All Change

So, my son left today for university and it is such a happysad event that I can’t even begin to know how I feel. He’s excited and keen and very ready now for his own life, so this is exactly how it should be, this is the right timing. But of course I grieve for the ending of an intense period in my own life, one that was harder than I could ever have imagined and more rewarding than I could ever have guessed. But don’t those two always go hand in hand? Anything worthwhile stretches you far beyond your known limits, as our son is about to discover.

I think what makes it harder than it might be to let him go is knowing that he’s already in a tricky stage of his life, deeply committed to a relationship that is in a particularly challenging phase. Mr Litlove and I have our moments of fearing it will be doomed, but our son, combining his passion, his determination and his sheer willpower, three rights somehow making a wrong, refuses firmly to believe any such thing. I worry about that, because if there’s one quality we all need in relationships, it’s elasticity, and some acceptance that negotiating separateness is as important as dealing with togetherness. I worry that he faces challenging and distressing times ahead, possibly without enough support.

But I also think that this whole situation has a lot to tell me about the art of letting go. The thing about motherhood is that it’s based on an experience of culturally accepted madness. You get this baby put in your arms and the shock of responsibility is tremendous, breathtaking, you pretty much never get over it. Parenting means you spend years doing the kind of things that you should never have to do for another person. Those first three years in particular are a boot camp into an extraordinarily intrusive, overbearing way of being that is based on the sacrifice of your own life. And then after that come the field marshal years, where you bark commands from one end of the day to the other, spend your time checking the canteens are supplied and generally give every remaining drop of energy into mustering morale among the troops. Eventually it enters your bloodstream, you are brainwashed, trained up and kitted out. Because if you did not do these things, even if you do not especially like the person you become when doing them, chaos would result. This is not about choice.

So when adolescence comes along, and teenagers reclaim the territorial rights to things that were always theirs in the first place, it can be disconcerting. Mr Litlove and I have absolutely no right to tell our son who to love or how to love, or what he wants or who he should be. We can discuss these things, adult to adult, if he’s willing. But all those old strategies – bribery, blackmail, begging, putting one’s foot down – that fell into the category of means justifying ends in the old days, revert to being the unacceptable tools of oppression that they basically are. Thinking that we have any say in such matters reverts to being intrusive, that we ‘know better than him what he needs’ is egotistical. And however much I might wince and fret to see him running into the future, arms outstretched and calling for experience to come to him, knowing that smiling destiny will beat him up, there is nothing I can do about it now. He has to learn the hard way, like we all do.

It’s good news, then, that I have this new writing course to distract me. This first week has been tentative, on the whole, with the twelve members posting their work onto the website almost discreetly and not a great deal of discussion going on. Those who have commented have been resolutely nice. The unexpected challenge has come from the first long written piece that we are preparing. The brief was to write a personal essay that braided together two separate narratives. I thought the braiding would be the difficult part – and it was – but little did I suspect that the personal part would be worse. Yes, I managed to write a first draft involving two narratives, neither of which was in any way personally about me. And you know what, I didn’t even notice I’d done it! If you asked me, I’d say I was someone who went on and on about themselves, more than ready to overshare. But when I think about it, I rarely volunteer. If you ask me, I’ll tell you, otherwise I assume I have nothing that anyone wants to know.

‘That blog of yours,’ said Mr Litlove, when we were discussing this strange phenomenon, ‘talk about a dance of the seven veils. Of course you’ve got none left now and everyone knows all there is to know about you. But they probably don’t realise because it took you so long.’

The more I look back, the more I see that I do it. Being with students was only okay because it wasn’t about me; it was about books, or their problems (I avoided the social events as much as possible). And one of the most striking things about my son leaving home is how exposed it makes me feel. What will I tell people now when they ask how we are? When people come round or we visit, what possible entertainment can I provide? I don’t mind rushing out and doing ten minutes of cabaret, on pre-prepared topics. But reveal myself? That sounds….awful. I had no idea how much I feel compelled to hide.

There are only two personal topics that I will readily talk about here: chronic fatigue and anxiety, both things that I feel are stigmatised and insufficiently spoken about. So there’s a sort of public duty about bringing them into the light of day. But can I talk about them at length in essays where I speak openly about myself? Oh my goodness; suddenly this course looks even more demanding than I thought.

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45 thoughts on “All Change

  1. My Youngest Child is off to Uni next week – the third and last to go. It’s a strange feeling, especially as Eldest Child is back with us temporarily. It’s difficult to let go of them, but I’m now at the point where I’m ready for my children to make their own lives and to start being me again!!

    • How strange to have your eldest back again – though I mean that in a good way! I suppose I’m thinking that our son has left home and there’s an end to it, although of course things rarely work out so straightforwardly. After three children, I’ll bet you’re ready to be you and to have some decent time to yourself. Having just the one was part-time work by comparison!

