By Sandy Burgham
(Me with the long hair at 19 years of age).
When our daughter turned 19 in April, as if by magic that trying, self-opinionated, combative persona gave way over-night to a delightful, hormonally-balanced version of her best self. We’ve been almost smug that she has emerged in this final year of her teens so centered, happy and confident — her only battle scars being a few small tattoos and several piercings, about which once I would have cared, but with the benefit of hindsight, it simply doesn’t matter. (“At least she’s not pregnant/not smoking crack/ hasn’t joined ISIS,” counselled other battle-weary mothers of teen girls, revealing how one’s parenting benchmarks shift downward when you’ve got yourself a bit of a firecracker).
So imagine our surprise, and slight annoyance, when just as we were beginning to really relax and get into this parenting thing, she announces that she is moving out. It seems I can mark her 19 years in phases. There was the babyhood sleepless nights phase, then the maternal-guilt-laden primary school years as I struggled with work/life balance, followed by the general worry phase as she changed schools and friendship groups.
Then there was the teenage phase, which started with acne and ended with parties, and a surprise appearance on the “Drunk News” on 7 Days (a low point in the mother-daughter dynamic.) And now, we only get to feel smug for two months? I’ve always advocated that if you can teach kids independence, you’ve done your job. And to which she once said, accusingly, “you’d rather me be independent than happy” (sad perhaps, but true). But now I have to eat my words as the independent teen, a university student, has supplemented her part-time job with a small online venture to fund her rent … and she’s leaving us.
Having lost my own mother at 18, I have an operating glitch in my internal software that keeps me doling out “life lessons” at any given moment, in case I cark it. The kids have been known to roll their eyes and say “Oh god, enough of the life lessons, can’t we just watch TV like normal people?” As she won’t be there to lecture, our 14-year-old son will bear the brunt, but he’s already playing me for a fool by looking vaguely interested, just so I loosen up on screen-time rules.
So to get it out of my system, I consulted other mothers of daughters, and started compiling a list of what I wish someone had told me at 19. It started with the ethereal … “Who cares what anyone else thinks?” “Love yourself”, then moved to the practical — “Get honest about how much wine you are drinking”. “Save 10 per cent of your salary”. Then to the seriously concerned. “The people you’ll live with are probably psychopaths and you will get to know the full range of human behaviours”. And “you will be thrown together with people not from your world, which will be both eye-opening, and affirming”.
And then it struck me. Hang on, maybe we are subconsciously counselling ourselves! I can’t help being excited and moved by her giddiness as she tastes the sweet flavour of independence for the first time. But there is something more. As one’s children start moving on, there is room for you to emerge again. This column is called ‘The Second Act’ for a reason — as I embark on the second half of my life, enjoy my fourth career phase and relish in part-time university study, I have reframed the way I look at being 52. I said to the editor once that I think of myself as a school leaver again, at university, but with a couple of homes and some life skills under my belt. Imagine if I had this brain on my shoulders when I left school!
Recently a friend’s 22-year-old daughter sought my advice. She was fretting about life and work, as her degree was coming to an end, along with a relationship, but her future, she believed, looked undecided and unclear. “Are you kidding?”, I counselled. My advice was just to enjoy being your age. Remember way back when? Freedom, road trips, dreams, options, bodies that bounce (in a good way), simple pleasures, blushed faces (again, in a good way), wide-eyed backpacking, new ideas, life-changing books, great gigs. So perhaps this is the biggest life lesson that myself and other emptying-nest mothers may like to take on — just be 19!
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson August, 2017