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Chris Deerin: As university ends, a new stage of parental worry begins

And, just like that, the house is packed full and the next phase of life is upon everyone in the family.

Moving home from university often involves an influx of belongings (Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)
Moving home from university often involves an influx of belongings (Image: Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Four years ago, our eldest daughter leapt from the nest into the arms of university.

I wrote about it on these pages at the time – how excited my wife and I were for her, but also about the inescapable heaviness of the moment.

It was “the inevitable yet sharply painful end of something more magical than you often had time to realise, a sudden, gaping rupture in the fortress walls”. Despite our attempts to prepare, we were “whatever the opposite of ready is”.

We got used to it, as you do. Now, dear reader, she’s back. Boy, is she back. Last week, she disappeared with the car for a few days and when she and it returned, the contents of her independent life were jammed up to the roof.

Having graduated, she has given up her flat and returned to her old bedroom. Her things, though, not so much. They are in her bedroom, yes, but also in the hallway and on the stairs and in my study and in the kitchen. Some are still in the car.

It is as if there has been a terrible explosion in an omni-factory that manufactures clothing, make-up, hair products, jewellery, all manner of technology, cuddly toys, posters, forks, unidentifiable knick-knacks – to walk from one end of the house to the other is like taking part in an insane version of The Generation Game.

There’s a seven-foot scythe, the kind wielded by Death himself, which I keep finding at my throat when she thinks I’m not paying sufficient attention to her. There’s a pair of crutches, from a brief sore knee, which her youngest sister now fake-hobbles along on when making a trip to, say, HMV.

Then there’s the noise. At the weekend, I decided to finally tackle a novel that I’d been putting off for years due to its extreme length and weight. I had lain back on the bed and tensed my stomach muscles to receive the full impact of this massive hardback, when the music began. Daughter was “fixing up” her room, accompanied by maximum-volume Harry Styles/Phoebe Bridgers/The 1975.

How had I forgotten how loud she is? A constant singer, a hooter and a shrieker, a stomper and blarer. A one-woman nightclub and high street. The book was quickly returned to the shelves.

It’s time to have some fun post-studying and Covid

It is, of course, 100% wonderful. She insists she is back “forever”, a prospect that, given her nuclear presence, delights and only slightly terrifies me. After four years of study, she wants to “have some fun”.

Who can blame her? As with the rest of her cohort, the university experience was brutally interrupted, if not wholly ruined, by lockdown. The buzz and shared learning of the lecture hall was replaced by taped speeches delivered in monotone by academics who sounded like they could scarcely be bothered. The shared cafeteria became a solitary toastie in the kitchen.

There were no clubs to join that might further budding interests, whether in politics or climate change or drama or whatever. The alchemy of lifelong friendships formed in class, in the library, in pubs and clubs, commiserating over boys and holding back each other’s hair as excess alcohol disappears into the toilet – there was precious little of that.

My daughter had initially been studying chemistry. She had bought her white coat and goggles and was excited by the looming marvels of combining the laboratory and the periodic table, but instead found herself in a bedroom for two years listening to the pre-recorded, affectless drone of dry theory. Disheartened, she considered quitting university entirely.

Across the UK, figures suggest that more students than usual dropped out over the lockdown period. Absences among students and staff were high, as they were across the entire workforce. For most who attend higher education, the social experience often proves every bit as important as the academic one. What an unhappy event that both were so negatively affected by Covid.

Still the opposite of whatever ready is

Thankfully, in the end, our daughter dug in. She switched to psychology, and found it a much more fruitful and beneficial area of study. To her credit and our immense pride, she has emerged with a great degree and a variety of options for her future, once said fun has been had. She may go back and do her masters, and possibly a PhD, or look for a job.

For her parents, then, a new phase of worry begins: the worries never lift, they just shift focus. Will there be a job out there for her, and, if so, will it be a suitable one that makes the most of her strengths? Will she be able to forge a fulfilling career?

Life post-graduation can be nerve-racking for students and their parents alike (Image: Paul Glendell/DC Thomson)

Will she ever be able to afford to buy her own home, in a political and financial climate that is almost a conspiracy to prevent such an outcome? What kind of world – polarised, warlike, economically dysfunctional – are we launching our offspring into? How much of the blame is ours, and how much of it is due to forces beyond our individual control?

And, as eldest arrives home, middle daughter is getting ready to begin her own university journey. My wife and I are preparing ourselves for her absence, but we know one thing for sure: come the day, we will be the opposite of whatever ready is.

Chris Deerin is a leading journalist and commentator who heads independent, non-party think tank, Reform Scotland