The End of an Era

Yesterday, my husband and I took the day off work (only our second since lockdown began) in order to take my eldest daughter down to pack up, and move out of, her student house in London.

We didn’t want to, of course. We knew it was going to be the hottest day of the year. Her house was in Bermondsey, an utter ballache of a drive from our home in the north. She’d already warned us we needed to do “a spot of touch-up painting” on parts of the walls she’d marked with fake tan and hair dye – she’d packed paintbrushes and sugar soap. It promised to be one long, stressful, sweaty hassle of a day, and I was fairly sure none of us would be friends by the end of it.

The night before we left I was hot and grumpy. I whinged to my husband about setting the alarm for 5.05 AM, and the fact that there would probably still be traffic even if we took this precaution, and the fact that I knew my daughter wouldn’t be particularly helpful when we got there, and the fact that it was a total waste of a day off and utterly unappreciated as usual and probably a waste of time anyway as the agents would be bound to retain her deposit.

He agreed (or pretended to agree – he rarely finds anything as annoying as I do). But then he said “You know, I’ve been thinking. When we moved her into halls at the start of her degree, we weren’t even together and it was the tensest day ever, all together in the car. And now she’s finished her degree and we’ve just spent 12 weeks seeing pretty much no one but each other. Weird, isn’t it? Life’s changed such a lot.”

I hadn’t even thought about it. But now that I have, it seems surreal. On the night, nearly 3 full years ago, before we drove down to London to install my firstborn in her (unforgivably, expensively) luxurious Halls of Residence, I’d stayed at the family home under sufferance. We had a strange, dismal, unsettling dinner, just the five of us round the table. The family felt broken and everything was ending. It was heartbreaking.

My heart was breaking that night for a hundred reasons: I was proud of my girl, but it was a pride complicated by the fact she was so angry with me, so disappointed in me for my choices and actions, and we were not friends like we had once been. I was proud of her, but it was a pride tempered with jealousy, as I watched her fly the nest for a life I’d never managed to have for myself. I was proud of her, but it felt like the 18 years since I’d been her age and she’d been born had passed in the blink of an eye, and I wanted some of them back.

I’d have liked back the years during which I let her younger siblings and my work and my studies drain all of my energy away, leaving her to her own devices because she was so “good” and “easy” and she could get her own drinks and didn’t need to have her nappy changed or her face wiped. I’d have liked back the nights when my husband was away and she’d creep into my room and ask to sleep in my bed with me and I, exhausted, would say no, because I chose starfishing in an empty bed over snuggles with someone who soon wouldn’t want to snuggle with me any more anyway. I’d have liked back all the times she appeared in the doorway with a board game or a colouring book, saw my preoccupied face and turned away again and we both pretended she hadn’t been there. I’d even have liked back all the times I read a book while she played at the park and I did not join in or push her on the swings.

I said something of this to my husband. I thought we could have a melancholy wallow in the seas of unreachable past times, and yank ourselves out again on the rope of our renewed, stronger marriage and our plans for the future. But he had a different view. He said “She knows you did your best. You were a good mum in a lot of the important ways, you need to focus on some of those. And anyway. By the time she was your age, you had a three year old. Could you see her looking after a three year old? She can’t even look after a plant.”

I mean, I feel like she definitely could look after a plant if she had to, but he has a point. She’s just as wholeheartedly selfish as any 21 year old with no dependants or commitments has every right to be. That’s what I’ve given her, I realised. I’ve done it clumsily but I have done it.

I’ve given her my wanderlust and my curiosity and my love of charity shops and putting together outfits but I, we, have also given her the space and the support so that she can be selfish and she can concentrate on her own life. (Hopefully without supporting her to the point that she can’t be an adult without us. It’s a fine balance). And that is not nothing. If you’d asked eighteen-year-old me whether I’d be proud and happy to have raised the 21 year old I now have, I know I’d have said yes.

Yesterday’s moving day wasn’t even that awful in the end. The traffic was kind and we worked together well. We got everything done that needed to be done, we bought delicious sourdough sandwiches from a deli, and we were home before the younger two children had even finished cooking themselves their beige, freezer-based dinner. I patted myself on the back for an almost unbelievably smooth day.

(We did then all fall out catastrophically had she and I had an unnecessarily vicious argument about dinner choices and about where empty suitcases actually belong, but that’s beside the point, I reckon).

Bermondsey Lion sculpture
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