For the past 25 years, September has been the most frantic month of the year for me – a time of name tags, new timetables to be stuck to the fridge and heated discussions about what exactly constitutes a ‘school’ shoe.
But this year there is no bustle, no shrieking rows about how much midriff is acceptable, or fights about who the phone charger belongs to.
My youngest daughter Lydia, 18, has gone to university and, to my surprise, I’m feeling utterly bereft. My oldest daughter did the same thing ten years ago, but with a pre-teen at home, I was still firmly in motherland.
My youngest daughter Lydia, 18, has gone to university and, to my surprise, I’m feeling utterly bereft
But now Lydia has gone, everything has changed. It’s not so much that I miss their physical presence, the noise, the cigarette butts, the trail of discarded bras and the avocado skins in the bathroom, it’s more that now there are no children in the house, I feel as if my life no longer has a purpose.
But, of course, it does. I have work I love as the creator of ITV’s historical television drama Victoria, my husband, three dogs, wonderful friends, a network of people and connections I treasure.
But, to my amazement, now that I am not primarily my daughter’s carer, I feel there is a chasm that I don’t know how to fill.
All the rhythms of my life – school nights, half-terms, part-confessional half-competitive conversations with parents at school events, cake stalls, ‘checking’ course work – all those tiny, comforting rituals have gone. For the first time since my early 20s I am a free agent, and I find the prospect terrifying.
As someone who has always been a full-time working mother, I never thought I would feel this way.
Just last year I went on a holiday with a lot of mothers whose children had just gone to university and felt unforgivably smug when they talked about how difficult they were finding adjusting to their new teenager-free lives.
I thought they had brought their loneliness upon themselves by giving up their jobs. But a year later I am already asking my daughters when they think they will be coming home for Christmas.
It’s not so much that I miss their physical presence, the noise. It’s more that now there are no children in the house, I feel as if my life no longer has a purpose
They are mystified by my new neediness. Having spent their childhoods fighting for my attention: hiding my phone, shouting ‘Mum will you please finish your sentence’ when I was distracted by some incoming work issue in the middle of a discussion about their homework, they can’t reconcile themselves to a mum who sends them texts every morning.
My younger daughter sent me back a picture of a helicopter, suggesting I’ve become a member of the helicopter parenting brigade who take overprotective or excessive interest in the lives of their children.
I miss having a daughter around to criticise a controversial outfit, or to rub in a bit of hastily applied foundation. I miss watching any TV show with them and knowing they will spot the plot twist practically before the opening credits come to an end.
It seems such a shame that, just when my tiger mother duties have come to an end, I can’t have the mundane pleasure of having a daughter to hang out with while watching Vanity Fair or internet browsing, or simply to chat to.
I can imagine that mothers of sons miss them in a different way, but my daughters are my favourite companions, and having them around makes everything better.
Rationally, I know I should be proud my daughters have become fully functioning adults who need me less than I need them.
My younger daughter sent me back a picture of a helicopter, suggesting I’ve become a member of the helicopter parenting brigade who are overprotective parents
That should be the whole aim of good parenting, to raise emotionally self-reliant children, but selfishly I wish my daughters had found it harder to leave.
Having grown up with the insecurity of divorced parents, all I wanted for my children was for them to feel safe.
My childhood was dramatic, I wanted theirs to be uneventful and secure. And I seem to have succeeded. Both of them seemed completely unbothered about leaving home, which is how it should be.
Sometimes I wonder if I missed the memo about the dislocation that hits a woman when the children leave.
I say woman because I don’t notice my husband wandering disconsolately around empty bedrooms picking up old lipsticks, or sobbing over the Ocado order.
I keep forgetting to change the settings and every week I take delivery of a fridgeful of food designed to feed my daughter and her friends, not a middle-aged couple who could lose a few pounds.
My husband can’t understand why my eyes fill with tears every time I open the fridge and see a carton of pomegranate juice. ‘You don’t even like it,’ he says.
I can’t explain the true significance of the unopened juice, that it is my youngest daughter’s favourite drink and now she isn’t here to drink it.
I have work I love as the creator of ITV’s historical television drama Victoria, my husband, three dogs and wonderful friends
I am sure that my husband misses the girls, but I don’t think he feels as if his identity is under threat.
I have been to see a therapist to try to make sense of the situation. She told me that her mother had told her that, whatever she did in life, she should keep working so that she wouldn’t have to face the pain of an empty nest.
She told me: ‘I kept working, but when my children left home, I felt bereaved.’ I asked her if the feeling ever went away.
She grimaced and said: ‘Well, the pain lessens, but, no, it never goes away completely. That is until you have grandchildren, and that brings a whole new joy into your life’.
As my daughters are not exactly ready to have children, I am going to have to find another way to fill the gap.
A few months ago I met a fellow screenwriter, a couple of years older than me, at a party and I marvelled at how much she was able to write in a year – approximately double my output – and she smiled and said: ‘My children have left home. I have nothing else to do but work.’
