How to cope when your child goes away to school
My son is a student at White Lodge, the Royal Ballet School’s Lower School in London. We live in Cheshire. The time from his audition to him starting at White Lodge was just eight days, although we’d actually had nine months to prepare. Confused? Read more about how he got to go to ballet school here.
I never thought I’d send a child of mine away to school. But for us, the circumstances were extraordinary. I’d even judged people who send their kids to boarding school – I’m not proud of it. I’d trotted out the usual unthought-out bollocks the smugly high-minded do: if you have children, why would you ever send them away; if you love your child, how could you ever possibly bear to pack them off, away to a distant place, to relinquish a good slice of parental responsibility? And if you’re going to do that, honestly what’s the point of even having children?
Reader, I’ll level with you – back then I was a pillock who knew nothing.
When faced with the prospect of my own child being at school 200 miles away from me made me feel physically sick. The world tilted, the sky yawned and everything felt skewed. And once he’d gone, I had to adjust to the new normal.
“I won’t lie to you,” said one of the White Lodge mums. “The first week is absolutely fucking shit.”
She wasn’t wrong. If anything, she’d understated it. I felt bereaved. Hollow. Numb. Drifting from room to room, from moment to moment like a bomb victim – traumatised, in pain, scared. It was really, really grim. And there was no getting round it. I couldn’t speed up time. I couldn’t avoid this feeling. It was a grief. It just had to be experienced. And in time, it went out of focus. Like a storm, it eased and passed. (Although – I can’t lie – clouds do often suddenly, blackly arrive).
But I had to get a grip.
I have another child on the brink of GCSEs. A husband. A dog to walk. A business to run. So I had to find ways to handle it. I had to have a sharp word with myself.
With my son being away, it did mean I wasn’t spending hours and hours a week ferrying him to and from dance classes. Or waiting in Sainsbury’s cafe for him to finish a class. Or getting his packed lunches/costumes/dance kit ready.
Suddenly I have great swathes of time I don’t know what to do with, a landscape of empty hours full of opportunities I don’t want to take.
My friends are brilliant. They offer to eat with me, drink with me, just sit with me. But in those first days I didn’t feel capable of doing anything. I was really rubbish company. I’m not very good at being emotionally raw in front of people. But I was such a mess, I didn’t have much choice. It’s getting better but I’m still draping myself about the place like a sickening Bronte.
I think you have to feel the pain, then let it go. Breathe it out, gently. Don’t force it. Don’t push it. It is what it is and no force can remove it. It demands to be felt, to be processed. There are no short-cuts. So feel it and know that just as winter turns to spring, everything changes. No pain, no matter how searing, lasts forever. It metamorphoses into something else. Just let it unfold. Be passive sometimes. Then when you feel yourself beginning to wallow, change the internal subject and distract yourself. Change the pace inside you.
At first I tried to read but struggled to concentrate (and I’m someone who, blessed with insomnia, can devour a chunky book a week). I tried cooking but ate everything. (If you’ve seen the size of my arse, you’ll realise that feeding is not a helpful strategy). I listened to Spotify and just wept at the unspeakable beauty of the music. I tried audio books. Walking. Audio books while walking. I knitted (yes, I even sodding knitted). Cleaning. Yoga. Hot yoga. Nordic walking. Swimming. Soup-making. Zentangle.
And it’s only been just over a bloody week.
One thing I tend to avoid is talking to my husband about Joe being away. He feels the pain of in a different way. I believe there’s a supernatural bond between a mother and her child but that isn’t to say I think mothers feel the distance of their child any more keenly than fathers. It’s just different.
In those first few days, my husband played the guitar a lot. He watched a lot of telly. He made a lot of lists of Things To Do. He did the shopping. He pumped up the car tyres. He tried yoga, then later, because of the yoga, physiotherapy.
We couldn’t talk about it much at first. He had his grief and I had mine. They chimed so closely it was deafening, so we avoided it. I did ask him how he was doing from time to time, just to show I didn’t think I had a monopoly on The Dread Feeling, but I can’t pretend it was easy. And in all honesty, I think there were times when he thought I was crackers.
I found myself getting irritated with small things. The compost bin not being taken out. The onerous sole responsibility of laundry. How my favourite headphones kept finding their way onto my husband’s stupid messy selfish fucking desk. Those kind of things.
And of course I wasn’t cross about the vegetable peelings, the towels or my need for noise-reduction technology while out writing articles like this one in a busy cafe. I was in desperate, desolate pain because I was missing our son.
It was very important for my son that he saw that I was coping. And in many ways, I was. I was dressed, I was working, I was even sometimes having meaningful conversations with others. He needed to see that I was (am) happy that he’s away at school and that I was (am) confident that he can cope. He needed to see that I was (am and always will be) beyond proud of him.
He did not need to know how I felt.
He did not need to see the ruinous shambles of my face at its very worst.
He – and his sister – did not need to see me in a state of emotional emergency.
They needed me to be relaxed, cool-headed and centred. To see me coping gave them stability. It showed them that even though our lives had changed, we were still the same people and our family was still full of love and warmth and laughter and daftness.
If your child’s away, it means you have to be a different kind of mother. Parenting from a distance isn’t easy but it’s not impossible. I find I have to think of myself in a whole new way. At first I felt like a half-mother, a fraud. I’d see kids being met from schools, off buses, in coffee shops and feel such a wave of shame and regret and pain and fury that I’m not one of those women any more. I am a mother who texts, FaceTimes and visits. I send packages. I deliver tuck. I send postcards. It is unbearably difficult, adapting to this new role.
But it can be done. You just have to recognise your new situation. Feel how you feel about it. Then for God’s sake, move the fuck on.
If you don’t let your family’s life evolve into the next phase, you’ll drive yourself mad. Talk to people. Read articles you find helpful. Trust that everything changes and you can still be happy.
Trust – above all – that you can still be an excellent mother. This, I’m sure, is the nub of it. Just because your child is away doesn’t mean you’re less of a mum, less capable of being everything you were when you were nagging your child to pick up his litter, his dirty trainers, clean his teeth and wash his manky neck.
You’re the same woman you were. Now you have the space and time to reconnect with the woman you were before you had children. (This thought was pretty damn scary at first. Who the hell did I used to be? Did that me still even exist?) When your child is away, you have the chance to do things you don’t have time or headspace to entertain when they are with you. Don’t feel guilty about this. Dare yourself to enjoy it. Doing your best to be your best self is the best gift you can give yourself – and your family.
Dip your toe in the waters of freedom and wake up to all the potentials there are around you. Now, at last, you have the chance to step out and explore them. Don’t hold yourself back out of a misplaced sense of duty to an empty bedroom.
That, at least, this week, is what I’m trying my level best to do.