Sheena Hastings: Long road to coping with degrees of separation

CAN it really be five years ago that the older of our two daughters left for university?

With the approach of this year’s A-level results, many parents may be viewing the impending departure of their child with a crazily mixed bag of emotions.

Looking back, I was sad and tearful for about three weeks, and while she grabbed her new life with both hands, loved her course and made hundreds of new friends, I had to avoid her room for a while, otherwise I’d end up sniffling into her dressing gown.

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But our younger daughter’s feeling of being marooned without her greatest confidante made me feel for her much more than for myself. My husband was more quietly sad.

We got over it, and still had a couple of years to enjoy our second daughter – missing one child really made us appreciate the other. For good or evil she had our undivided attention in a way she’d never had before.

In that time we resolved to pre-empt empty nest syndrome. We took up tango (limited success but fun) and I joined a community choir (huge success and a great mood enhancer).

We went to the cinema and theatre more, and work kept us busy. When the second goodbye came we felt reasonably set up to withstand the quietness, the freaky tidiness of the house and the fact that we didn’t have to prepare meals around someone else’s activities.

What you can’t replace is the quirky sense of humour, their laugh, and the friends who enliven the house with screeches and piles of weird shoes.

You have to live with the fact that they are too busy to worry about how your life has changed.

I never really appreciated how my parents must have felt until my own children moved on.

Looking back we now see that for every minus there has been a plus. Both girls went away to cities that have been fun to visit. Each has a colourful, caring, lively group of friends, some of whom drift in and out of the house in the holidays and have invited the girls to visit them, whether on a farm in Dumfries, in the East End of London or some other point of the globe.

I’d never have imagined I would enjoy sitting down with a coffee and a copy of New Scientist until our younger daughter went off to study biology, or that I would become so enthralled by the eating habits of a certain Asian freshwater fish.

What can be daunting is that, after 20-odd years of rearing kids, three- or four-way conversations revert to a two-way. But research shows that parental relationships are generally improved by children leaving home, because you have more time together and fewer distractions. My report on that score: so far, so good.