This September I made the long drive from Brighton to Edinburgh to take my eldest daughter to University for the first time. We could have taken the train or driven, but the journey felt like an important one for us to take together. Together we piled her clothes, her washbag, her duvet, and her momentos from home in the boot of the car before she said her goodbyes to her sisters and dad and the two of us set off up north for this road trip. Only a few hours into the journey did we hear the news the queen had died, so we had the world in mourning to accompany us on our 473-mile journey.
We passed by the signs to the cities of Leeds, Manchester, and Lancaster until we crossed the border and were greeted with the Welcome to Scotland Sign. We were getting closer. How many children who went to boarding school remember those long drives to school. That first journey when they don't really have an idea of what awaits them, apart from possibly the promises of excitement and a wonderful education.
As we picked up her keys to her flat and we let ourselves in, I could see her nervous anticipation as we listened out for others to arrive. In they came with their parents, introducing themselves, unpacking their "tuck" onto their allocated shelf, and taking them out for one last meal before saying their goodbyes. Together, we unpacked my daughter's room. Put her clothes in her wardrobe, her duvet in its cover, and stuck her photos on her pinboard until it was our time to say goodbye.
I had been preparing myself for this moment for months. For a year, I have had moments of grief hit me. I would see her slumped on the sofa and have a flashback to her being 5 years old. The memories of the past 19 years flashing in front of my eyes at various times. My eldest and I have been through some difficult times together and she is aware of my own boarding school past and some of the issues that I have had with feelings of abandonment as a result.
There was a time a few years ago when I unwittingly projected these feelings onto her, feeling angry at her for leaving me in isolation for 10 days when I first had Covid. The rational part of me knew that it was unfair, that she was a child, but the wounded young 11-year-old in me had regressed and I felt that pain of abandonment that I had never felt before. I felt terrified. I remember whispering, "please don't leave me." When I first had this experience, I couldn't make sense of it. I lost myself and I literally felt like a child. With further reading and understanding, I now understand that I experienced an emotional flashback, a symptom of Complex PTSD.
Complex PTSD is a form of Post-traumatic stress disorder and survivors of traumatizing abandonment are susceptible to painful emotional flashbacks, which are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling states of being an abandoned child. These feeling states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression. They also include triggering our fight/flight/freeze instincts. It may be 30 years after the original abandonment occurred that something in the present triggers this flashback to the past. This can be extremely distressing if we don't understand what is occurring. Pete Walker's book, "Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving," is helpful in making sense of this.
Back to Edinburgh, and this time we were ready. However much I would miss her, I am ready for her to leave home and start her life as a young adult elsewhere and she is ready to leave me. She is not 11 and at the appropriate age to leave home. It was time for me to return home and to continue offering my younger children all the parenting they need to get to the same stage. As we hugged and said goodbye, I walked away with confidence that she would be okay, amazed at myself for not falling apart.
This was not a mother putting on a stiff upper lip, or one suppressing her own abandonment wound but one who knows that her daughter is at the appropriate age for her to leave home for the first time. A mother who was able to pick up the phone the following night when her daughter was having a wobble and feeling lonely, and reassure her with soothing words that she was going to be okay. My "Social battery has died, " she said this week.
Children at boarding schools don't get that opportunity to recharge their battery, rarely even having their own room. We are three weeks in and she is very much still in a place of adapting to her new surroundings and her new home. It is a huge transition to make and at times is overwhelming and scary and at other times wonderful and exciting. And she is 19.....
I often hear concern from ex-boarders that they may have passed on their own trauma from boarding school to their children. It takes a long time to first discover that you may have been affected by boarding school, and then to do the work that may be needed to help heal yourself. Unfortunately, sometimes it is only when children come along that these dissociated parts of ourselves are triggered and opened up. I am by no means a perfect mum, and my children will have been affected in so many ways by my own experiences.
However, my knowledge and understanding of how early abandonment and trauma may have affected me enables me to explain it to my children so they know that it is not to do with them. I was able to walk out of that door in Edinburgh, say goodbye and drive away knowing that I wasn't projecting my own abandonment wounds onto my daughter and that my response was appropriate for the situation we were in.
I also left her in good company.......
On November the first I have a new round of my boarding school awareness course starting. It comprises 8 online modules in which we collectively start to look at the ways boarding school may have impacted you as a child and subsequently as an adult.
Click below to arrange a zoom chat with me meeting me to find out more, if you want to grow your own awareness of how your experiences at boarding school may have shaped you.