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.