joining the dance

I didn’t think driving Martha to university would be so difficult.

Emotionally, I mean. Practically – it was easy. There was me, Kath, our younger daughter Jessie, and Martha, everyone getting in the car in the usual way, the usual thing, another trip somewhere, a school performance, maybe. A sleepover. A holiday. The boot full. Sun shining. Roads clear. The satnav took us straight there. In half a mile, keep left! Which the voice delivered with such an audible smile she may as well have been saying: Great opportunities and happiness up ahead – be sure to keep left!

An hour and a half later, when we got to the halls of residence, there was an equally cheery guy waiting at the entrance, directing traffic. I wound down the window and we had a good chat. He told me what the system was (basically one out / one in). He didn’t have a radio on his belt like the site manager (jokes about that). Had to make do with waving his clipboard to his opposite number further down the way (jokes about that, too). Yes, he had a brolly in case it rained. Had another eight hours of this to get through, and then the same tomorrow. And so on. All pretty relaxed and orderly, whilst through the whole conversation I held down a sludgy feeling in my chest, like I was being directed to a place I really didn’t want to go to, no matter how well organised. But never mind – the guy in the distance eventually waved his clipboard, as I knew he would. A car came out. ‘On you go,’ said the cheery guy in blue. ‘Ten minutes only, please. Off load your stuff, then go and park. My colleague will give you a map to show you where.’

And that’s exactly what happened. Couldn’t have been easier.

Except – it wasn’t. It was much, much harder than I thought.

Martha’s room was fine, of course. We’d seen the pictures. Bigger than the one she has at home. Great view of the city. We helped her unpack, set up, get organised. I strung some fairy lights across the pin board over her desk. We met one of the girls she’d be sharing the kitchen with, another singer on the music course. She seemed nice.
‘Are you scared?’ she said.
Martha hesitated.
‘It’s pretty daunting,’ Kath said, to cover.
‘Oh – yes! It’s totally terrifying!’ said Martha.
Later she told us she thought the girl had said ‘Are you any good?’

Once we’d unpacked, we all went down the road to a cafe (just like in The Tiger Who Came to Tea – one of the books we used to read the girls when they were little). We only had till half past three in the car park, and anyway, I didn’t want to drag out what was going to be a painful farewell. We ate our paninis and sipped our drinks and the conversation sagged under the gravitational pull of the clock. Walked back together to the campus gate. Said goodbye there, one last hug. Martha turned resolutely and went inside; we carried on – three of us, now – back to the car, and home.

The satnav sounded psychotic rather than cheerful.

***

I’d heard of Empty Nest Syndrome before, but I’d never given it much thought. I was too practical, too realistic. And besides, in our case we still had Jessie at home, delaying the completely windblown, snag of redundant twigs at the top of the bare tree thing for another four years, at least (thank God). But still, despite this being just the first of our children to fly the nest, it still hit hard.

I knew I had a melancholy side. I used to tear-up at the end of In the Night Garden because didn’t the whole ‘disappearing across a dark sea into a bloom of lilies’ mean that Iggle Piggle was actually dying? And even though I like to prepare for things rather than risk getting sucker-punched by the unexpected – still, this time I’d underestimated how it would affect me.

Back home, I did what anyone would do when they fell into an existential funk. I Googled it.

It brought up a stack of results, from Ted talks to chat shows to formal psychological case studies. They’re all useful, and I think from skimming them it pretty much boils down to four things you need to do to address these feelings of loss:

  1. Acknowledge how much of a change this all is, how much of a wrench, and don’t be ashamed to share it.
  2. Work on your relationships. Be present. Explore new opportunities.
  3. Work on yourself. Think about those things you might have let slide over the years. (I know – it sounds perilously like: ‘Join a Club’ – but sometimes there’s truth in those hoary old cliches, and the fact is, the more outward-looking and socially engaged you can be, the better. Good advice for any stage of life, actually).
  4. Celebrate the significant milestone you’ve reached.
    I remember when we left the hospital with Martha, I had the overwhelming feeling that they shouldn’t have let us take her out! I fully expected – or even hoped – someone would come running across the car park to stop us. I mean – What the hell did we know about bringing up kids? I hadn’t the first idea! She was so small and vulnerable and … and needy. What were they thinking? But we muddled through, and it turned out okay, and now Martha’s starting at university, and that’s definitely something to celebrate.

It’s not so much an end as a beginning. Change happens, whether you want it to or not. As the theologist and philosopher Alan Watts put it:

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.

Which doesn’t mean you won’t cry when you drop your child off at the gate, but it does mean you might find a reason to smile on the journey home.

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