Sunday 22 October 2017

Backpacking adventures are life-changing for students... but what about the parents?

Global adventures are challenging for parents too...

Letting go: Frank with his daughter Jean before she headed off to South East Asia. Photo: Mark Condren
Letting go: Frank with his daughter Jean before she headed off to South East Asia. Photo: Mark Condren
Frank and Jean going through travel plans. Photo: Mark Condren

Frank Coughlan

I was racing out the door on that muggy summer morning when the landline rang. Even six years ago the trill-trill of that phone was rare and I was curious enough to charge back and pick up.

It was my eldest girl, Elle, who was two months into her second J1, working in a bar in Philadelphia.

What a lovely surprise, I said, all well?

Fine, she told me. Just finished her shift and wanted to say hi. She asked to talk to mum and I passed over the phone and shuffled off for the Dart. A bit late but delighted to have caught her.

I thought little more about it and it was at least a week before I was told the real reason Elle rang. And even now I'm foggy on the details, primarily because I was never offered them and, truthfully, because I never probed too closely.

The call was meant for Debs, not me. Specifically not me. She'd just had a terrifying experience and she needed to talk to her calm and resourceful mother and not her father - who would have made a bad situation a good deal worse.

Frank and Jean going through travel plans. Photo: Mark Condren
Frank and Jean going through travel plans. Photo: Mark Condren

Elle had taken a cab on a short hop across the centre of town after her late-night bar shift. She knew the route home well and when the driver veered off in the opposite direction, ignoring her insistent calls to turn back, she knew something had gone badly wrong.

This is where I am hazy. Deliberately so.

But I do know she made enough of a fuss to be dumped in the wrong end of Philly, smack in the dead of night. It was then, sheltering in a derelict doorway and shaking, she rang home and I picked up.

Hey Dad, everything's grand. Mum about, by any chance?

The reason Elle, desperate to hear a calm, authoritative voice, wanted her mum was because I am neither of those things, especially when it comes to my children. Bluntly put, when a family crisis knocks on the door or trills on the phone, I'm as about a useful as a folding brolly in a hurricane.

So when my youngest Jean - 20 going on 21, the same age Elle was then - put out a feeler that she was thinking of joining a gang on a two-month blitz through South East Asia this summer I just nodded and did my best to contain my rising panic.

Inside I was in turmoil. My baby? In South East Asia. For eight weeks. Fifty six days and nights. Roughing it in Thailand, trekking in Vietnam, motor scootering in Cambodia and whatever it is they do in Malaysia? By the time I got wind of this, I suspect the plan was well advanced. Like a puppet president in a dictatorship, I'm told about war counsel decisions long after the family junta has sorted out the details.

A fait accompli. So I had to have a talk with myself. Sometimes chats like that can be revealing. You learn a lot if you listen hard.

On a practical level, I decided, there was no real grounds for an appeal. During her year at UCD, Jean held down a weekend job. So there was money in the bank. Or, more likely, under her mattress. I could hardly plead inability to pay when I wasn't paying.

And could I really suggest she take a job stacking shelves in frozen foods or filing in a dreary nine-to-five office when she could be having a blast seeing the world? She likes the world, she told me once, and she plans to see all of it.

What could I offer as an alternative? A few weeks in our mobile in the sunny south east, listening to the rain playing that familiar summer symphony on the biscuit-tin roof? Window shopping in Gorey? Crab fishing in Carne?

I did lamely, and faux nonchalantly, suggest she join us on our holiday in the south of France. You know, if she changed her mind about the Asia thing. Nothing posh, just Airbnbing from Carcassonne through to Narbonne. Any interest? She was gentle but firm.

Other things came to mind that I didn't say. Like, how this was a real outdoor adventure and that she is very much an indoor girl.

The closest she ever came to sporting excellence was queuing behind Damian Duff in a coffee shop and even then I had to tell her who he was.

I could have asked her how will she survive without her daily dose of Friends repeats, her fix of Say Yes To The Dress, her addiction to bacon sarnies, her six-hours-a-day watching Netflix rom-coms in her big comfy leaba? But I didn't. It wouldn't be fair.

And I can see the appeal of South East Asia. Who wouldn't?

But why not next year? Or even when she's 30, after she has given up on men and wants to pause her dazzling career? Why now when she is still, well, my baby? I know what the experts would say and I know they are right too. I know most of the stuff that I've allowed whirl around in my head is selfish and the best of it is only half-formed. I know all that. But I have kept it to myself - until now.

I acknowledge, too, that the travelling troupe of girls and guys are mostly plucked from her best, closest and most loyal friends going back to school. I couldn't ask for better. They will take care of each other. Nothing surer.

And I know that Jean really wants to do this.

If I let her think that the world can be scary, wouldn't I really be telling her not to experience it, now or perhaps ever? Child psychologist Stella O'Malley and author of Bully Proof Kids makes a more telling point. Rising to challenges - or, alternatively, not - are the things that ultimately define us, she tells me.

"We need dragons to slay if we are to become heroes. If we don't push against our comfort zone every once in a while then we are at risk of never uncovering our hidden strengths."

Stella is referring to Jean, of course, but perhaps the advice applies to me more accurately. I am not sure that Jean is even aware that this is some sort of test. I'm the one who, quite obviously, needs to be challenged.

She left two weeks ago. We have her itinerary (roughly where she is on any given day, give or take) and the promise of regular-ish contact and the occasional Skype summit ('they have the internet machine in Asia, dad').

But nothing too scheduled.

I promised, for my part, to refrain from hurtling out digital how-you-doin'? messages into the ether and then worrying needlessly when the void doesn't respond immediately.

I am zen. Nearly. Sort of.

There is one special date in July we do really want to talk to her. That's the day she's throwing a party in Chang Mia to celebrate her 21st with her gang and whatever wandering minstrels they pick up on their Silk Road of self-discovery.

Twenty first? Not my baby anymore, is she really?

Fear is no reason to back out of the trip

When my friends first suggested the trip to South East Asia, I opted out. I wasn't able to imagine myself being flexible or brave enough to travel foreign lands without a strict itinerary, scheduled down to the final minute.

I instantly imagined all of the things that could go wrong and ignored everything that was likely to work in my favour. That's when I started to question myself: do I trust myself to take calculated risks? Am I able to balance responsibility and spontaneity?

I know I'm capable. If I've learnt anything from motivational posters plastered across campus, it's that fear isn't a good enough excuse to back out of experiences.

So, fast forward two months, and I'm travelling with a rucksack stuffed with all of the emergency medication imaginable while ignoring recommendations from my dad to read up on Vietnamese history.

Although I didn't admit it to my dad's face, I was nervous before leaving.

That said, my nerves are overshadowed by images of Malaysian sunrises and exotic islands. Dad doesn't have that advantage.

I can text him to let him know I'm safe and relish in the fact that someone's doing the worrying on my behalf.

- Jean Coughlan

Irish Independent

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