Tears and loneliness of boarding school... for the mothers left behind: How September is a painful month for those packing their children off for another term away 

  • Mothers express heartbreak at dropping their kids off at boarding school
  • Around 69,000 children now board at independent schools in Britain 
  • Reasons include greater stability or day schools have run out of places
  • Little is spoken of the effect separation from their children has on parents

Heartbroken: Wendy Faux and her children (left to right) Freddie, 15, Maddie, 11, Jessica, nine, and Georgia, 13

Heartbroken: Wendy Faux and her children (left to right) Freddie, 15, Maddie, 11, Jessica, nine, and Georgia, 13

Wendy Faux chokes back the tears as she climbs into her car, waving to her youngest daughter, Jessica, as she walks off, her rucksack slung nonchalantly over her shoulder. A new study term stretches out ahead of her.

Jessica is the last of four children to flee the nest, and Wendy has no idea how she will cope in the weeks until she sees her daughter again. She feels redundant and empty. Her role as a mother is over. It’s all she can do to stop herself running after her youngest for ‘one last kiss’.

It’s a scene that will be familiar to thousands of parents in the coming weeks as they drop off eager teenagers at university, dreading the silence and empty bedrooms that await them back at the family home.

Except that Jessica is no teenager. She is just nine years old, and she’s returning for her second year at boarding school.

Remarkably, despite still being young enough to believe in Father Christmas and enjoy bedtime stories and cuddles with her Mummy, last September, Jessica followed her three siblings to boarding school when she was just eight years old.

‘Saying goodbye never gets any easier, and after dropping them back at school this week I sobbed uncontrollably, as I always do,’ says Wendy, 49, an Army reservist.

‘It’s the sight of them going, the four empty seats in the car, and the absence of children clattering around at home that really gets to me. It’s impossible not to feel sometimes that I’ve failed them.’

Wendy and her husband James, 43, a senior Army officer, are from Preston in Lancashire but move house every two years with his job.

Against that backdrop, they decided long ago that boarding school would offer stability to Jessica and their other children, Freddie, 15, Georgia, 13, and Maddie, 11, even though it broke their hearts to part with them at such a tender age.

Georgia and Maddie were both nine when they first started boarding, and Freddie was 11.

Even more painfully for Wendy, it was Jessica herself who decided that she wanted to go.

‘She announced at Easter last year that she wanted to join her brother and her sisters at boarding school,’ Wendy reveals. ‘I was heartbroken. I asked myself over and over: “Why does she want to leave me?”

‘Ultimately, we went along with her wishes because it was clear she felt left out as the only child at home, but it was an enormous wrench.

Inevitably, critics will question why they choose to send their children away, but many parents do so out of circumstance, such as being in the military, or because there’s a long tradition of boarding in their family.
Counsellor Juliet Powell 

‘I felt a complete sense of loss and descended into some sort of depression. My identity is wrapped up in my children, and without them I don’t feel I have a purpose.’

Although much has been written about the damage that boarding school can do to children — recently a group of campaigners, clinicians and academics called for boarding schools to stop accepting young children, claiming that it is mentally damaging — little is spoken of the emotional deprivation the separation can have on parents.

Regardless, boarding schools are proving increasingly popular with British parents.

Around 69,000 children now board at independent schools, and there are a further 5,000 children at England’s state boarding schools. The number of boarders has been slowly rising year on year, with a one per cent increase in admissions this term compared to September 2014.

Juliet Powell is a counsellor who specialises in life transitions. She says that Wendy’s feelings are common but are rarely discussed.

‘The feelings many boarding school mothers experience are similar to the grief of losing a loved one, and I see some women on the cusp of depression.

‘They feel their mothering days are cut short — and many struggle to function day-to-day.