At the time I didn’t understand the desperation behind her remark, but now I envy her ability to turn her empty nest into brilliant TV drama. I just hope the time is coming when I wake up and, instead of mooning over the tidiness of the kitchen, I start working like a demon.
I remember when the girls were little and I was in a state of perpetual exhaustion, I used to find it enraging when older women shook their heads and said ‘enjoy it while you can, it goes so quickly.
They will be grown up and out the door in a heartbeat’. At the time, the thought of having an uninterrupted night’s sleep seemed like the world’s greatest luxury; now I wake at three in the morning hoping to hear a step on the stair.
So while I get used to the peace and quiet, my advice to anyone with children about to go out into the world, who thinks having a career will protect them from the impending loss, is to take steps to soften the blow. Move house, get a hobby, book a trip around the world… and don’t forget to cancel the internet groceries.
‘I spent most of the week before he left home in tears’: Mail on Sunday sports editor, ALISON KERVIN, speaks about her son going to university
It’s the memories that arrive suddenly and squeeze at your heart that hurt the most. I was helping my 18-year-old son George pack yesterday morning to go off to university when I remembered walking him to school one cool autumn morning, many years ago.
I was holding his hand, as I always did, and chatting about important things like what would happen if a tiger fought a lion.
Then he saw a friend across the road and immediately pulled his hand out of mine. The movement was so sudden and so overpowering that I could feel the emptiness in my hand where his had just been. He never held my hand again while walking to school.
The moment marked one of the many little steps on my son’s bittersweet journey to independence. Then yesterday presented me with the biggest step of all.
I was helping my 18-year-old son George pack yesterday morning to go off to university when I remembered walking him to school one cool autumn morning, many years ago
George and I climbed into the car, as we have so many times before, and set off on a long journey, but this time only I came home.
I dropped him and all his belongings in Bristol, where he’s going to university, and drove home to London crying wretchedly – a complete danger to everyone on the road – heading back to an empty house.
I confess that I spent most of the week leading up to our departure in tears. George was in his room, music blaring out, phone going constantly – bleeping and shrieking with goodbye messages from his friends: snapchats and texts pouring in while I sat there, biting my lip and wanting to scream ‘STOP’ and beg him to stay.
I know it’s madness. I have no right to feel this crushing sense of grief. I’m proud that he’s going to university and in awe of the lovely young man that he’s become, but I’m also terrified to the core of my being.
Watching your son go off to university is the best of times and the worst of times.
I’m sure it’s harder to watch a boy go off into the world than a girl because so much is expected of them.
Boys are incredibly soft and vulnerable, despite their gruff exteriors. Sure, they look big and strong, but inside the tough armour there’s a whole tangle of insecurities, love and confusion.
The girls his age look more fragile but they’re tougher. It’s as if girls toughen up from inside out and the boys from outside in.
In many ways I worry as much for my strapping 6ft 2in muscle-bound young man as I did for the tiny baby handed to me 18 years ago.
As a mother, you always worry. From the moment a child is born, the whole world is a more terrifying place.
The night of George’s birth, a fire alarm went off in the hospital.
The moment marked one of the many little steps on my son’s bittersweet journey to independence
The panic that rushed through me was greater than anything I’d ever known… a whole new level of fear that struck right to the core.
What if I don’t get my baby out of this hospital before the fire comes?
Then he grew into a lovely little boy, I remember the way his hair would hang in gentle curls at the nape of his neck when it was long.
The way it shined golden blond in the sun and how he looked like Little Lord Fauntleroy as light, golden freckles gathered like glitter across his nose.
But then the teenage years: he dyed his hair jet black (along with all the towels), and started playing sport, prompting numerous hospital visits for broken bones (six).
Then there was the time he shoved a piece of cardboard so far into his ear that he needed a general anaesthetic to get it out.
I was on first name terms with the doctor at Kingston Hospital by the time he was ten. I think I was one accident short of a visit from social services.
But it’s the sweetness that stays in my mind, and haunts me as I contemplate a future without him in it every day.
Like the time, aged six, he was asked to describe a banana. ‘It’s the colour of the sun and the shape of a smile,’ he said, and I thought my heart would melt.
The time he rushed off the stage shouting, ‘I’m just giving my mummy a kiss’ half way through a drama production. The Mothers’ Day present of a daffodil, roots and all, and the trail of mud he left through the house that took a day to clean up.
And the time he won me the award for ‘best unscripted moment’ when I was doing a telephone interview with a Swedish radio station to promote my novel (appropriately called Mother & Son). He picked up the downstairs phone and screamed: ‘Where are my pants?’
In the Q&A afterwards there were no questions about my book, just a hundred or more Swedes asking whether George had found his pants.
I’ll miss him not just because I love him but because I like him a lot – I enjoy his company.
I find him bright, challenging and overwhelmingly intelligent. He’s the best person I know.
I’m lucky and hugely blessed that he has worked hard enough to get into the university of his choice to study the course he wants.
So this is good. It’s all good. Honestly…