right now. One said just thinking about her daughter leaving home made her feel sick. Another welled up and had to change the topic. And it’s not just the mums who feel it acutely: one father reminisced about his son and fretted that when he comes home he won’t be the same and their relationship won’t be the same.

I asked a number of university students (which was easily done now that I am one again) how often they touch base with their parents. Some make contact every day, even if it’s just an emoticon; some ring home daily; some have a fixed time once a week when they chat; some make contact every week or so, some roughly once a month, and some even less. Most, but not all, go home on holidays and many admit to only contacting home when they’re in need of funds.

Lots of parents assume the frequency of contact is gender specific, and that boys drop off the face of the earth while girls stay in contact regularly. But this simply isn’t the case. The student I found to be most in contact with his mother was a boy who texted his mum every day as he walked home from campus. And girls seemed just as likely to only contact their parents every couple of weeks. It comes down to the individual and the expectations in the family.

In my class we discussed how in some families there can be fear and insecurity around separating, potentially hindering children from moving on, while in other families there can be too much freedom and not enough support, so there’s little cohesion. We all hope we manage to strike a balance, where everyone in the family feels comfortable and secure in the process of this change. But there’s no way around it – saying goodbye as we drop them off with their duvets is likely to be one of the most bittersweet moments in our lives.

It’s difficult, rewarding, inevitable, and in it’s own way comforting to see our child move forward into adulthood. But deep down we hope they’re still around when we’re pottering about on our zimmer frames shouting at the radio.

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  1. Patricia Weinberg says:

    I’m so happy that my kids are still around (in spirit, if not in body)while I progress to zimmerland!
    Good article – love Mom

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