What is it about children going to university that sees parents running to the divorce lawyers? While statistical proof is difficult to come by, I’m sure many, if not most, of you have come into contact with a situation of a couple separating while their children are at university.
It’s no scoop that divorce rates have been on the rise for the last forty years; and the Tories’ marriage tax break, even if it comes in, seems unlikely to stem this. From what little information that the Office of National Statistics provide on the issue, one can see that divorce rates for those aged over forty-five have, since the 1950s, increased at twice the average rate. Far more tellingly, I suppose, is that not only myself, but three friends in college have also seen their parents separate in the last two years (and given the dearth of friends in college, that is an impressive fifty percent hit rate).
At school the careers and counselling services shared a corridor, and while waiting for some career profiling results I read an article on the wall entitled ‘Oxbridge Blues’, about the phenomenon of parental separation whilst children are at university. Far from being a particularly memorable piece, I never thought of it again until the day that my parents, seemingly out of the blue, told me that they were splitting up. Back when I read it, I was already at the age where I believed that the time for my parents to divorce had been and passed. Potentially my view on relationships was a tad simplistic, but I reasoned that one didn’t wake up, twenty five years into a marriage, and suddenly decide that you are no longer in love with your spouse.
Of course, looking at it rationally, it makes perfect sense; with the children out of the way, the forty or so more years until death seem too bleak to stick it out. Still, it seems a wonder that having stuck it out for so long, one can give up that easily. But then, starting one’s life again the other side of middle age is no mean feat and perhaps my own issue is that nothing seems to have been gained. I asked my mother the other day whether her net happiness had increased, and she said that quite the reverse is the case. Surely quietly being stuck in a rut of non communication and mutual apathy, as desolate as I’m sure that is, is a far better situation to be in than finding yourself, the other side of fifty, alone and miserable?
Having done extraordinarily badly in a recent set of collections, I pulled out the divorce card in an attempt to forestall the inevitable announcement of my academic probation. While my college senior tutor is an exceptionally kind soul who suggested all manner of potential help, unfortunately, it does not seem that the university quite understands the problem. One chaplain’s counsel was, in a typically caring and sharing, head-tilting sort of way, that ‘the result for the child is often a blaming of themselves for leaving [to go to University]… the important thing is to relieve them of their automatic feeling of guilt’. Neither myself, nor a single person I have spoken to who has been through a similar situation, has in any way suggested that they believed it to be their fault. Surely the whole point is that because we have left home it is explicitly no longer about us? Children at home are just a flimsy plaster over the real fact of the matter; love just doesn’t last forever and often it takes a significant change in a couple’s life for them to realise that.
The real issue, which people such as aforementioned chaplain don’t understand, is that the problem is far more practical than emotional. I failed all my collections, not because I spent the holidays in a darkened room, lying in a foetal position, bemoaning the end of my innocent youth, but because I had to spend it having organised fun with two suddenly desperately needy parents. Talking about it, particularly with some bearded woman with a night-course diploma in psychotherapy, will only eat up more time.
I happen to be fortunate enough that, with my parents living far enough away from Oxford, the excuse of distance is reasonable grounds for never having to see them in term time, but a friend of mine’s parental geography is not so ideal. With his father disappearing overseas, his mother installed herself, post-separation, in a flat in central London. His siblings having left university and moved out, he is the only one who moved with her. ‘The hardest thing is that I feel guilty unless I go home and see her at the weekends, but that makes her feel guilty because she knows what I’m missing out on back at Oxford’. As selfish as it sounds, attempting to have fun while maintaining a passable academic scorecard is hard enough without the incessant reminder of what’s in store at home once term ends. Indeed, the last thing one wants to have before heading out at night is a parent, with a desperate air of forced jollity, calling to discuss Waitrose’s delicious new range of meals for one, or John Sergeant’s performance on Strictly Come Dancing.
Along with the time consuming reversal in emotional reliance, there are the practical issues that also cause considerable hassle. In Oxford, where a large number of students remain living in college provided accommodation, rather than their own houses, the termly clearout of one’s room reinforces the fact that Oxford is not home. Yet university is part of a process in which we are weaned off the reliance on parents for a home; we graduate into the ‘real world’, where we are expected (and most of us do) find a job and, more relevantly, somewhere to live which should be the beginning of a series of new homes.
With those that I spoke to, all agreed that one of the most wearisome aspects of the whole was the balancing of time spent between the two parents (one almost wishes for a judge to decree ‘weekdays with one, weekends with the other, and alternating Christmas and birthdays’). At a time where, with little over a year left at university, it seems pointless to establish an extra home, now, one sees the holidays being eaten up, oscillating between the parent who remained in situ (and wandering around the bleak morgue of a childhood, filled with newly empty spaces of carpet and wall) and the parent who moved out (desperately trying not to refer to the other house as ‘home’). Where home should be a place to have a happy catch up with the’ rents, eat some proper food, and get some washing done (incidentally, like in some badly written novel, our washing machine, a wedding present, irrevocably died at the same time as my parents’ marriage) instead it becomes an unimaginable chore.
Perhaps the worst part is that it brings out a selfishness that one usually tries to suppress (I’m very conscious of this character trait running throughout this article), but one does fairly quickly realise that it isn’t all that bad. Though parents separating while you’re at university does not allow you that safe territory to escape to; but by being away from home we, conversely, can have university as a place to which we can escape. By being older one is able to think a bit more rationally about it all and if for many of us such announcements came out of the blue, does that not show just how lucky we are? Having an easy and stable childhood is one of the greatest things that a parent can give a child, and, if we’ve only just found out our parents’ relationship is coming to an end, then we’ve already had one. More to the point, here and now each of us whom this has affected still has two parents, a luxury not afforded to everyone. Perhaps, if it is going to happen, there may not be a better time.