Growing trend: Around 69,000 children now board at independent schools, and there are a further 5,000 children at England’s state boarding schools (file image)

Growing trend: Around 69,000 children now board at independent schools, and there are a further 5,000 children at England’s state boarding schools (file image)

‘Inevitably, critics will question why they choose to send their children away, but many parents do so out of circumstance, such as being in the military, or because there’s a long tradition of boarding in their family. They carry it on even though it may go against their own instincts.’

Although Wendy Faux and her husband both attended boarding school from the age of 11, she admits that her experience didn’t equip her to cope with being parted from her own children.

‘I loved boarding school, and I knew it would give my children essential continuity as James and I move around with his job, but I still didn’t want them to go.

‘The first time I dropped Freddie off to board five years ago, we were handing our then 11-year-old son over to people we barely knew.

‘I cried buckets when we left him, and when I visited him during term time, I’d sit on his bed sobbing before I left.

We were handing our then 11-year-old son over to people we barely knew. I cried buckets when we left him, and when I visited him during term time, I’d sit on his bed sobbing before I left.
Mother-of-four Wendy Faux 

‘Even though the children are very happy at their school, leaving them at the start of each term remains traumatic for me, and I’ve seen James get upset, too.

‘After dropping them off there this week, I had to pull over in the car because I couldn’t see the road through my tears. Driving away is the hardest part as that’s when I really feel as though I’ve left them.

‘It sounds dreadful but I don’t Facetime or Skype the children because I couldn’t bear to see their faces. Instead, we speak on the phone at weekends and write letters and send emails.’

Wendy also visits her children at school every three weeks because she cannot bear to go an entire term without seeing them. Even so, she says their absence between-times is, for her, ‘a complete sense of loss’.

‘Although all four of them love school, there have been times when one of them has been on the phone to me in floods of tears.

‘The school is brilliant at helping out, and my other kids rally around the one who is upset or poorly, but my arms feel empty.

‘Not being able to go to my children when they’re upset or ill goes against my every instinct.’

But Wendy is defiant when others ask why she bothered to have children if the intention was always to send them to boarding school

‘It wasn’t an easy or overnight decision,’ she insists. ‘My children have grown in confidence as a result of being at boarding school, and if any of them was ever unhappy then we would bring them home in an instant.’

Fellow boarding school mum Tanya Thompson, 44, empathises with Wendy’s feelings of hollowness. She describes the last 12 months since her son Ryan, 14, started at boarding school an hour away from their home in Camberley, Surrey, as being ‘akin to a bereavement’.

Bereft: Tanya Thompson and her 14-year-old son Ryan. She describes the last 12 months since her son Ryan started at boarding school an hour away from their home in Camberley, Surrey, as being ‘akin to a bereavement’

Bereft: Tanya Thompson and her 14-year-old son Ryan. She describes the last 12 months since her son Ryan started at boarding school an hour away from their home in Camberley, Surrey, as being ‘akin to a bereavement’

Emptiness: ‘I cried buckets when we left him, and when I visited him during term time, I’d sit on his bed sobbing before I left,' said mother Wendy Faux, whose four children all go to boarding school (file image)

Emptiness: ‘I cried buckets when we left him, and when I visited him during term time, I’d sit on his bed sobbing before I left,' said mother Wendy Faux, whose four children all go to boarding school (file image)

Which, of course, begs the question: why send him away, then? Tanya blames oversubscription for places at independent secondary schools in the area.

‘Competition for places is fierce, and when we learned in March last year that Ryan didn’t get into any of the schools we’d applied for, we realised boarding was the only option left,’ says Tanya, an interior designer, who is married to David, 44, a technology consultant in the City. They also have a daughter, Aimee, 12, who is a day pupil at an all-girls school in nearby Ascot.

She cries as she recalls the moment she and David accepted a place for Ryan at an expensive boarding school.

‘I felt physically sick, and although David and I wanted a private education for both children, neither of us could stomach the idea of Ryan living an hour away when he is so young.

‘We both went to state schools, but it was very different 30 years ago. The quality of state schools then is comparable to many private schools now.

