I never expected to cry when my first child started school but as the big day draws closer it’s becoming increasingly apparent that I will.
Let me explain. Though my son was a much-wanted and ridiculously easy baby I have to confess that motherhood didn’t come naturally to me. At the time I wondered whether medical complications soon after his birth had robbed me of the delirious joy I was sure I was supposed to be feeling, or whether I was suffering a mild form of post-natal depression.
Looking back I realise the answer was a lot more mundane: I was simply horrified at how my own life had been moved so abruptly into the wings and this eight pounds of flesh had taken centre stage. Though I was glad he was here I was in shock. I missed my job, mourned the loss of my independence and autonomy, longed for the chance to once again read the paper or make a phone call in peace. To be painfully honest, though I couldn’t admit it at the time part of me probably resented my child.
I am the (annoying) sort of person who craves order and organisation, who hates getting anywhere late and ensures that everything at home is always in its place. He exploded all that by the simple act of being born. In the early days I used to wake up wondering pitifully whether I would find time between marathon feeding sessions to have a shower, and my mother still teases me for exasperatedly telling him at four weeks of age “I can’t wait until you grow up and can eat toast” as I once again hauled out my breasts and glued myself to the sofa for what felt like the fifth time in as many hours.
In short, motherhood was more consuming - of time, energy and oxygen - than I had bargained for, and it took me a while to adjust to that change. I loved him, sure, but that was part of the problem. Because of that love, combined with a decent serve of guilt at not always feeling utterly thrilled about this new stage in my life I felt honour bound to be constantly attentive, to do everything right, to be the best mother I could be practically even if I wasn’t perfect emotionally.
I made sure he always had something stimulating to look at or play with, I talked to him incessantly, I took him to every baby massage/music/movement class I could find. It drove me nuts.
Returning to work part-time helped, but it wasn’t long after that that number two appeared and I was in at the deep end once more. Some days in the late afternoon when I had a feral toddler, a colicky baby and a whole evening of cooking, cleaning up, bathing and bedtime reads and feeds to get through the only thing that sustained me was the thought that one day they would both be at school and I would get my life back.
I couldn’t understand why other mothers didn’t feel the same way. When friends with older children talked about the lumps in their throats and surreptitious sniffles as their babies trooped off to prep I was astonished. Tears of joy, maybe, but the opposite? Surely after five, even six years of full time care broken only by short stints at kindergarten they were ready for some time to themselves? Ready for a clean house, a cup of coffee or just to get dressed in peace, the chance to resume hobbies, a career, friendships, exercise - all those things that mark us as adults. I fully expected that when the grand day came and my son was launched into the big brick building I would wave him off with joy, then race home and break open the champagne.
Only, the closer it gets the less certain I am becoming. Over the past few years he has become a person, not just an object to be fed, cleaned and worked around. While my love for him is constant the reasons I love him have changed. These days my emotions are driven less out of some biological imperative and more because I love the person he is, and is becoming: the earnest little soul who informs me before swimming lessons that his tummy is nervous but the rest of him is not, the excited four year old who cannot sleep with anticipation the night before a bike day at kinder. I worry about how he will cope with bullies and long division, if he’ll be invited to parties or picked for teams.
It’s more than that though. After years of our lives being so enmeshed I couldn’t ever really imagine an alternative I am suddenly realising that he is separating from me. Not just physically - which is all I could ever focus on - but emotionally and mentally too. For the first time the other day he ran off without saying goodbye to me at kinder, intent on being with his mates, and it occurred to me that one day he would run away for good. That the time was coming when I would no longer be his everything. That he’d grow up and leave home and I’d finally have a pristine house but without him in it.
They start school and the moving away begins. It has to, it’s natural and yet now I know that it is going to be painful. Those other mothers understood this: that after those achingly intense, almost symbiotic preschool years the move into prep is the cord being cut for a second time. Hopefully you’ve given him a good start, but now he must go forward on his own. You are no longer the undisputed centre of his days, no longer his only or even his best teacher, friend and ally.
I couldn’t wait to get my own life back. Now I realize it hasn’t been mine since the day he arrived. I’m no longer sure that I even want it to be.
“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