Parenting through the exam season.

Yesterday marked the beginning of our fifth exam season in this house. It’s such an emotive time watching your children work so hard, much harder than we ever did back in the day. The pressure on them is immense and it’s hard to know what to do for the best. I have two very distinct, individual daughters who have tackled exams in entirely different ways and therefore needed to be parented and supported in entirely different ways too, well apart from the unlimited supply of cake and chocolate that they both needed.

Year one: Lily took two GCSEs a year early. She had been working super hard up until this point, was very conscientious and always did well. She doubted herself and pushed herself so very hard, needing to be the best at everything she did; a typical perfectionist. Two GCSEs were stressful, there were lots of tears and she was convinced she’d messed up. All she needed from us was a sense of reason, an ear to listen to her, a shoulder to cry on and a calm environment. She poured over the mark schemes when they were released and then did the same with the grade boundaries. I felt sick when I dropped her at school to collect her results, I knew how important it was for her to do well. I cried when she rang me to tell me her results. I was so happy for her and incredibly proud. Little did I know that this would be the push she needed to try and realise her dream to get into the top University in the country, and what a bloody rollercoaster that turned out to be.

Year two: GCSE year. I can’t actually remember too much. I know she worked incredibly hard all year, she was anxious and sick. Our main roll was to watch over her and keep her calm, we never ever put any pressure on her as she put way too much on herself. She was driven beyond belief. To get in to Cambridge University her grades at this stage had to be phenomenal. The school were amazing, providing coaching in the evenings and at weekends and school holidays, a mentor and being in constant touch with home (it wasn’t just Lily they did this for either, I can’t thank them enough). Again she wasn’t confident and went over and over the exams she’d taken afterwards. The wait until the 20th August was the longest few weeks, there was added stress as the school rang the top performers the day before to invite them in early for their results and they couldn’t get hold of me! (Long story involving a broken phone) anyway she WAS there early at 9am and was one of the first girls to be called up to collect the slip with her results on, she had done exceptionally well meaning that she was a step closer to realising her dream. The rest of that day was amazing as I basked in her glory, it involved lots of champagne, bunting and a huge party.

Year three: AS levels. She moved on to sixth form college as they had a good Oxbridge record. It was a tough decision to make, her school had been so supportive to get her to this point, but college was where she’d have the best possible chance. The move meant had to be be up incredibly early to catch the train into town. It worried me how hard she worked, but she hit the ground running. There was stress again and there were tears, she shouted at me a lot and I put up with it. Again I was there for her to bounce off, to listen to her, to provide carbohydrates, chocolate but not advice (as she already knew it all!) this was the year when we began to collect her slightly worse for wear from parties at two am in the morning too, but we did that too, unquestionably. Our roll now was to let her find her own way whilst we were carefully observing from close by. It’s also the summer we drove up and down the country looking at Universities. I cried as we pulled up outside the first one, Exeter, the reality of her leaving home hit me hard. We visited all of her five choices with her, and I’m glad I did as it was the beginning of realising I was going to have to let her go soon, and it helped her knowing that we were with her every step of the way. Her results this year were released by email at six in the morning. We didn’t get much sleep, but I’d just nodded of when she woke me screaming running down the stairs ‘I did it!’ She got a full house. This was getting serious now. She asked if she could have a few friends around to celebrate, of course she bloody well could! Fast forward to the early hours of the next morning, four hours before Tim had to be up for work, he had to ask them to stop playing the piano so loudly and found somebody asleep in the bath.

Year four: A levels for one and a GCSE for the other.
This is the year ‘Operation Cambridge’ ramped up a gear. It was actually in her sights now. She was a nervous wreck, (as we all were). There were stages, that were like rounds. You have to complete one stage to get through to the next one, each one more nerve wracking than the last. First you submit your UCAS form, then there were two essays to submit. After that an entrance exam. Next was the long wait to see if she’d been invited for an interview. She was, in early December she got a letter inviting her to go down and stay at her college of choice and attend two interviews. All the time she as still studding incredibly hard and attending Oxbridge coaching sessions. It was not long before Christmas I put her on a train on her own, she looked so young and vulnerable. I wanted to go with her, but we knew it was something she had to do on her own. There are all kinds of stories about the questions you’ll get asked but her interviews, although terrifying were straight forward. It was a stressful Christmas. Offers were due to be made on the 12th January by email from about 9am. The night before was another night of no sleep. She was in college and couldn’t ring me until between lessons. Just writing this makes me feel sick, it was the longest morning ever. She called as I was mopping the floor, I still remember where I was standing when she told me she’d been made an offer to attend Churchill College, Cambridge. How proud could two parents feel? This child we thought we’d never have had been offered a place at one of the top Universities in the world. The time and effort that had gone into getting to this point were extraordinary. Everyone was so proud, she was in the local paper, on the college website but the pressure was beginning to tell. The next few months were awful. She worked herself into a frenzy, fixated on getting the grades required. She cried, wouldn’t eat, was getting up at five thirty every morning to go and study, not returning until nine in the evening. All the time her sister was quietly getting ready to sit her first exam. The tension in the house was palpable, and it’s not something I ever want to go through as a family again. We tried to calm her down but she just wouldn’t listen. I rang the college and they assured me she was fine, that everything would be ok. My stomach still flips when I think of last summer waiting for the results, of sitting on the stairs for five long minutes after we know she’d opened the email on results day, Tim going upstairs and finding her sobbing looking at her computer screen. We had planned for every eventuality and I’m so glad we did. She had missed both her fist and second choice. We held her and promised her that everything would be Ok, all the time knowing we had to be ready to hit the ground running. Tim took the day off work and how we got through that day is still a blur. She was elated when UCAS updated and she found that despite not meeting her offer from Kings College London her place there was confirmed, meaning she didn’t have to go through clearing after all. She was so brave going into College on her own to collect her results, I’m incredibly proud of her for doing that. When she got home we opened the champagne to celebrate her getting that place at Kings, although it was not the outcome she’d worked towards for four years it was still a pretty amazing result. There was loads of faffing to do that day, applying for accommodation, updating her student loan, but like everything before we did it together. Then we gave her some money to go out with her mates and get blind drunk, it was only at this point that Tim and I let ourselves go and had a little cry. It was heartbreaking to see her so disappointed in herself after everything she achieved.
And like the poor second child she is, Iris tootled off for her GCSE result the following week. She wasn’t overly happy with her grade, but she had her first GCSE under her hat, and we couldn’t be anymore proud.

Year five: GCSEs round two. Total parent exhaustion by this point. Poor Iris has always been in Lily’s shadow, but she is her own person and a really bright kid. She tackles things so differently and likes routine. School are amazing as always and support her so well. Revision has become a habit to her and nobody can have better or neater revision notes. Our roll this year is to provide that calm environment, to make sure she revises ALL of her subjects and not just the ones she likes! to be in constant touch with school as she tires very easily and we all have to keep an eye on this, encouraging words, chocolate and cakes, early nights and long baths and at least an hours TV to wind down before bed.
Lily’s just finished her end of year exams at Uni, and I can’t tell you how glad we all were that she was 250 miles away this time!

Everything worked out for the best for Lily. It was a hard lesson for her to learn, but she’s so much happier and calmer in London than she’d ever be in Cambridge and she knows this. I’m sure results day this year will still be as nerve wracking, but we’re seasoned pros by now.

So what have I learnt? We always said to Lily if you reach for the stars you’ll get the stars, but if you reach for the heavens you’ll get the stars thrown in. I wouldn’t change a thing, but might do things differently another time around but what’s life for if it’s not teach you a lesson?

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