Nothing prepared me for my children flying the nest

By Grainne McCool  @GrainneMcCool

Don’t we all want our children to go to college? Maybe it’s not every parent’s wish, but it was a dream of mine.

I never forced education on my three boys but had always encouraged it and set the goal of working hard for the Leaving Certificate.

There would never be an alternative, as I believed this was the important educational target to reach in modern Ireland.

Had they not been capable of doing such, I would certainly have reconsidered moving the goal posts.

But I knew and they knew, that their final exams were something that would benefit them and that they would definitely be capable of achieving.

Son number one was very capable in school and in a way, sailed through this stage in life. He was very fortunate.

College was never something he dreamed of and instead he had hoped for an apprenticeship in Agricultural Mechanics.   He was very prepared and set work up with a local company prior to his exams in June 2009.

Grainne McCool parenting expert
Grainne McCool: Nothing prepares you for your children leaving home.

Shortly before he sat his exams that month, the company contacted him to say they would be unable to take him on as the recession in Ireland had then hit and they were badly affected.

The boy sat his exams and did very well. However, he didn’t want to take the college route.

Instead he made the decision to take a year out. Myself and his father didn’t oppose. He was 18 and knew his own mind so we supported his decision, but I was a little unsure of this move.

At the time he was working in a local hotel as assistant maintenance man and so was earning a reasonable income.

During that year out, he found himself out of work. The hotel also became affected by the recession. He found himself signing on the ‘dole’ – something he never wanted to do.

And unknown to us, he also revisited his old school and got some excellent career advice. He applied through CAO and that August in 2010 and he was accepted into Limerick IT and Pallaskenry Agricultural college, to do his certificate in Agricultural Mechanisation – the course which has since shaped his future.

On the day of his acceptance I was overjoyed. Perhaps I’m an academic snob, but I was so chuffed that my eldest boy was going to go to college.

Over the coming days and weeks, I had to assist him in his preparation for his forthcoming journey, the one which would see him taking the path I had dreamed he would take, to college.

Grainne and Paul
Grainne and her husband Paul.

I began arranging accommodation. It was only then that it dawned on me – my boy was leaving home and going to what seemed then, the other side of the world.

It was only Limerick, the city he was born in: but to me it was a million miles away. The tears started. And they didn’t stop. They just kept coming.

It was only then that the reality of college life hit me. This meant my baby was going away from home, away to fend for himself. This is what I’d always wanted and yet part of me wanted him to stay. What was happening to me? I really didn’t know.

I was the strong, independent mother who always spoke of how I wanted my children to see the world. I wanted them all to enjoy the college life, and travel.

Why was I crying so much? Friends and family were shocked at my emotions. I just couldn’t explain.

They hadn’t gone through this and there was just no explaining how I was feeling. It was like an impending death in my family.

Accommodation was sorted.  We were very lucky in that he was going to stay with a family friend and yet I still cried.

This was two weeks of crying now. My husband, my son and I, travelled to Limerick, the city I hold dear as this is where he entered the world and where we, as a family once lived.

We spent a lovely weekend together and visited the college he would be attending. All was good. Or was it? I still cried.

Sunday afternoon arrived and we had to say goodbye. My boy hugged me, as content as he could be and said: ‘Mum I’m doing what you’ve always wanted. I’m going to college.’

Becca and Ultan
Grainne’s younest son, Ultan McCool with his cousin Rebecca.

He just didn’t get my constant tears. I felt as if a little bit of my heart was being torn apart. I blubbed like a baby leaving him and yet he had a huge smile on his face.  For that I will always be grateful – he was happy and looking forward to his adventure.

I cried all the way home, all seven hours of the journey. I just couldn’t stop. My husband, his dad, was brilliant.

And yet even he couldn’t understand my constant tears. How could he? He was so proud of our boy and yes, he was sad, but his pride was blossoming. Mine was too, but my heart was breaking.

For two days after I continued to cry. This was SO not like me. This was alien to me. But I just couldn’t help it.

Two weeks later my boy came home to visit and it was clear that he really was on the right path. It was such a delight to see.

But come that Sunday evening when he left, guess what? The tears returned. But this time they didn’t last quite so long. This time I knew I had done good.

Ultan with mother Grainne McCool and aunt Louise McCauley
Grainne’s youngest son, Ultan with aunt Louise McCauley

I knew then that my raising him to be independent had worked. I saw it in his eyes that weekend. I saw it in the months and years that have since passed.

I still shed a tear when I think of this time. This was the first time one of my children left home. Nothing in life prepares any mother for such. I thought I was so ready for this experience. Boy was I wrong.

Since then son number two has gone off and completed college. Yes, I cried also, but not as much.

This lack of crying wasn’t because he was less special.  It was because I cried that first time for all three boys.

Those tears really awakened me to the departure of all my children. Since then also, the first born has spent two years in Canada.

That departure was hard but nothing compared to that first day when he left for college.

Number three is currently getting ready for college this coming September. A tear will certainly be shed, but the main tears have already been cried…seven years ago.

As a mother we think the first day of school is the hardest. And then the last day of primary school is the hardest. And then we have the first day of secondary school. And then we have the last day of secondary school. I shed tears at all.

But nothing prepares us as a mother, for that daunting experience when our first born leaves home.

No amount of preparation or self talk, prepares us for that goodbye which seems so final. And yet I now know that that ‘goodbye’ is sending them off into the world that we, as mothers and fathers have prepared them for. It’s like the culmination of our life’s work. It tells us that our job has been done, and done well.

That same boy is now working near home in a career that he loves. A career that his college life helped pave for him. A career that I know he will be content in. And a career that I hope I helped him prepare for in some way.

That first ‘goodbye’ is the hardest any mother will every say. And yet it is the ‘goodbye’ that enables us to sit back and be proud. So very proud.

My advice to you mothers preparing for that ‘goodbye’….stock up on tissues…lots of tissues x


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