Tomorrow, in common with so many older teenagers, my eldest child will move out of the family home. All over the country there are mothers countering their feelings of satisfaction that their job is done with the knife-twist of sadness at the loss of their baby. University places have been accepted, accommodation chosen and allocated and younger siblings have fought over who gets the vacated bedroom. In the midst of all the excitement for T, for me it’s at least as heart-rending as the first day I left him at nursery school.
Part of this sadness is because my son’s the first of a brood of six to fly the nest. And despite moving to one of the biggest university cities in the country I know he won’t attend a single lecture in the weeks to come. It’s his girlfriend who is going on to higher education, and in order to be close to her, my son has transferred his job within a highly-respected business partnership to work near her university.
The last few weeks have been a series of nail-biting waits for envelopes and e-mails – his interview, his job offer, her results, her acceptance at her first choice university. In the interim, they’ve been flat hunting; been buying or been given household goods and furniture and been getting used to the prospect of living together by house sitting for holidaying friends. All this has confirmed to me they’re serious, grown-up and putting their school days firmly behind them. If it all seems a little soon for settling down, I suppose the flip side of the coin would be the horror of trying to dislodge a 30-year-old son from his too-cosy seat at Mamma’s table. I know which I prefer. Better to leave ’em wanting more, my son might say.
It hasn’t been the easiest 12 months. To turn the clock back to last autumn, amid much angst and anguish and not a few arguments, T made it clear he would not be applying for university – ever. All his talk throughout Year 13 of being uncertain about his interests and his preference for a gap year were a way of putting off the fateful day he had to tell me he really hated the idea of university, full-stop. Since he attended a grammar school and his close friends went on to get four grade As and places at Oxford, Imperial and the like, I was disappointed. I’d never dreamt he wouldn’t continue his education. I trawled over the same ground with him, keen to be assured that he knew the value of what he was passing up. I asked him to make a UCAS application anyway, to anywhere, doing pretty much anything.
Parents of teenagers get used to feeling they’re shouting in the wind – I felt as if I was roaring into a hurricane as, normally easy-going, he stood firm against a barrage of suggestions and cajoling, complaint and concern, not just from me, but from his father, step-father, godparents and grandparents, teachers and friends, his and mine. He attended a couple of university open days to appease me – they served only to confirm his belief that he’d rather get straight on to the career ladder than spend three or four years at uni racking up an ever-increasing debt while gaining a degree in nightlife – his words, not mine. His much-respected housemaster took me to one side to break it to me, gently, that university wasn’t for everyone.
At least part of my insistence that T kept his options open was because my parents were so sure that I should not go to university. If I’d had a burning ambition to be a lawyer or doctor, they would have supported me, but a degree in English was something that they couldn’t see had any bearing on a chosen career, unless I wanted to be an English teacher, and I didn’t. In 25 years-plus, their view hasn’t changed. I was accepted to train in newspaper journalism and landed a job on the country’s biggest regional morning paper where I gained a professional qualification, before marrying and starting a family in my twenties. Though I’ve loved my work, latterly I’ve felt I’ve missed a vital piece of life’s jigsaw but my 18-year-old self wasn’t as steadfast and sure as my 19-year-old son has been. I’m proud of him for sticking up for himself and for telling me I was pushing him in the wrong direction, especially since this summer the media has been peppered with tales of despondent graduates unable to find employment in any field, let alone relevant to their degree. In addition, the Government is said to be investigating a life-long supertax on graduates in lieu of the student loan and fee system. With unemployment figures so depressing among young people it’s not surprising that university applications are at an all-time high despite the promise of debts that may take a decade or even a lifetime to pay off. And as if all that gloom were not enough there’s a squeeze on the number of university places too. Why more sixth-formers haven’t taken to their beds and pulled their duvets over their heads, I’m not sure.
And so, back to tomorrow morning.
I’ve come to terms with my son’s decision about where his future lies – even though he’s moving 180 miles from here to a city I’m not too familiar with. Truly, I’m pleased that he’s following his own career path and is certain where he’s heading. He’s a young man with direction, honour, integrity and a very strong work ethic. I don’t doubt he’ll find ways to stretch himself and will make friends into the bargain, just as he would have at university. I don’t think I’ve done too bad a job over the last 19-plus years, now I have to trust his future to his own hands.
When tomorrow’s packing has been done and 180 long miles have been travelled in a car full of boxes; after the furniture has been deposited in the chic flat his salary enables him to rent and we’ve unpacked to the point of exhaustion and my husband and I have found no more excuses to stay, we’ll say our goodbyes and leave. I’ll try hard not to cry the entire length of the motorway because really, I’m happy life’s unfolding as it should. Though it’s the end of an era for me, it’s a whole new world for my son. One that has fair prospects. More importantly, I recognise, one that’s right for him.