‘Ryan and Aimee attended the same prep school from the age of four, but the headmaster there never missed an opportunity to peddle what he believed were the benefits of boarding school, with remarks such as “Boarding school toughens the kids up” and “It’s only the mothers who can’t let go”.

‘I strongly suspect that many of the preparatory and boarding schools are in cahoots.

‘Although it is a lovely school, and Ryan can come home at weekends and likes it there, I hate the idea that I have had to “give up” my child because there simply weren’t enough day places at the local independent schools.

‘When we drove away after dropping Ryan at school for the first time last September, I felt like I’d lost my son.’

‘Even now, at the start of his second year, I feel bereft at not being part of his everyday life. I miss seeing his shoes kicked off by the front door and his sweaty sports kit by the washer. The sight of his favourite hot chocolate drink in the cupboard can reduce me to tears.

‘During the summer holidays, Aimee slept in Ryan’s bedroom every night because she’s missed him so much. She idolises him, and he’s a protective big brother.

‘There’s a strong chance that we may move abroad at some point with my husband’s job, and friends have assumed that we’ll leave Ryan in boarding school here.

‘No way. I’m desperately hoping we do move, because it will be our escape from boarding school.’

Coping mechanism: Reasons for sending their children away to boarding school vary from parent to parent, but some military families find it offers their child stability, while others find that there just aren't enough places going spare at local day schools (file image)

Coping mechanism: Reasons for sending their children away to boarding school vary from parent to parent, but some military families find it offers their child stability, while others find that there just aren't enough places going spare at local day schools (file image)

For Suzanne Scott, 44, it’s actually a short-term move overseas that has exacerbated the anxiety she feels at being separated from her youngest son Alex, who’s 16. While Alex is studying for A-levels at boarding school close to their old home in Gloucestershire, she and her husband Peter, 57, an operations manager in the food and beverage industry, have, since last December, been living in Dubai.

‘When we moved to the Middle East nine months ago, leaving Alex 3000 miles away, I cried for days,’ says Suzanne, a qualified teacher.

‘Not being with him for up to three months at a time is hard to bear — and even though we know that boarding school has benefited him enormously, I still feel that I’ve failed as a parent.’

We wouldn’t want to disrupt Alex’s education and friendships by moving him to a school in the Middle East, even though I would dearly love to have him close to me.
Mother Suzanne Scott, who lives in Dubai 

Suzanne and Peter have been together for 15 years and have five children between them. The eldest is 26. Alex is the youngest and the only one to have had a boarding school education. The rest have all left home now to work or to study.

It was in 2006, at the age of nine, that Alex started boarding at a school in Malvern close to the family home at the time.

‘Alex is dyslexic, and I knew that in mainstream schools he would be 11 years old before they assessed him or gave him the extra support he needs to thrive in the classroom,’ Suzanne explains.

‘We felt boarding school was the right choice for him. I missed Alex, of course, especially as he was so little, but he was only a ten-minute drive away, so I often used to nip up to the school to see him.

‘Now that we live in different countries, it’s unbearable.’

But despite her heavy heart, Suzanne remains adamant that boarding school is the best option.

‘We wouldn’t want to disrupt Alex’s education and friendships by moving him to a school in the Middle East, even though I would dearly love to have him close to me,’ she says, sadly.

‘I miss his conversation, and our old routines. Even as a boarder in the UK, we were always dashing to and from sports clubs.

‘Despite sending off countless job applications, I have been unable to find work here in Dubai so my days are consumed with thoughts of all the things I miss about being a hands-on mum.

‘Worse, I know that my nest is empty for good as Alex has his sights trained on a place at college in Reading after his A-levels.

‘I don’t know who I am any more, without him here.’

‘I live for the school holidays — it’s my coping mechanism.

‘Since Alex returned to school last week, I’ve been planning Christmas in earnest because that’s when we’ll all be together next.

‘But I also know that, come early January, when he returns to boarding school, I will struggle to cope all over again.’

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