      • It’s a little disconcerting, really – but I don’t think he intends it to be long-term! Yes, we are ready for our own space now – we shall see!

  2. When you write of your son, I feel you are writing of my heart. It’s extraordinary how my thoughts parallel yours, you who write exquisitely of that which cannot be defined. Motherhood. Teaching. Both so entwined in my life as well, though neatly left out of my blog.

    Perhaps I should delve into these subjects as well. Become more personal. But it takes a lot of courage, which I greatly admire in you.

    • Dear Bellezza – I always think of you when I’m writing these posts, knowing that we are on such similar trajectories. The solidarity that you and other friends like Kaggsy give me is hugely valuable and helpful and I really cherish it. I know what you mean about how difficult it can be to write about these things – I often have a qualm or two after I’ve clicked the post button. But then you come along and say such supportive things and I am always glad afterwards for having spoken out. :)

  3. I never really considered the effect my leaving home for uni had on my parents (mostly because they didn’t seem particularly bothered, although I’m sure they were!) Actually, it was because I was so cripplingly terrified, and because Colin went to uni the week before I did, which was miserable. But it all worked out ok!

    • Oh Simon! Of course it would have been the first time you and Colin were separated in any long-term way. I am so happy that it worked out so well, and just look at you now! I’ve been meaning to leave a comment at your site to wish you luck. Finishing my thesis is something I will never ever forget, and not necessarily for good reasons…. It’s unexpectedly tough, often, but I have every faith in you and wish I could be there at the viva!

  4. My, it’s all coming at once for you. With my daughter being 13 in 2 weeks time, I still have all that teenager angst yet to come, so I cross my fingers for you with your son off to uni – and cross mine for the future. I hope he settles in well and that you can be relieved by that. I realise you may be compensating by throwing yourself into your course but however hard it is to expose yourself in your writing, that may be what you need. Take courage and go for it if you can – we’ll all be with you.

    • What a lovely comment, thank you. Yes, you have lots of years left before the university looms, and whilst teenagers can be tricky, they are also unexpectedly witty, insightful and understanding. You’ll probably end up having reached a whole new level of relationship with your daughter and that’s a fantastic thing. I’m really glad I’ve got the course to do – it IS good distraction! :)

  5. My twin daughters are both thinking uni at the moment so I can imagine how you feel. All of my friends with teens at uni say that the fact they are away soon becomes the norm. Writing course sounds fabulous.

    • Oh my! Twins to send off both at once! How about that…. And your friends are right. It’s strange without him here, but not as strange as all that, and it was only buying a vastly reduced supermarket shop that really brought it home! And thank you, the writing course has been very interesting so far. Got to hand in my first assignment this weekend – yikes!

  6. I want to say reassuringly that he’ll be back but of course it’s still a big change and a loss. I’m at the opposite end of the parenting timeline and so I can’t really relate. We’re still surviving the first three years (and boy, are they difficult at times). As for your writing course, it does sound exciting. You write so well about difficult topics (and you’ve prompted me to write more about anxiety) but I can see how too much personal writing can be terribly daunting.

    • I remember those early years SO well, in a burned-on-my-memory sort of way. Yes, they are very demanding, and sometimes just downright difficult. But the good news is that it does all get a great deal better and you’re nearly there. And you’re quite right, my son will be back, and most probably just as we’ve got completely used to not having him about the place! I’m actually thinking of writing about anxiety for one of my essays on the course, and if I may, I’ll consult you about it when I get to that point. I do value your professional insight!

  7. I am not sure it is so different for fathers is it? My son will chose in the next couple of weeks which university to go to (A-level results willing) and I have not been looking forward to this point in our lives at all even though in most rational respects I should be.

    Take care; remember you have an enormous number of things that others would be delighted to know about and discuss with you!

    • Aha, I used the word ‘parenting’ in the post because I did think of you and yes, it’s affecting to both mothers and fathers. Well and after all, you’ve done so much for your son. Bless you for your kind comment. I’ll drop you a line very soon.

  8. I can imagine how difficult this all must be. You’re about to discover a whole new person.
    As for your course. I feel you might have to narrow down, write about something personal but very small which then wouldn’t feel like standing in front of the virtual class with your clothes off.
    I like this type of essay for example. Someone writes about an author/movie/trip, and then, more perosnally, why this author/movie/ resonates with them, not only intellectually but emotionally. This can be very personal as well, but not as much as other topics. I don’t think writing about your son’s leaving, would be the best choice. If you write about it already you might force something, even dictate your own feelings.

