Another end-of-an-era event for Pearson Towers. Two Sundays ago, we dropped the Boy at what I will never willingly call “uni”. I mean, I have to say “uni” in front of the kids, because using the term “university” marks you out as being as old as ... well, as old as I am, funnily enough.
Also, one thing I have learnt as a mother is to pick your battles. If you are still in foot-to-foot combat with your offspring over a failure to cut his toenails, then arguments about the correct term for higher education can wait.
Anyway, the days leading up to it were so full I hardly had time to think, what with all the washing, ironing, packing, yelling upstairs (when there was no sign of packing) and queuing in John Lewis cookware department.
Casting an experienced eye over my purchases — saucepan, tin-opener, wooden spoon, tea towels, cutlery, plate, cereal bowl, glasses, good solid mug for tea — the lady at the till chuckled and said: “Ah, that’s what my mum used to call your bottom drawer.”
“He’s not getting married,” I said hastily.
“Off to uni?”
“Seems like only yesterday you brought them home from the hospital, doesn’t it?”
Yes and no. It feels both impossibly distant yet close enough that you can reach out a hand to the crib by the hospital bed and touch your newborn, who came three weeks early and is curled as tight as a cashew nut. First, the years feel like they’re going slowly because caring for them when they’re small is so all-consuming and you can’t wait for them to reach another stage. Out of nappies. Yay! Teething over.
Baby teeth give way to proper teeth and the tooth fairy leaves town. Father Christmas sticks around. Then it speeds up. Buying school shoes, labels for uniform, finding the note in his bag at 11pm saying that it’s Viking Day tomorrow. Desperately trying to make a helmet out of foil. Trying to get him to eat something — he was always so picky. Taking the skin off sausages, cutting them up and hiding them in pasta. The sense of triumph when he ate a whole satsuma. Voluntarily.
When I was busy working, I wished his childhood away because there was no time; now I have the rest of my life to wish it back.
Before you know it, they’re teenagers. Where you once spent hours trying to get them to sleep, now you struggle to wake them up. The chatty little boy who would climb on to your lap for a cuddle is a gruff beanpole who communicates in monosyllables. That day I tried to bond with him by sitting down and watching his football team play on TV. About five minutes in, he asked if I could please leave. “But I didn’t say anything!” I protested. “No, but you were thinking loudly, Mum.”
Those final few years are like a flip book, the pages blurring. Before you know it you’re in John Lewis buying him a pointed farewell gift: a manicure set for those bloody toenails.
We were in his student room, his father lugging boxes, me surreptitiously cleaning the surfaces with antibacterial wipes. When I pointed out the pop-up John Lewis laundry bin, he looked bemused. “Put your pants and socks in here every day, OK?”
“Don’t fuss, Mum.”
(Don’t fuss? Fussing is what I have been doing to keep you alive, young man, for 19 years.)
The parting shot
He tried to hide it, but he was impatient for us to leave. This was the start of a new life for him, the end of one for us. I put the card I’d written for him, with the manicure set inside, on his desk. In a room along the corridor, his new mates were playing table football. I see his head incline towards the sound of jubilant curses. He’s eager to join them. Let him go. LET HIM GO.
I didn’t actually cry till I got in the car. Pretty good, eh? “He’ll be fine,” his father said.
I know he will. But how will I be?
It’s brutal being handed your Motherhood P45. I love being his mum. The hardest job in the world, and the best, the richest, the deepest. The work of my heart. Yet it was about training him up for this moment. If you do it well enough, you’re completely redundant. And that’s a good thing. But, oh, how it hurts.
I wait a few days before calling him (don’t fuss, Mum!). He sounds happy, busy, full of news. “Thanks for that present you gave me.”
“Oh, it was just a silly thing.”
“I cut my toenails.” (Do NOT ask what he did with the clippings.)
When I was busy working, I wished his childhood away because there was no time; now I have the rest of my life to wish it back. Like millions of other mothers, I now find myself in a quiet house, staring at the man I made my children with and thinking: “Er, remind me who you — who we — are again?”
I’m not sure how I’ll cope with this empty nest business, to be honest.
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2019
Allison Pearson is an award-winning journalist and a columnist