I didn’t expect to feel like this, this rising tension, this fearful anxiety, waking at five in the morning wondering: ‘what if no one will play with him?’, ‘what if there’s no teacher around and he falls from the play equipment?’, ‘what if gets teased or upset and he can’t calm himself – what if Mummy’s not there to save him?’.
I’d read stories about mothers coping with a child’s first day at school, the rush of sudden freedom, the unexpected tears or creeping emptiness, or those mothers who seize the opportunity to catch up for coffee with friends or indulge in a frenzy of shopping. I still had one child at home, so these distracting options were out of the question.
To be honest, I expected to feel relief, especially after the expanse of the summer holidays, when at times, the bickering and teasing, or the sheer space and energy consumed by my boisterous, intense and spirited elder child were overwhelming.
I find one child at a time so much easier to manage – to enjoy. The times shared with my three-year-old are usually quiet, calm and fun. While I go about the business of cooking, cleaning or washing, he joins in or plays contentedly, singing or chatting to himself, a gentle hum of activity between us.
He’s a real homebody; ‘I want to stay home’ is often one of his first morning phrases. Or we play together; macaroni-tea parties with the teddies, jigsaw puzzles, painting or drawing, sharing books or gardening. The rhythm of home life is enriching and nourishing; all the things I love best about parenting young children.
But on that first day of ‘big school’, when my elder son calmly hugged me goodbye and I watched him take his part in the welcoming ceremony with his whole school present, my little one was out of sorts: grizzly, difficult to engage and whining to be picked up all the time.
My focus was on my big boy: I waited with anticipation for him to be introduced and given his long-stemmed red rose by a young adult from the other end of the spectrum.
Our school has an inspiring tradition that involves each year twelve student greeting and welcoming a year one student, and presenting them with a rose – symbolising strength, resilience and beauty. I witnessed the fascinating juxtaposition of confidence and maturity, with trepidation and innocence.
When the first young adult walked across to the first small child, sudden tears filled my eyes, and when it was my child’s turn, conflicting emotions flooded me: pride, sadness, and a sense of wonder. This dignified event symbolised a new beginning for him, the start of his growing away from me, a door opening to a new, magical world.
All the while my younger child was unsettled, tearful. I see now that most likely, my tension and fear that started before dawn was affecting him. I forget, sometimes, that we are so closely knitted together with our young children. We are woven, tightly, into a warm woolly vest that begins to unravel as our babies grow older and seek independence, forming their own distinct personalities and opinions.
I should have had more confidence in my elder child. Instead of worrying about his inadequacies or picturing him as a victim, I should have trusted that he would manage. While I was dwelling over his possible failures (or what might ‘fail’ him), my little big boy was busy enjoying it all – thriving in fact.
His grin when I collected him at going-home time said it all. He didn’t need to tell me about his day, although he did – in typical detail – because seeing him methodically going about the business of collecting his things, it was apparent that he is ready for this big step.
And now I am ready to step back, to trust that he can cope, knowing that there will be setbacks and times when he needs my help, but realising that my job now is to shore up his strength and to show him that I have faith in him, my beloved little big boy.
“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