    • Caroline, that’s a really good suggestion for the writing course. Yes, I can see that opens up quite a range of possible topics, and given my tendency is always to try to say too much, offers useful boundaries too. Thank you for that! And you’re quite right – writing too soon after an event does have the effect of forcing feelings, which is never a good thing.

  9. Love this post. I know the creative writing course will go well because you write so well.
    You will be amazed how much your son still appears at home. The holidays are long. I hope he has a wonderful time. Long distance relationships are difficult but some do work. They are still so young.
    Dying to hear more about the course and your progress.

    • Oh bless you, Mrs C. What a darling you are. I think I’m discounting the holidays, which is ridiculous. And I will consider it particularly ridiculous in the middle of the three-month summer break…. I’ll keep you informed about the course. Got to hand in my first assignment this weekend, gulp.

  10. I’ve spent today at the other end, surrounded by Freshers who are all desperately trying to pretend that they have no apprehensions at all and if they only knew it failing spectacularly. But then perhaps this is because I am world weary and have seen it all before so many times. You couldn’t move in the local Sainsburys for parents stocking up on ‘good food’ in the hope that their offspring will eat healthily for at least the first couple of weeks. The wonderful thing is, that in most cases, difficult though this term may be, they will saunter back after Christmas as if they have never been anything other than a University student. The lad will be all right. Don’t worry. He’ll have bad days, they all do, but the last eighteen years will tell and he knows you’re there when he needs you.

    • Alex, this was exactly what I needed to read – thank you! It’s funny, years ago I remember thinking to myself, I’m so pleased I get to mother all these students through the years when I won’t get to mother my own son. And I’d forgotten that until your comment brought it back. They do mostly seem to survive, don’t they? I’m not sure how the miracle works, but I’ll hope to trust to it! :)

  11. This. Oh, LitLove, this reads to me like the most personal essay ever. Yes, newly exposed. Yes, the whole paragraph about the first three years and then the drill sergeant days. Yes to the wince and fret. Yes.

  12. As you know your son is very likely hiding a big ball of terror beneath his excitement. I know I did but darned if I was going to let my parents know. I practically shoved them out the door of my dorm room because I was on the verge of tears and didn’t want them to know. He will be fine though and so will you., launching out into a new way of being. Your writing class sounds interesting. I don;t think you have anything to fear about speaking openly about yourself, I trust you aren’t a limp, boring nitwit :)

    • Dear Stef, lol! Heh! I am often a limp nitwit, but not always a boring one! :) And retrospective hugs for your arrival at college – isn’t it intriguing how much we long to put up a front, and particularly to the people who know us best! We’re getting used to it being just the two of us – at the moment it just feels like he’s stayed with his girlfriend for a bit longer than usual! And the writing course is very usefully distracting.

  13. I must be just entering the boot camp years and the blackmailing, bribery and ordering is already well under way. Who knew that parenting would involve so many despicable acts? Who knew I was capable of them?

    I do so hope you find your feet quickly, I don’t have anything useful to say except that I hope you get a great deal out of your course (naturally I think you are already an excellent and sensitive writer) and hope you enjoy it.

    ‘running into the future, arms outstretched and calling for experience to come to him, knowing that smiling destiny will beat him up’ – this made me very sad but so good.

    • Helen, you always make me laugh so! Bribery was my favourite; no blood, no scenes, no mess. The stealth attack of parenting. The course has been very interesting so far. I rewrote my first essay three times in all, and that was what I believe we call a learning experience! So, this is good for me, and most happily distracting. Bless you for the vote of confidence – it helps enormously.

  14. You’ve captured the ambivalence and uncertainties so well, litlove. Yes, that’s how I felt. I could not use the mother/child techniques anymore but as your post title so aptly conveys, it has changed to an adult/adult mode. Very strange, yes, but then I know I better keep away from his own decisions (and o yes, esp. in terms of his relationships), albeit the tricky thing is finding the right balance to involve and continue my relating with him as my mother and son. But, this is a brand new page for us both, and I’m sure you’ll find this new chapter exciting, for you have done your job well to prepare for his independence.

    • Arti, it helps me no end to know I have dear blog friends going through the same thing. It’s reassuring to realise that we all feel the same and face the same challenges. You’re quite right – it’s finding the new balance that is tricky, but very worthwhile. And yes, exciting once we’ve got used to it. You are so very good at seeing the positive in all situations.

  15. Hope all is going well and don’t be too hard on yourself, as you tend to be. You only were half of the mother-son relationship. My daughter only goes this weekend coming, though most of her friends have gone. Enjoy that course.

  16. I’ve never read a better summary of motherhood. And I can well understand how daunting that assignment was. But I have every faith in your ability to do anything that involves writing. Go at it–dancing with 7 veils is a fine tradition. I’ve read memoirs, highly successful ones, both critically and popularly that are such dances. There is one in particular I’m thinking of but the title is just out of reach. I’ll post if/when I remember it.

