A few weekends ago I spent the night with my teenage daughter and 90,000 others at Wembley Stadium watching Harry Styles perform. This was planned for her 14th birthday, but Covid struck so two years later, her dream came true. And what a night it was. There were times I felt very out of place as I was at least 25 years older than most people there, and yet we created a memory
that will be with us both forever. At the finale the heavens opened, the rain descended on us, and the fireworks exploded. Both of us crying with overwhelm at what an incredible event it was, and I could finally understand why her walls have been adorned with his pictures for years.
As a mum of three teenage daughters, I have times when I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, exasperated, and at a complete loss of how-to parent. Am I doing the right thing? Am I screwing them up? Am I showing too much emotion or too little? Am I being too lax with my boundaries, or too strict? Am I compensating for the lack of parenting I received?
As an ex-boarder who predominantly spent her teenage years in a Boarding School without parenting, I have no role-modeling of parenting. I went home in the holidays, but that experience cannot compare to the everyday grind of parenting teenagers. Making sure I have adequate food in the house, they have clothes they can wear, sorting out their disputes amongst each other, having doors slammed in my face, removing old cups of tea with mould in the bottom from their bedrooms, being treated like a taxi service, helping them through that first intoxicating experience, putting a bucket by their bed and just feeling grateful they are alive.
Predominantly at this stage, as their parent, I am an emotional container for all their whirling emotions that come about as their hormones surge, and they navigate this period of life with friendships, relationships, school, and exams. My middle daughter has just finished her GCSEs. I am exhausted just by being alongside her in this process that has lasted months. When I recall my own GCSEs....I was away at school. Maybe I had a phone call wishing me luck, but I have no memory of my parents having any part of them whatsoever. I just got on with it.
Many adult ex-boarders I work with don't feel close to their parents. It is rare to find someone who lives close by to their parents as adults and there is an acceptance that they are unable to depend on their own parents to support them raise their own children. I hear often that they see their grandchildren, "when it suits them." I have noticed a theme with women, who often feel it is their fault and that if they worked harder then maybe they could have that mother-daughter relationship they see others having and they yearn for.
An old school friend of mine was telling me how both she and her daughter had cried as her 19-year-old set off interrailing across Europe. Her daughter hugged her close, saying "I don't want to say goodbye mum," We have been alongside each other navigating parenting for the past twenty years and I have witnessed their relationship go through all its trials and tribulations. Each time there is a rupture, they repair it. Then another rupture, then they repair it. They repeat this process again and again. This is how close relationships are formed. And yes, this is bloody hard work and takes years and changes our hair grey and adds many wrinkles to our faces.
Alongside those difficult moments however, there can be moments of joy, laughter, and connection. Sharing every day, the giggles, the stupidity, watching TV programmes together. Even watching something like Love Island together enables us to have conversations about young people, misogyny, body shame, and sex. I am learning and growing alongside them as they are me.
Right now, I feel I am navigating the "empty nest full nest" stage whereby they don't want to hang out with me particularly and reject my bedtime kisses, but they need to know that I am here and I am present for them. This enables them to go off into the world, knowing I am here for them to return to. This feels hard for me, with my own history of abandonment, and yet fortunately I can recognise this and seek support elsewhere for my own feelings of rejection.
When children grow up in Boarding Schools, these important developmental stages are missed. They return home in the holidays and must slot into their parents’ lives, rather than their parents being alongside them in their everyday life. They miss out on that rupture repair stage and those important milestones in teenage life. They are unable to build and grow their relationship in the same way that children being brought up at home do. There is not the safety that comes with knowing that your parents are present each day for you to return to, so children may find themselves being polite and trying to please them rather than express any angry feelings for fear of conflict or further abandonment.
This can continue into adulthood and creates a relationship with parents which takes on a slightly formal feel, with a lack of intimacy and closeness that pervades. If you missed out on that teenage stage and were not able to express your true feelings to them then, then how can you show the messy parts of you now. Sometimes ex-boarders may experience a rebellion against their parents in their 30s and 40s as these suppressed feelings surface and they need to find a way to organically separate, which is different from that amputation on that first day at school.
When parents become elderly and in need of care, this can also stir up difficult feelings for adults who may resent now having to provide care for their parents when they feel that they were deprived of care from them when they were children.
It is important to remember that many of these complicated feelings towards your parents may be a result of growing up apart. It is not because you are unloveable, unimportant, or cold-hearted, but unfortunately a long-lasting consequence of being brought up in the care of others in an institution and not your parents.
If you would like to further explore how your own Boarding School schooling may have impacted you now as an adult, then I offer 1:1 Therapy, Courses, and a free Facebook Group.