Learning from life: what I learnt from having a child move away to university

Elevated view of university students walking up and down stairs

Michelle Parry-Slater reflects on our lives as parents and asks if L&D do enough to support colleagues in the emotional roller-coaster of parenting

For many parents, September marks a month of mixed emotions due to the start of the school year. The joy and heartbreak of your 3-year-old skipping off into nursery school without a second thought for you sobbing quietly in the playground, redundant yet proud. Or the day they go to ‘big school’ primary and are clinging to your leg afraid of the unknown.

Or that momentous occasion that my sister had this month with her 11-year-old starting secondary school. The new school shoes. The oversized uniforms. The hopes and dreams. The change in routines. The hurried lunch boxes early in the morning. Running for the school bus. Endless washing of uniforms. Helping with homework (or not – what is maths these days?)

Emotional experience

In my experience, however, nothing at all prepares any parent for the day that their baby grows up and flies the nest. Whether that is moving away to university or into their first house share near a new job. You are proud you have fulfilled your job as a parent of giving them roots and wings. Yet you are miserable and sad they are gone, and you will not see them every day, not hear about their adventures first hand or be there to share the lows. There is a grieving process mixed with excitement for them. The balance of life tilts on an axis as the new phase of life begins for you all.

These are all familiar stories for all parents, and indeed all adults as we recall our own lives starting school, moving out of home, and increasingly for many, moving back again. These are big life journeys which are impactful, and emotional. And for some people, their life journey doesn’t include children yet they wish it did, which brings another set of emotions to bear.

Just carrying on with work

Yet when we go to work on the days when our little child has sobbed their way into school, or when our biggest baby still hasn’t called from Uni to say all is well, on those days we carry on, we perform, we function. We perhaps tell our closest colleagues whom we call friends when they see we are feeling sad. If we are lucky we might tell a sympathetic boss. But mostly, we just carry on regardless. And that is not ok.

Work doesn’t care about people

As John Farnham voiced in song many years ago, “we’re all someone’s daughter, we’re all someone’s son.” As people, we are simply not immune to our feelings yet even in a post-pandemic society where we shared experiences of loss and grief, Work has an expectation that we will simply carry on regardless. For humans, Work still considers us a cog in a machine. Work is without feeling, and thus Work is not caring of our emotions. All Work cares about is productivity, because Work believes that productivity drives success, in whatever form success is seen; profits, patients, or production lines. Work doesn’t care about people. Work cares about work.

Personally, I think Work is wrong. Work needs to have a long hard look in their mirror and remember that Work only exists because of people. Without the humans, Work has no humanity. Increasingly I am seeing that more and more organisations are recognising to be truly productive, they need to focus less on the work and more on the people. Happy, motivated, fulfilled people are by nature more productive. When organisations focus on the profits not people they are signing up to attrition, burnout, and disgruntlement, plus of course all the costs (both financial and human) associated with that. Ask any recruiter how hard times are right now. Losing staff is not a wise business decision.

Focusing on the human

Learning and development practitioners have a key role in humanising Work. We influence thinking and behaviour. We motivate people through personal development. We teach people how to put themselves into the heart of the process, so process has a human heart. It starts with us. We should invite people and their emotions into their learning experience. We shouldn’t plan learning programmes at a time when our colleagues are working their hardest, and if we do, we can’t complain when they don’t show up!

We need to be sensitive to the rhythms of business and of people in the business. Do you have a lot of parents with young children? Finish your learning day early enough for that parent to be at the school gate – even if they are not usually there – the surprise will delight both the parent and the child. Do you have colleagues who wish they were parents? Consider how you plan learning activities on sensitive days such as 15th October, Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.

Putting the human, with all our wild emotions, into the heart of your business is not simply being kind, it makes good business sense. As does knowing to avoid weekend travel in mid-September when the motorways are full of cars laden with duvets, suitcases, books, saucepans and anxious parents. Good luck to all the new students and spare a thought for your parents every now and then.


Michelle Parry-Slater

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