When kids are young you are hit by a series of different stages, but family dynamics don’t get any easier when children get older.
There’s a lot of change when children are very young. Everything seems to be phase-based and as soon as you’ve mastered one phase it all changes, for instance, the teething phase, changes in sleeping routines, changes in childcare routines, pre-school, school and so on. Parents have to keep adapting.
It doesn’t stop, though it may stabilise a little at primary school. Then comes the transition to secondary school, the pre-teen years [which seem to start earlier and earlier], the teen years, exams, the wondering about what to do next, work [and, for parents sometimes, transporting them to work], gap years, university and so on.
There is a lot written about the so-called empty nest syndrome, but the process is gradual and each step changes family dynamics, particularly in larger families when you have to go through the process multiple times, with always the potential that the nest refills after university.
All the kids in our family who have finished secondary school have opted for a gap year. The idea is that they will get a job, chill out after the stress of having to hit targets for the last few years and earn enough money to see a bit of the world. Often it doesn’t really work out like the amazing adventure and escape fro the everyday that it is sold as. It is a learning process, though. Daughter one found it much more difficult to find a job than she had imagined. The promise vs the reality was a difficult thing to handle. She did travel, but not as much as she thought and things happened which taught her things about the world which were not necessarily positive.
Daughter two had her gap year in the middle of Covid. She got a job more easily than her sister and she did travel, but not for as long as she had imagined. She and daughter three feel, I think, almost a duty to travel for daughter one, who now can’t. She started university and then dropped out after a few months. The social isolation made it a very lonely experience. She’s now at another university.
The first one was near home so we would see her fairly often. Now she is a lot further away and she has just returned for her second term. Daughter three is on a gap year and working flat out at a cafe. The two girls went away together after Christmas. They are very close so when daughter two goes away – she left last week – everything changes. Daughter three is very quiet. Only son is also a bit of a loner. The atmosphere is very different when daughter two, who sees her role as the entertainer of the family, is not around. No matter what we suggest as parents to lift the team, people rarely want to do it.
When daughter one left to go to university she was not that far away. We could all visit her regularly. I think she felt thrown out into the world in a way. It was exciting, but worrying. When we met at a pub just a few weeks after she started she told me off for asking her questions. “I just want you to treat me as if nothing has changed, mum,” she said. But things had changed. When one person is no longer there the family dynamics are totally different. When two are away even more so.
With university, it’s not a permanent change, of course. The terms come and go and then there is the long summer holiday. Plus, going from daughter two’s vision for her future, she is likely to be around quite a bit after university too when daughter three might be away. And then only son is coming up on the inside lane.
Life is made up of so many small-scale and larger-scale family transitions. Each of them is emotionally loaded so it is a good idea to treat yourself gently and give yourself some time to adjust.