Becky May is learning about navigating the changed relationship when children head off to uni
Picture the scene; a few weeks ago, you dropped your firstborn child at their university accommodation for the first time. The car was loaded with everything you could imagine they may need, and yet as you helped them to unpack there was a panic over a vital, missing cable, and the discovery of no less than three can openers. You left them there, looking slightly more like a rabbit in the headlights than they would like to admit and returned to the family home, which suddenly felt quieter than you would have liked.
But, over the intervening weeks, you become more accustomed to the smaller-than-before washing pile, you’ve enjoyed the intermittent WhatsApp exchanges about how long to soak that favourite white top for, the latest ‘Strictly’ results, and news of new friendships sparking up. Your younger children have enjoyed having greater control over the remote control but are less than happy about the changing chore rota.
We’re now midway through the term; perhaps a reading week is on the horizon, or the promise of a weekend visit home; the sheets have been changed and you are ready for their return. Life is changing, and with all change it brings some sadness, but there is joy too, as your family grow into this new season. There is, perhaps, an apprehension too, about the forthcoming return home, as you recognise that as life moves forward for the whole family, you won’t simply be able to go back to how things were before.
I think there is a strange wisdom in us only ever thinking about what it would be like to be a parent of a baby or small child, when we first begin to think about starting a family. If we considered the way life would develop and change in every season of parenthood, we would undoubtedly feel overwhelmed by the lifelong journey that lay ahead. Instead, we grow and change and develop as a parent, just as our children grow themselves. However, we reach this stage when, as painful as it may be, it is also good and right for our children to grow in independence, facing new opportunities and challenges for themselves, and for many young people, this moment is marked with the move to university. In this new season, we navigate a restructuring of relationships, between parent and child, between the child who has moved away and their siblings, and between the parent and those siblings left at home. It can be a period of emotional turmoil and is worth giving some thought to the way we will navigate this. It’s a good time to remember a great Pip Wilson quote; “growth does not reside in a place called comfortable.”
For some of us, this is a scenario we can only imagine. Our own university days are memories which fade a little more with every passing year, and our own children are still a long way from the day we will have to say goodbye. For others, there will be no need to picture the scene. As we read the first few lines of this article, our minds were taken back only a few weeks to that long drive there, and the even longer drive home. I fall firmly into the former group and would not be so presumptuous as to offer any words of wisdom on the subject! Yet it is one of the great joys of our big family of God, the church, that we gather as a big extended family, all in our different ages and stages and can learn together and support one another as we reach these different milestones so my first word of advice would be to find those in our local church context who have walked this path before us, to share their advice with us, and that we would go out of our way to support those who follow after us, ready to share our own lessons learnt along the way.
I spoke to Charis Lambert, Families and Children’s Worker at Worcester Park Baptist Church who generously shared her wisdom:
1. Try and connect with the things they are doing and enjoying. - “Our eldest loves movies and so we often end up chatting Netflix/ boxsets etc. It’s great to try and watch things he is watching and share them. Husband and he love Star Wars so it remains a special connection. It was so lovely when he asked us to go to the cinema with him to see Buzz Lightyear- as Toy Story was a favourite childhood movie for him.”
2. Make special times really special - “Birthdays and Christmas have become more special and a time to make sure we are together- to keep family traditions alive- I am obsessed with making a stocking each year for everyone- I spend hours finding little treats/ jokes and useful items to fill them. Christmas eve is now stocking opening time- even if we aren’t all in the same place on Christmas day- and yes during lockdown 3 we did it via Facetime!!”
3. Holidays can be great times to connect – “we accept that they need their own holidays but it’s good to include them if we can. My husband has tried to make ‘boys’ weekends’ a thing too - climbing Snowdon and hiking for a weekend.”
4. Be there for the little things as well as the big ones. – “They will need money for uni accommodation etc. but they also need £20 to catch a train to see a friend- times are tough! They also need to know how to get mould off the walls before the landlord comes round, what to do when the shower won’t turn off and how long to cook roast potatoes!”
5. Accept them for who they are now- not what you thought they would be. – “Both my boys are bearded, long haired and have a passion for tattoos. They listen to music I have never heard of and go places I have never been. They have friends I may never meet and do jobs that I don’t understand or have experience of. But they are my boys and the most important thing is that they know I am always there for them whatever the world throws at them.”
6. Pray for them. “They may not follow exactly the way you brought them up but they have had all that input and its now between them and their Father God. They now need to work that all out in the world they live in. My prayer has always been Philippians 2:15 ”You will be children of God without fault among sinful and evil people. Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky.”
This new season can be challenging, and will need negotiation, but it can also be good, and bring real joy. I’ll leave the final word to Charis; “I feel in lots of ways our relationship with both boys has improved since they have been independent. When we do see each other, it is intentional and has purpose. We make an effort to enjoy times with them. The little annoyances (late nights, loud music, ordering pizzas at 4am) have all gone and I am sure they could make a list of all the things they don’t miss about living with us!”