  17. Thank you for continuing to speak about anxiety and chronic fatigue. I wish more people would speak out but few could so as eloquently as you manage to do. You are turning a new page in your life now with your son leaving for university. Mine is 19 now but still living at home while he goes to what we call Junior College here in the U.S. He’ll be gone soon enough and I look forward to it and dread it at the same time. You’ve summed up perfectly what it feels like to be a parent of an adult child. We want to protect them as we have always done but can no longer do so. I’ve been struggling with that off and on for a year now. Thank you for sharing what you do about your life. You’d be amazed to know how much comfort it gives me as I often can relate very directly to what you write about.

    • Oh this is such a lovely comment, bless you for it. It helps me so very much to know that my dear blog friends are facing similar challenges and that we can share in them together. There is so much about motherhood that goes unsaid, or perhaps better to say, unacknowledged, and this is a particularly difficult transition. The times I have embarked on the first half of a sentence only to bite the rest back because I’m still trying to do that protective thing! That’s exactly it – we still long to protect them, and worse, we know they still need protecting, but somehow we have to deny that and move away from it. I’m really glad you’ve got your son with you at least for a little while longer. The more time you have to get used to the idea of him leaving, the better it is, I feel sure. Hugs to you.

  18. I think the fact that it feels so difficult means this is the exact right course for you right now. This level of personal writing might not be right for you in the long run but it will help your writing stretch and give your writing direction for the future! Doing the things we think we can’t almost always results in positive end result…

    • Oh that is such an astute remark, Courtney, you’re so right. There’s always such value in facing up to the things we shy away from. So far, the course has been really interesting, and this weekend I hand in my first assignment…. Cross your fingers for me!

  19. I’ve been thinking about this well-written post–and quoting you to my family–all week, and want to make another comment as I think about a blog response to this part of it: “one of the most striking things about my son leaving home is how exposed it makes me feel. What will I tell people now when they ask how we are? When people come round or we visit, what possible entertainment can I provide?” While I get the first two sentences so much I want to write more about them, the last sentence–the question–is still evading my understanding a little bit. It reminds me of a grad school friend who had a baby and then asked me out to lunch. After an hour of fussing with the baby (who had to come to lunch with us) and talking about the baby, this formerly witty and intelligent friend asked me “what did we talk about before I had this baby?” I was nonplussed. And yet here we are, a couple of decades later, trying to come up with ways we’re interesting in our own right. The friends who were mostly parents of our childrens’ friends are going to fade away, unless we have something more in common with them. After those years of self-subjugation, what is left? And do we dare expose it? Will it seem overly self-absorbed to other people? We’ve been out of the mainstream culture, it seems. Without realizing it. –Is that kind of what you mean? So all the reassurances about how the child will be fine and we’re interesting people are beside the point. The fear is that maybe the best part of ourselves is gone.

    • Yes, exactly what you say about what’s inside my head now being too self-absorbed and tangential to mainstream culture. All the things I am personally interested in, and write and research and think about, are not subjects of general interest really, or at least not in a conversational way. I’ve been thinking about writers’ lives, and chronic fatigue and neither of these fits in with chitchat. Other than that, what do I do? I sit around reading and writing, and I do the grocery shopping, none of which is thrilling. My son was the bridge into all kinds of normal, easy, untaxing conversation, a bridge into the other world that most people live in. But even if I weren’t interested in my esoteric subjects, I’d still feel exposed because this huge area of preoccupation has gone. And children are so good socially – so natural, and often glad to have a different audience. A mix of generations can ease the social wheels too, and keep things light. And in that broader way, I’m aware that children bring out the best in us. My son has opened me up, and taught me patience and provided me with such welcome relief from the inside of my head… what will happen now without him? Will I just close up again? It’s a more general worry, and one that can only be addressed over a long, slow period of time. So all these things kind of come together for me, and yes, I suppose they do all grow out of that original overwhelming experience of having a baby and needing to talk about him/her all the time. It resets all the foundations, doesn’t it?

      And thank you for the question – it was a very good one to think about, and it was interesting to unpack my feelings about it.

  20. Pingback: Comments of the Mild | Necromancy Never Pays

  21. Kids–a bridge into the world that most people live in…I was understanding this, I’m glad to see. I’ve written my post about it, with a Ruth Stone poem to illustrate.

  22. As someone who has an eight-month-old, I can only imagine what it’s like to send him off to university. I think I will dwell more on the rewards of raising a child that you wrote about rather than the difficulties :)

    • Heh! Oh you have years and years of lovely times ahead, and you already strike me as FAR more capable and in control than I was with a baby. I really struggled in the early years! I’m sure you’ll be fine. :)

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