The season has arrived for the children born in the early 2000s to head off, hundreds of thousands of them, first to the staging post of university, before setting their course for real life. George, my own, is among the flock this year.
My relationship with George has been that of single mother and single child. There is no buffer of partners or siblings to dilute this moment — this split between us. Our flat, or my flat, has an echo now there are no dumped piles of teenager clothes to absorb my sounds.
I call George, who moved into university accommodation a couple of weeks ago. “How’s your liberation from me going?” I ask. “Good, I finally feel like I can unpack,” says the kid with cheek, without sentimentality. Hardly surprising as they’ve been straining for independence since around the age of 14.
In the late 19th century, it was not abnormal for a child of working-class parents to have left home at that age, girls, in particular, entering service, boys too going off to work. But the dial of expectations has shifted. At the turn of the last century, school was only compulsory until 12; now over half of the UK go on to university. Being a parent too officially goes on much longer. As of the 1989 Children Act, parental responsibility lasts until your offspring is 18.
The law though can’t describe quite what happens between parent and child on the way to that defining age. I have often thought of being mother to a child as akin to a love affair, one destined to go wrong. It starts with an innocent devotion on both sides, but the parent, already heavy with experience, knows the trajectory of the relationship: the adoration will fade from the eyes of the child, turning into a teenager’s critical gaze before eventually they leave you.
A door may slam, though more likely it will be a gentle farewell on their side, but almost always with the edge of triumph at having gained their independence, the one that you had prepared them for. You will let them go gracefully.
And when the last of the children have packed up, the parent, blinking away the tears, or cracking open the champagne, faces an equally daunting prospect: their own liberation. What to do with all this freedom, and how to live without the fierce love and judgments of home life, to not ask your child every day whether they’ve eaten?
My last stint at autonomous adulthood — without a child to worry about — was shortlived, George being born within two years of my leaving university. Grown-up life has been spent raising a child while in quiet rebellion against those very duties.
Parenting has often felt as a suppression of one’s real self. You play a part in the drama of raising a child. I had perfected being an imperfect mother, semi-present, semi-absent but always ready for the next crisis.
I had shown patience when feeling inwardly frustrated at how slowly a toddler walked down the street or ate supper (later my teenager would be equally irritated that I haven’t kept up with the latest gender identity parlance or understood the importance of the gamer’s platform Twitch). I had to pretend to be unfailing while failing, to stand firm against their rebellion, quietly taking it as a compliment.
Going out for a glass of wine in the evenings has long been fine. But underneath it was my own little act of rebellion at motherhood, even when George was off on long stays with family, friends or lovers. It was an assertion of being an adult first.
Now George has officially moved out — I know because the washing up was done — it is just me against myself. My mother-costume sits in the closet, waiting for an opportunity to be worn.
Tell me about university — what’s better than home? I ask George, who is busy breaking all rules about blu-tacking posters to the wall. “I’m in control. You and I had to balance responsibilities and move around each other — it could be a little oppressive”. (A small lump rises in my throat: it was the very word I’d used to explain to George’s father early on why we couldn’t live together.)
Fully fledged, I thought, wonderful. And should George bounce back home after university, as an increasing number of young people do (over a quarter of 20- to 34-year-olds in the UK live with their parents), it will be as a grown-up with a new set of boundaries.
While I work out how to become a full adult again, I discover George has already relieved me of my duties. “I was very aware that you revolved around me and that I had stopped revolving around you,” they say on the call. “And then I got it: my mother is a human being — that wasn’t a concept I previously had in my mind.” Thanks, for letting me go too.
Follow Joy at @joy_lo_dico
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