Another parent nestles into the well-worn seat and tells me she can't remember life before becoming ‘mum’. I nod in agreement. Is there anything significant we don't share right now? Our worlds have indeed been magnified to the size of a three-year-old’s rationales, epic in scale and relentlessly repetitive, drilling, drilling, calling out a response.
We joke about our children sitting in counselling chairs in 30 years’ time, but inside we really do wonder. We feel the weight of our responsibilities – our responses have to be right according to dictators one and two – or whichever parenting agenda we feel drawn into this year.
We sit and ponder our lives since the advent of ‘children’, breathing out the sort of weariness of a soldier without word of a ceasefire – these have been several, long years.
Our pre-baby lives are distant dreams, echoing in our minds as we’re on the precipice of losing them – yet we’re keenly aware of the danger of nostalgia. There’s the risk, of course, of losing our love for the present. And oh, how we’re always told to live in the moment.
I remember when my first son was just born, and the impact of the lifestyle change was far bigger than the role itself. We needed six months just to adjust to writing lists of everything we needed for a quick trip to the shops – let alone the shopping list.
We needed to adjust psychologically to the idea of trusting babysitters in order to redeem some of the sanity – if we had any in the first place. And we needed to arrive at the conclusion that a good night’s sleep was even more elusive than our sex life. The first six weeks was like one long day, and the first year, a lifetime.
Slowly, we were eased into the reality ahead – years and years of concentrated boundary-setting, putting our foot down again and again and again... slamming doors, stamping feet, screaming, then yelling, then quiet on-the-verge-of-losing it explaining... and cuddles. Endless cuddles and quietening, cooing and teasing, giggling and roughing up.
I refill my cup and sit down again as I hear my son enter. Today I am consciously present, just as the books tell me to be. Then I forget the theory as I feel him touch my arm. I snatch this moment in time and he is, quite simply, the most radiant thing I’ve ever seen.
Jonathan is grinning and seemingly searching my expectant face with those big, round eyes of his. He’s clearly convinced that what he’s yet to share is worth sharing, blissfully unaware of his dirt-covered clothing and roughed-up hair.
“Mummy,” he says, eager and waiting for just the right moment, ready to issue his statement. “You’re a princess.” For a moment he’s exited his endless tales of backyard adventures, justifications for hitting baby Thomas, reasons why he needs yet another slice of cake, and he’s staring at me, awe-struck – or so it seems to me.
I return an equally big grin and pull him into my arms. He returns the cuddle for a millisecond before scampering off, onto another task. And somehow I’m revived. The five hours ahead feels like five minutes and the ‘lifetime’ of raising my three-year-old a privilege indeed. I feel less battle-weary.
Sometimes I wonder how much we really know in comparison to our kids, I mention to my friend, who’s also comfortably engaged with her second cup of Chai. People often say it’s our children that educate us, enhance our lives. The character we build through child rearing seems to somehow empower us better than any other role on earth.
Of course we fear that psychological precipice, that dreaded moment when tensions are flaring and you’re about do something regrettable, sending them to the ‘couch’ for the fifth time that week. It’s kind of like the worst row, or even break-up, with your partner. Sometimes that’s what it takes to realise how much you love them, and the impetus you need to turn things around again. Only arguments with children are different. Yes, the intensity of the fight also comes from love, but this protective instinct that rises up is like nothing on earth, and you become more restrained than you’d ever thought you’d be.
And the teaching, the learning – it’s intangible of course. There’s not a report card invented that could ever be fair on a parent – not a diploma in sight that could do the work – the study of parenting – justice. Even the ‘payoff’ at the end isn’t always what we expected. But isn’t that like life?
My friend and I lean back into the cushions as we hear the children streaming in from their romp outdoors. They are jumping like jellybeans in a moving jar and keen to put on a ‘concert’ for us.
“Wait till you hear what we’ve put together!” they cry. My little ones are the youngest of the bunch, straining to keep up and in their minds every bit as ‘big’ as the big kids. We glance at each other and smile, put down our mugs and prepare to listen.
“Away you go,” I beckon, grinning back at them. “Let's hear it. We’ve got all afternoon.”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem